When I meet with new clients and listen to their career issues, I recognize familiar patterns. They are experiencing a lot of pain in the form of anxiety, worry, apathy or boredom in their work. This pain has been going on for some time and they have reached a place where they cannot tolerate it anymore. They are desperate to land a new gig!
We talk about their career and life experiences. It is clear that there have been many times when they have had positive experiences in life and work. How is it possible that a person can have positive states and then such negative emotional ones? States that are so emotionally charged they will want to leave their job?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow can explain this. In his 1990 text “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, he describes it as follows. “A state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” In everyday terms, it is a time when you are doing what you really like to be doing and doing it to the best of your ability.
In this chart, Csikszentmihalyi identifies the region where flow exists. It also identifies the states of anxiety, worry, apathy, and boredom. The vertical axis defines the level of challenge. This refers to how challenging a project is for a person. The horizontal axis charts their skill level.
You can see that the ideal flow state exists when the individual’s skill set is high. This connects with the person’s ability to handle a project involving a high challenge. The negative states that people experience are also found in this chart (e.g. anxiety and worry). These states arise when there is a mismatch between the skill and the challenge.
This is what happened in the case of Janet. When she first started her job, she engaged in projects that required her best skills. These projects were also a challenge for her. She described states of ‘flow’. Once she solved all the problems, her role became boring and she was struggling with her career. In re-negotiating her role, she was able to move forward into new projects. She found a ‘sweet spot’ where her skills and project challenges engaged at an optimum level.
What can we learn from this?
- Go back through your life history and find those times you have experienced flow. Identify the types of skills you were using and the nature of the projects you succeeded at.
- Find current projects that match the challenges to your skills. Identify growth opportunities that will help you continue to develop your skills.
- If you find this too challenging to do on your own, find a qualified career professional to guide you through this process.
Everyone has experiences of flow. It does not only belong to great musicians and athletes.
Go find yours!
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Flow chart graphic courtesy of Wikipedia
White water canoe photograph courtesy of WikiMedia