Flow State

As I begin to write this, I would like to announce that I am currently not experiencing this yet-undescribed “flow state”. On the contrary, I’m feeling pretty tired and not particularly motivated, and I’m admittedly surprising myself by continuing to write now. And now. And tonight, because today and yesterday and for the last several weeks, I’ve felt only few scattered hours of (still-undescribed) “micro-flow”, even though I do generally consciously and meticulously arrange my life so as to lead to the highest chance of my experiencing this state of being that is called “flow”. So struggle with me here, hopefully I finish this post (having begun and abandoned a healthy handful in the last week)…

Time to define: “flow“, as first described in 1975 by positive psychologist Csíkszentmihályi Mihály, is 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.” Mihály suggests that in order to achieve a flow state, “a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.”

It’s a very intuitive concept. It’s a reference to being “in the zone” or finding the “rhythm” or the “groove” of a task or activity. I think that this balance can be found on a micro scale, say, when you’re outside raking leaves in an autumn breeze, or gliding through the second mile of your afternoon jog, or when you’re writing or reading or browsing Reddit and everything except that singular cat GIF in front of you just melts away. Bask in it, feel alive and aware of the wondrous capacities of the human being; chase it, but not too much (consider that eating mind-numbing amounts of chicken wings or potato chips might also be considered some sort of “flow”..)

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So micro-scale flow is — nice. It feels great, and makes for great productivity and reliable momentary happiness. And I’ve had several hours of this, usually after I drink a café doble and have only before me two hours to kill and a thick stack of teoría sobre el medio ambiente en relación con la sociedad to read. Awesome.

But that’s not what I’m really talking about. That’s a nice moment, but then it’s gone. Flow state, I believe, can be achieved on a much larger scale; or, at least, Mindvalley CEO Vishen Lakhiani thinks so. In his widely viewed speeches and TEDx talk, Lakhiani describes how he turned his company around not because of busniess plans or venture capital but because be enacted a state of flow for himself and his company by monitoring and adjusting his environment so as to create conditions for flow state to regularly occur for himself and his employees. He puts it nicely: to personally achieve a state of flow, you must “be happy in the moment” and also, simultaneously, maintain “grand dreams for the future.” He describes four types of people: 1) People who are unhappy in the moment and have no dreams for the future. 2) People who are good and happy and so therefore don’t feel the need to think about the future. 3) People who are unhappy with their lives as they are but have grand visions for their future, and 4) People who are happy in their daily moment and still maintain grand dreams for the future. This fourth state would be considered (as opposed to micro) — macro-flow.

But how to get there, and then stay there. That’s the important question. Great that Mr. Lakhiani has achieved this nirvana of mind and business that has resulted in the rapid growth of his multimillion dollar company, but how can I get there myself?

Mr. Lakhiani’s suggestions are a series of progressive business practices that are meant to stimulate systematic happiness: He has his employees keep a gratitude log, which has been psychologically proven to increase one’s base happiness quotient  He has an “awesomeness bell” which he rings “only in moments of sheer and total awesomeness”; He created a company ritual where employees get handsy with a statue of Wonder Woman and yell, “I will blind you with the light of my awesomeness!”; He distributes a portion of his company’s profits (not stock options) to his employees; He constructed a web app to provide a platform for coworkers to praise each other (and encourages them to do so); He limits their working hours, and tells them to use 5 hours of their 45 hour work-week studying a  subject separate from their job; Group meditation, group sharing of outside interests, halloween parties, incredible company retreats, 3pm siestas— etc; happiness, happiness, happiness.

Innovative stuff for the labor unions, but the great takeaway for us humans is to build independent and resilient systems of happiness into our lives to keep our happiness levels elevated enough so that we can be productive.

The alternative to systems of happiness I’ll call band-aid happiness, which is the transient kind: one-more-cupcake, or one-more-pair-of-shoes, or one-more-interesting-article, by themselves, will never lead to anything but momentary happiness. Having arrived at that realization sometime towards the end of high school, I have generally considered myself against the direct pursuit of happiness. I still do not see happiness itself as a goal. A certain amount of it is necessary, as too little happiness will cause downward spirals, just as much as excessive “happiness” blinds you from the realities of life. But as Mr. Lakhiani does aptly point out, it’s about having sustainable systems of happiness that are independent of accomplishing goals or social politics or consumerism. This is a valuable takeaway.

