I’ve read 100s of books in the last few years.
This is no doubt the best one. It’s my new #1 and I didn’t expect it. The book is called “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
It’s a relatively unknown book published in the 90s. Many books that came after it — such as Stealing Fire — went on to become bestsellers.
This little book on Flow gets missed, but it started the whole movement on flow states. I spent roughly 20 hours reading and re-reading this book. I have so many Kindle Highlights that I nearly broke the app.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this book was mind-bending to me.
I simply don’t think the same way anymore after reading it. It’s a book disguised as an explanation of Flow that’s actually a book about how to live. And how to live a life most of us can only dream of.
Here are the most powerful ideas from the book that you must know.
The misunderstood concept of flow
I’ve been studying the concept of flow for 9 years. I’m hoping to write a book on the topic.
What I’ve begun to realize is most people misunderstand what flow is. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dumbs it right now.
Flow is when you’re “involved in an activity where nothing else seems to matter.” He says many non-flow experts have even tried to understand it because it explains human evolution.
Let that sink in.
This concept of flow is so powerful that it can explain why humans exist and what motivates us. If there was ever an idea to bet your life on and spend hundreds of hours thinking about, it’s flow.
Some even call flow a religious experience. They say it’s mystical, unexplainable, and otherworldly. That’s no exaggeration either.
For an activity to crossover and become a flow state, it has to be challenging. In this process of overcoming challenges, Mihaly says, we live the most enjoyable times of our lives.
Holy crap. Chills.
A radically new description of happiness
In the book Mihaly researches what it takes for people to feel happy.
He quotes dozens of studies. He says people feel the most happy when they are engaged in things like sports, games, arts, and hobbies. This is because those activities are most likely to produce flow states.
Breakthrough: The secret to happiness that we’ve all been missing is to experience flow as often as possible.
Flow is directly connected to our understanding of consciousness
This is where the book gets complex.
Mihaly spends a great deal of time showing the relationship between flow states and how consciousness works. I’ll simplify it for you.
When consciousness is harmoniously ordered, people experience flow. This means we engage in the flow-producing activity for its own sake.
He says after every success we have in life it becomes more obvious that money, status, luxury, and power don’t improve the quality of our life.
I’ve found this in my life. When I started a successful business, racked up millions of views online, and made 7 figures … it showed me exactly what doesn’t make me happy.
It’s the flow states this way of life creates that really makes me happy.
Flow states give you control of consciousness.
What is consciousness?
Consciousness is when events such as sensations, feelings, thoughts, and intentions happen and we are able to direct them.
To understand what consciousness isn’t, Mihaly says, while we’re dreaming in our sleep some of these events can happen, but we’re not considered conscious because we can’t control them.
That’s one of the most succinct descriptions of consciousness I’ve ever heard. There’s a deeper insight here, too, and this is where my mind started to warp…
The events that constitute consciousness — the “things” we see, feel, think, and desire — are information that we can manipulate and use.
So we each have the power to to control our subjective reality. This is a new type of freedom many of us aren’t aware we have. It turns out we’re not victims of where we were born or our genetics.
We have greater control over our lives than we realize.
Wow, just wow.
The path to unstoppable flow states
To access flow we must learn to master consciousness.
That requires us to direct our attention toward the right things. One thing that destroys our consciousness is our addictions such as p*rn, alcohol, and fast food.
I’ve never heard flow explained like this before: flow is the struggle for control over our attention.
A “conscious” person is able to focus their attention with laser-like precision at any moment. They become blind to distractions and can concentrate on a goal or activity for as long as it takes to reach completion.
This is why I quit my 9–5 job.
I wasn’t able to control my attention. My employer wouldn’t let me focus and insisted I be on Slack 24/7, answer thousands of emails, and sit in mind-numbing meetings all day.
A lack of flow destroyed my creativity — and now I know that flow was the thing that secretly brought me happiness.
Mihaly says attention is energy.
Without attention we can’t get any meaningful work done and achieve our life’s purpose. And when we’re in a flow state we use up our attention like it’s gasoline in a car needed to get to a destination.
When we’re in a flow state we become so focused on the activity that we lose our sense of “self.” Our ego takes a backseat too.
Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence.
We hear the cliche it’s you against your ‘self’ all the time. The book taught me it’s not us against our ‘selves.’ The real war is against entropy because it messes up our consciousness.
The way to win the war and access flow is to master control over our attention. In a world where the internet and phones have destroyed our attention, this is harder than ever — but possible.
Why would you want to win this war?
- Our ability to control consciousness is responsible for the quality of our lives.
- We achieve “personal liberation” if we can master this skill. We access a kind of freedom you won’t read about in books about millionaires.
Old description of freedom: time is more important than money and equals freedom.
New description of freedom: control of consciousness through flow states transcends money and the concept of time.
The most common forms of work aren’t labeled as flow
The name flow comes from how we experience it.
Mihaly’s case study subjects described being in flow like they were floating in space and time. They felt carried by the flow.
You might be thinking this feeling of flow is impossible for you or it’s a rare occurrence you have no control over.
Let me change your mind based on Mihaly’s findings.
- Chess players often describe the game as an escape from reality. Just ask chess master and author James Altucher.
- Surgeons say doing operations is addictive. They describe it like a form of heroin (strong words for a powerful feeling).
- War veterans speak with fond memories of being on the front line shooting their guns at the enemy and being in a flow state. Even though the event is terrifying, they secretly crave it when they return home.
- Criminals graffiti walls, steal cars, rob houses, and get violently drunk because what they’re chasing is a flow state they can’t get from an average life working a 9–5 cubicle job (this one blew my mind).
- Robert Oppenheimer built the atomic bomb because he thought it was a “sweet problem” and it gave him access to flow.
- A mother said she experiences flow when she reads books with her small daughter. They read different parts of the book together and in the process, she says, they lose touch with reality. Time seems to stand still or become irrelevant. They’re totally lost in the moment.
The last example of the mother and child really stuck with me. I have a 10 month old baby daughter and I’ve noticed the same thing. When we play or read books together I lose all sense of time.
We just have so much fun and it’s hard to explain.
It’s not until I read this book, that I realized when I spend time with my daughter playing, we’re both experiencing a shared flow state.
And it’s addictive. My daughter is too young to understand she’s in flow. All she knows is that she’s addicted to the experience and wants more of it.
Any form of work or play can be flow once you understand what it is and learn to master the art of directing your attention toward a single focus.
Being able to forget temporarily who we are seems to be very enjoyable — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The formula for flow that’s taken 1000s of years to develop
The message of this book is to spend more time in flow to find new levels of happiness you didn’t know existed. This is Mihaly’s formula:
- Do activities you have a chance of finishing.
- Concentrate 100% on what you’re doing.
- Set clear goals and get immediate feedback.
- Forget about the worries and frustrations of normal life.
If you follow these steps then you’ll have a sense of power over your actions. Your obsession with your ‘self’ will vanish — paradoxically, your self will be stronger after the flow experience.
You’ll also feel your perception of time has been altered. Hours can feel like minutes. Minutes can feel like hours.
Take bad situations and turn them into flow states
If the control of consciousness leads to flow states and this creates a new type of freedom, then what happens if adversity takes over?
What happens if you end up being a prisoner stuck in jail for a crime you didn’t do? Is flow unreachable? Surprisingly, this book taught me another big lesson.
External forces can imprison our physical world, but our internal world can still be free. Therefore happiness can still be possible.
The book references a story about a prisoner who managed to find flow by imagining he was playing golf every day in his head.
He’d manufacture thoughts of what it was like to hit the ball on all 18 holes of his favorite golf course. He actually felt like he was playing golf every day even though he was in prison.
Writer Aleksandr Isayevich once said, “Even the most degrading situation can be transformed into a flow experience.”
It’s our creativity and imagination that create flow states — not what happens in the physical world or in reality. Let that thought run deep.
This book has quietly changed my life as you can see.
I hope it has altered your reality too. Learning to control consciousness brings order to the mind and creates flow. Mihaly says when we experience regular flow it helps us have a meaning for our lives.
And a lack of meaning in society is a modern-day epidemic. It’s what has made the world a little crazy lately if you haven’t noticed.
Find flow. Bend reality. Then make it a daily habit.