You might remember a chap called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from a previous essay I wrote about finding your flow.

It’s the kind of name that you don’t forget… even if you can’t remember how to spell it.

Anyway, the man with the unusually long surname is a Hungarian psychologist who has spent his working life studying the concept of flow.

He defined flow as the mental state “in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Csikszentmihalyi popped up again this week as I started reading Daniel Pink’sTo Sell Is Human, in a story about that most hard-to-pin-down subject… creativity.

In the 1960s, Csikszentmihalyi was working with Jacob Getzels as a social scientist at the University of Chicago. In one early study, he went to the School of the Art Institute to recruit fourth-year art students for an experiment.

Csikszentmihalyi asked the students to make a selection from a large table full of various objects, arrange their chosen items as a still-life, and then draw the result. Here’s what happened:

“Some examined relatively few objects, outline their idea swiftly, and moved quickly to draw their still life. Others took their time. They handled more objects, turned them this way and that, re-arranged them several times, and needed much longer to complete the the drawing. As Csikszentmihalyi saw it, the first group was trying to solve a problem: How can I produce a good drawing? The second was trying to find a problem: What good drawing can I produce?

After identifying these two approaches, Csikszentmihalyi arranged a showing of the resulting drawings, and got a panel of art experts to judge the work.

Guess whose work they deemed the most creative?

Yup… it was the problem finders, not the problem solvers.

The study didn’t end there—in the 1970s Csikszentmihalyi tracked down the same artists and found that those still working in the art world were almost all from the group of problem finders. (Most of the problem solvers had quit the art scene altogether by this point).

And later in their careers, in the early 1980s, these same artists were found to be significantly more successful than the rest of their peers.

Csikszentmihalyi conclusion was this: “The quality of the problem that is found is a forerunner of the quality of the solution that is attained”.

The other thing I love about this story is Daniel Pink’s description of successful problem finders:

“These people sort through vast amounts of information and inputs, often from multiple disciplines; experiment with a variety of different approaches; are willing to switch directions in the course of a project; and often take longer than their counterparts to complete their work”.

(Which sounds like an incredibly healthy approach to doing great work to me…)

As creative people, and especially in the design industry, we’re naturally drawn to interesting problems, like an itch that you can’t not scratch.

But what if you’re not in control of choosing the problems you are solving? Either because your boss makes the decision for you, or because other imperatives are driving your decision making… (eg the need to pay the bills).

I’ve been in this situation and after a while, it sucks. One of the reasons I quit my full-time job was because I was sick of someone else calling the shots. Solving only the design problems that my creative director set me wasn’t fulfilling any more, and I was thirsty for new challenges.

Of course, it took a while to figure out what the stuff I would find most interesting was. To help me work things out, I took a sabbatical, and went travelling across the US by train with my girlfriend at the time. (And then spent a month in New York… probably not the best timing given the sweltering summers they have there).

I thought that my trip would give me perspective on who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do next. Don’t get me wrong, it was an incredible experience, but when I got back, the same old thoughts were waiting for me.

  • Why had I fallen out of love with being a graphic designer?
  • If I wasn’t going to be a designer forever, what did I want to do next?
  • And (eeeek) how would I make a living in the meantime?

These were the BIG questions that had been percolating in my brain for a year or so, without me being fully aware of them. (And probably one part of the unhealthy smorgasbord of issues that caused my depression around that time).

It’s taken me years to get clarity on this stuff, and it’s been painful as hell at times, but I’m so glad that I decided to switch off my career autopilot back in 2012.

So my question to ponder today—whatever it is you do—is two fold:

1. Do you find a state of flow in the work that you do?
2. And if not… are you focused on solving the right kind of problem?

To dig deeper, try writing a list of the kind of activities you find most engrossing (or think you might), and then cross-checking it with Csikszentmihaly’s five essential steps to finding flow:

  1. Set goals that have clear and immediate feedback.
  2. Immerse yourself in a particular activity.
  3. Pay attention to what is happening in the moment.
  4. Learn to enjoy immediate experience.
  5. Strike a balance between your skill and the challenge in hard, so that neither is too hard nor too easy.

You know what, I still can’t spell Csikszentmihaly. Having to copy and paste it every time. Anyway, here is his TED talk on finding flow if you want to find out more.


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