Why, then, for the last several weeks, have I been sub-flowing? This is me, personally, wondering here. I’m asking. I know, I generally like to be the blogger-with-the-answers, because at my well-marinated age of 21 I’ve got so much experience to boot. But I am frustrated, because I don’t like not-having-answers. I spend much of my life arranging these systems of happiness. I carefully and often reflect on what activities I do and do not enjoy, and then I arrange those tasks that I do enjoy in logical portions and sequences every day. I don’t work too hard, or too much. I work effectively, for a few hours every day, and spend the rest of my days pursuing other “enjoyable” elective tasks, (reading, writing, exploring the city, being with friends, etc).

Why, then, for the last several weeks, have I been sub-flowing?

I suppose at this point in the conversation, grief is a necessary mention, as there are always moments every day where this plays into my mood and actions. But I do not think that my general state is still fully a function of this external adversary, or perhaps I just can’t see it. 

I do not think that I have a nice conclusion to this post, and I am sorry for that. No full circles or pretty metaphors, and for the record, I did not achieve anything even mildly semblant of flow while writing this. It was more laborious than you’d think, though not overly time consuming.

But I accomplished something, and that feels good. I’ll keep chasing that feeling and arranging my systems, and maybe I’ll pursue happiness a little more and spend a little less time arranging. That might be an answer. Honor thy happiness! (but only because it allows me to work! B-)

Thanks for reading, readers. May you each find your flow!

Oh, Flaneur—

I’d like to share a concept that I have grown to adore and utilize widely in my life.

It’s an old French ideal, something probably upper-class and white and readily eyebrowed, but the art of the flaneur is a specific take on observation: Wikipedia says the word means something along the lines of “to stroll” or “saunter” or “loaf,” which alludes to that principle at the core of flanerie, which is to do nothing; to have no objective, no destination, no prerogative or goal in mind, except to observe in any way you might like the surroundings you encounter.

Historically, the flaneur has been important in some strains of academic thought including urban modernization, class conflict, and architecture. Important theoretic contributors include Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, Susan Sontag, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb; of course there are lots of interesting learnings pent up in each of these contributions to the theme, but this being a blog and you having the Internet, I will let you explore ad libitum and I’ll proceed with what I’d actually like to write about.

I have now begun my semester studying abroad. Except for when I’ve had to participate in program-scheduled activities (picking classes, orientation etc.) I have had a great many hours of entirely unstructured time. Like most humans I do often enjoy the company of others and so I have certainly been getting to know the other international students as well as my host family and an interesting handful of native Argentines. But when I wake up on Friday and Saturday and Sunday (literally, every day this weekend) with nothing that I must do, I think to myself, I’ve made it. I’m here, this is what I’ve been waiting for. Enter, the flaneur.

I am in love with the idea of eschewing purpose, first in any location, as it matters not where you look but how, but with even more gusto in some place new and fantastic. Not that I have any problem with having guiding purpose in your day or life, as you would be idle to be without it. But so often, our purpose lends us spectacular clarity upon our destination and utter blindness to anything that might be even a degree off-course.

There is a nice parable that illustrates this idea, in which a rich man leads a crowd of people to see that he had laid out a trail of dollar bills on a sidewalk stretching as far as the eye could see. Immediately the crowd swarms, racing and elbowing each other to pick them up first. When they arrive, breathless, at the end of the trail, the rich man points so as to lift their gaze ever so slightly, to see that he had also hung hundred dollar bills from the trees on either side of the sidewalk. In the distance, not yet far from the starting line, a single man had noticed the hanging money and was about to climb the fourth tree.

To be alone in a crowd; to be one with its ebbs and flows, its conflict and resolution; to notice and admire each grand story as it marches past, mysterious forever; invisible (unless someone else is watching me, and then let them). Baudelaire looked to be one with the crowd. I look to be one part of it. A tiny part, scarily small, or perhaps the world is scarily large, and I’m still normal-sized. Perhaps I am enamored with this concept of relativity, that suddenly I’m not so important; I tire of placing myself on such a false pedestal, like why should I care so much about myself? I can answer this question only evolutionarily, and perhaps economically as I will likely someday contribute some value back from where I’ve taken it. But ethically, I am an arbitrary prince, my value arbited by fickle luck. In my selfishness I am disgusted. But I digress..

