We often describe it as being “hot,” “in the zone,” “on target” or “firing on all cylinders.” But what we’re really experiencing at those moments – partially, at least – is what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced MEE-hye CHEEK-sent- mə-HYE-ee) calls “the state of flow.”
In his groundbreaking 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi described flow as “the process of total involvement with life.” Years later, in interview with Wired magazine, he defined flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Unwittingly, Csikszentmihalyi also was describing peak performance, which occurs when you perform almost effortlessly at an incredibly high ability in challenging situations: The athlete who easily hits the ball over the centerfield fence in the ninth inning of the big game, the composer who writes the perfect song connecting melody and emotion when the record company demands a hit, the salesperson who performs gracefully and comfortably in challenging and complex selling situations.
In the introduction to Flow, Csikszentmihalyi notes that “twenty-three-hundred years ago, Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness.” Just about everything else we do is done primarily because we expect it to increase our happiness.
I believe happiness begins with heading in the right direction. Even the highest-performing vehicle won’t perform if it’s not on the proper road. Put a Ferrari on a pothole-ridden dirt path in the middle of Indiana, and it won’t perform nearly as well as it does on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Whether your aims are personal or professional, sales-oriented or social, two key questions remain: Where are you headed? And are you on the right road?