Monday, July 16, 2012

Flow: the final word on motivation... as Daniel Pink says, time to move from compliance to engagement, from pawn to player, or playa, if you prefer....

Flow: Great Smoky Mountains Stream / hand-colored image John Lofflin

Flow. Flow brings this soliloquy on motivation full circle.

When I started, I promised to bring this exploration back around to the personal from the organizational. I’ve said my piece on how your boss, your organization, tries to motivate you. At some point, you have to motivate yourself. It’s too damned bad that sometimes you have to motivate yourself despite them.

Flow is a term I borrowed from Daniel Pink. He borrowed it from Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. I don’t know if I have it just right, but what I have works for me so that’s what I’ll share.

Flow is that feeling you get when you’re in the zone. Pen in hand, notebook on table, a good cat twitching her tail at your elbow, you melt into the work. Everything else goes quietly away. The sound of traffic in the street, the hum of a television on the first floor of the house, the rattle of the air conditioner coming on, your oh-for-four night, your itchy hemorrhoids, the disrespect you felt today from someone you trust, your ambitions, your victories, the melody Layla put into your head, all fade quietly into the background. Everything vanishes but the work. The words, as Henry Miller once said – somewhat ironically – are coming from God and you’re just trying to keep up.

I was in the flow once writing a feature story. I was on the last page of a 20-page manuscript. The chair I was sitting in – I’ve always lived in dorm furniture – splintered as I tried to adjust it to the table. I kept on writing, crouched over the computer, until the page was finished. I didn’t even realize the chair was gone until I finished that thirty-dash.
That’s flow and you can feel it doing almost anything.

Let me put these thoughts into context. The first time I tried to put flow into words I was having some difficulty in my feature writing class. The students were rebelling against the deadlines I’d established for pieces of their final projects and to the points I’d assigned to those deadlines.

My reaction was quick. I just threw out the deadlines and kept the points. In other words, you didn’t have to do any of the pieces until the night before if you wished but you still got the credit. In motivational terms, you got the carrot whether you did what I wanted or not. Were the final projects as good as they would have been with incremental deadlines? Some were. Some definitely were not.

A couple of weeks after I struck down the deadlines, I knew I had to explain why they had been posted in the first place.  That’s where flow came to the front. Here is, more or less, what I said to them taken from the notes I made before class:

“The carrot and the stick was not what I was after when I established these incremental deadlines. I was after a more disciplined approach to writing designed to provide you with a certain experience.

“As a teacher, I see myself in the same business as a tour guide. It is my job to take you to certain places where you can witness certain things. When we get there, you can choose to look around, to look deep, or to not look at all. My job was to get you to the edge of the Grand Canyon, for instance. You could look hard, you could take a picture, or you could go get a hot dog.

“The view I wanted you to see here is an experience, an experience which is rare but attainable by anyone. I wanted you to see and feel what it is like to be in the flow of writing. It’s the experience of having everything together in one place, of having something meaningful and significant to do, then to simply tell a story without interruption from your soul to the world.”

I know this Chautauqua seems pretentious but, really, how pretentious can you be when the student next to you is eating chicken fingers from a Styrofoam box, another is eating Chinese with chopsticks, two students are texting each other across the vast expanse of the room and one is understandably somnambulant from senior comprehensives? Maybe to the three who were listening it was pretentious, I don’t know. I do know I felt like a squirrely little souvenir someone was bringing home as a joke from a trip.

Anyway, the point of all this was intrinsic motivation. I reasoned that if I could give these students the liberating buzz of actually being in the flow with words, they’d be hooked. And the best way to get there, I thought, was to parcel the work out so they could do it when they had time, when they had all the pieces in front of them and they were full of confidence about the possibilities.

My guess was this would be better than trying to cobble something – anything – together the night before the last day of class. Oh, it happens.

Flow, it seems to me, is the object of all this talk about motivation. Anything you do, as a boss or as the boss of yourself, which contributes to flow, is good. Anything that doesn’t contribute to flow is counterproductive. This is not a world where flow is plentiful. If you’ve ever experienced that place, you’ll want to go back. If you’re a teacher or a boss, you have to put people in a position where they can feel it – then get the heck out of the way. If you’re a writer or a painter or a photographer – or a ballplayer – you have to put yourself in a position to feel it, and to do it – then get the heck out of your own way.


Whew! -- Lofflin

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