Now, im not so idealistic as to suggest that all of you with your busy lives and money-trails should suddenly stop these activities and squat on city corners for hours each day. In my luxurious moment, I am able to begin and end the day without having accomplished a single goal, except to have observed, and that is a truly precious privilege. However, I also have lived the busy life, and this mindset has not only just occurred to me in these spare minutes. For it is that exactly: a mindset. Often I’ll set aside a time slot,- nothing outrageous, perhaps half an hour, during which time I’ll set the single goal of getting razors and body soap from the CVS nearby. Unless each of our days are so routinely unfortunate that each task forever bleeds into the next, I think we are generally able to allot a bit of extra time for oneself at strategic points in our days. To do what? To do nothing. For me, I have seen the most hideous and the most beautiful things in these times, the most banal and the most surprising. If you are so jaded to experience that you do not feel the attraction to this activity (or lack thereof), then you should read my last post, which explained slightly why I like to keep my eyes open.

An interesting adaptation of this concept is that of the cyberflaneur, in which this mindset of not being always-purposed is applied to our use of the Internet. Trends indicate that we increasingly use the Internet only functionally. In an article published in the New York Times last February, Evegny Morozov commented that our increasing societal single-mindedness is reflected on the Internet:

Something similar has happened to the Internet. Transcending its original playful identity, it’s no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore. The popularity of the “app paradigm,” whereby dedicated mobile and tablet applications help us accomplish what we want without ever opening the browser or visiting the rest of the Internet, has made cyberflânerie less likely. That so much of today’s online activity revolves around shopping — for virtual presents, for virtual pets, for virtual presents for virtual pets — hasn’t helped either. Strolling through Groupon isn’t as much fun as strolling through an arcade, online or off.

(Side-question: is social media helping or hurting our discovery of interesting things? Morozov seems to think that it’s a distraction from our own perusing, but technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci doesn’t quite agree; is there a ‘filter bubble’? Is seeing new and exciting articles from our friends on FB a new flaneurism, or is it the ‘daily me’?)

Again, not that I think we should all sit around flipping through page after page of Wikipedia or Reddit or TED, but in actuality, I do! Everything in moderation, but these tools of modernity can connect us with troves of brilliance and creativity, information about history, art, all of the academica under the sun, etc.

Set parameters. Fifteen minutes. Forty-five. Don’t allow yourself to over or under-do it. If you get so wrapped up in a wikipedia binge that you only look up two hours later, the next time you might have ten minutes free, you’ll think “I don’t want to start, because then I won’t be able to stop.” Not that self moderation is easy for everyone, but give it your all..

Be an active observer of your world. Loaf both on the curb outside Starbucks and then again inside; sip your latte, but use their WIFI to read about the folks that might have a cure for HIV in infants. Follow your money trail, but look to the trees! You might see a monkey 8-] (or a mantis??)

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Coming Soon: Mantis&Me, Travel Edition

Happy new years everyone. I hope you celebrated in style. Personally 2012 was a rough year, complicated and formative and sad. I think I’m quite ready to leave this one behind. As Pooh said to Rabbit, “thanks so much, I’ll be leaving now!”

I am about to encounter a lot of things new and foreign. I say ‘things’ because, well, I don’t yet know what I’ll learn, who I’ll meet, or how I’ll change from having done whatever I end up doing. I know little more than skeletal facts: In 1 week, I’m going to Israel on a birthright trip with friends from Wesleyan; and then in about 2 months, I’m leaving to study abroad for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Birthright is much more predictable an experience- 10 days with a clear-cut itinerary in the company of a well known crew. We’ll see some ancient sites, visit a Kibbutz, experience an Israeli Shabbat and hopefully get an authentic, unfiltered-by-the-media feel for what it’s like to be in Israel and why there has been so much conflict over so many ‘things’ for so many years. I come from a non-religious background of reform Judaism, and while I do have some relatives who maintain a strong connection with Israel, I am relatively uninformed about many of the debates and thus look forward to learning. What I will see is fairly clear, but how will I feel? Who will I meet, and what will they say? How will my encounter with Israel affect my perspective on issues regarding the Middle East, my relationship with Judaism, my view of humanity?

On a different and recurring note, I will be in Israel during a difficult time, during my father’s first yahrzeit. I will be sad to be apart from my family during this time. I will be glad to have my close friends with me there. Perhaps I will feel something spiritual or profound being in Israel but really I anticipate just sadness and maybe some peace. At least this year will soon become part of the past.

After Israel, I am home in MA for an awkward month until I leave for Argentina in the last week of February. During this time I’ll be with my family and will probably visit Wesleyan for a time. I’ll also be relearning español hardcore and familiarizing myself with argentinan spanish, which is apparently different but pleasant. This time in itself is exciting: a whole month’s worth of time to get shit done. I’m working on a few things primarily these days… firstly selling some of my dad’s posessions that are worth $ and taking up space in closets because they dont-and-wont fit or suit anyone ever. Hard to let some of it go. Anyone want a really cool globe? (If you contact me after having read this post I’ll give it to you for $30 instead of $180 on ebay (cackles madly)). Secondly I’m working on a newsletter for my fraternity, which has been a learning experience though not unpleasant. Coordinating 30 guys into writing something is like diapering an octopus. Thirdly, I’ve got a whole bunch of things to read that I’ve encountered on the internet or received from a friend or kept from a class where I didn’t get to read everything because of just that— school keeps me working from assignment to assignment, leading me to list future readings furiously so that one day I might further round my education. This task is endless and not unpleasant.

Enter Argentina. I have many feelings about Argentina, as this next real phase of life looms hazy on the horizon. I am a predictable mix of excited, bewildered, eager for it to begin, and sad to be soon disconnected from my various networks of friends and family. It shimmers with promise of new excitement and learnings, and also new challenges and unfamiliar situations that will call upon new skills and competencies.

What can I do in preparation? Read travel advice online? Talk to people who have been, lived, or studied there? Learn about the country and its history and culture? I can do all of the preparatory work in the world but when it comes down to it, it’s really whether you can be quick on your feet, kid. Can you walk the world, kid? Can you, having learned everything you’ve learned in the environments you’ve learned them in, successfully transpose those skills into a different social key? Can you exude yourself with everyone you’ve never met, to win yourself allies and defend your place in the world, and can you do this with grace and with vigor?

The tests I’ve just described are the reasons why I have chosen to pursue a study abroad experience in college. I chose Argentina because 1) I want to gain fluency in spanish, having previously reached an academic competency that would be most effectively brought home, so to say, by an abroad experience, and 2) because of the city of Buenos Aires, which I hear is full of character, magnificent with a unique blend of Western European and Jewish immigrant influence which can be seen in architecture, food, and art, all, of course, while situated in South America. My freshman year in high school, I went on a white-guilt-volunteer trip to Peru, where I saw great culture and great poverty. I will certainly want to travel through other parts of South America if this is possible. I feel an Amazonian bike-trip fantasy slowly formulating…

Anyways, Argentina is probably the most developed of the South American countries, and Buenos Aires is apparently all about education, home to four(+) very large universities, and libraries on every corner, says my guide book. I love libraries, and books and good headphones. I want to sit in a library in Argentina and read and write and think and observe and create. I want to discover and learn about new problems. I want to learn about old problems in new ways. As per Einstein, I think that I’ll spend 95% of my time thinking about the problems, and thereby let solutions become self evident. And I want to think a lot, so as to maximize my chance of thinking of something that doesnt suck.

I’ll take four or five classes; two: one spanish language course and one Argentinean culture course from my international Abroad program, and two or three more from a subset of classes from any of the three or four beforementioned very large universities in the city. I will look for classes in economics, sociology, entrepreneurship, marketing, art/design, or anything regarding collisions of technology or science and society.

I will live in a home stay. I listed as my highest preference a middle-aged, middle-class couple with young kids. I thought it was interesting and logical that I should get to choose so closely, though they obviously don’t guarantee perfect placements. I look forward to meeting my host family– what an exciting opportunity to meet people who are likely to be similar enough to connect with me and different enough to provide a totally new experience.

At the very least, much is about to change. I feel very positively about most of it, and the rest I will learn from. Or I wont, and I’ll make the same mistakes over and over again. We don’t ever do that now do we?

* * *

I want to thank a lot of you. And I have, in person or online, with words of gratitude for all that I know that I have been given this year. Yes, it is true that, well, something took itself way from me this year. But I have been given outstanding quantities of kindheartedness and positive energies, most outstandingly by those very close to me, but also by so many others whose genuine concern for myself and my family has been completely heartwarming. My community rallied and hoisted us up, and my family can only murmur thanks in return.

Let this be a good new year, and I wish peace, health, and prosperity upon you all.