In interviews, famous people often say that the key to becoming both happy and successful is to “do what you love.” But mastering a skill, even one that you deeply love, requires a huge amount of drudgery. Any challenging activity—from computer programming to playing a musical instrument to athletics—requires focused and concentrated practice. A perfect golf swing or flawless butterfly stroke takes untold hours of practice (actually around 10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell) and countless repetitions to perfect.
Anyone who wants to master a skill must run through the cycle of practice, critical feedback, modification, and incremental improvement again, again, and again. Some people seem able to concentrate on practicing an activity like this for years and take pleasure in their gradual improvement. Yet others find this kind of focused, time-intensive work to be frustrating or boring. Why?
The difference may turn on the ability to enter into a state of “flow,” the feeling of being completely involved in what you are doing. Whether you call it being “in the zone,” “in a groove,” or something else, a flow state is a special experience. Since Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept of flow in the 1970’s, it has been a mainstay of positive-psychology research. Flow states can happen in the course of any activity, and they are most common when a task has well-defined goals and is at an appropriate skill level, and where the individual is able to adjust their performance to clear and immediate feedback.
Flow states turn the drudgery of practice into an autotelic activity—that is, one that can be enjoyed for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end or for attaining some external reward. That raises the question of how we can turn this to our advantage: How can we get into a flow state for an activity that we want to master, so that we enjoy both the process of improving skills and the rewards that some with being a master?
Csikszentmihalyi suggested that those who most readily entered into flow states had an “autotelic personality”—a disposition to seek out challenges and get into a state of flow. While those without such a personality see difficulties, autotelic individuals see opportunities to build skills. Autotelic individuals are receptive and open to new challenges. They are also persistent and have low levels of self-centeredness. Such people, with their capacity for “disinterested interest” (an ability to focus on tasks rather than rewards) have a great advantage over others in developing their innate abilities.
Fortunately for those of us who aren’t necessarily blessed with an autotelic personality, there is evidence that flow states can be facilitated by environmental factors. In particular, the learning framework prescribed by Montessori schools seems to encourage flow states. A comparison of Montessori middle schools with traditional middle schools (co-written by Csikszentmihalyi) found that the Montessori students showed greater affect, higher intrinsic motivation, and more frequent flow experiences than their counterparts in traditional schools. In Montessori schools, learning comes through discovery rather than direct instruction, students are encouraged to develop individual interests, and a great deal of unstructured time is built into the day so that they can pursue these interests. Competition is discouraged and grading is de-emphasized, taking the focus off of external rewards. Students are grouped together according to shared interests, rather than segregated by ability.
While there isn’t (yet) a pill that can turn mundane practice into a thrilling activity for anyone, it is heartening that we seem, at least to some degree, to be able to nudge ourselves toward flow states. By giving ourselves unstructured, open-ended time, minimal distractions, and a task set at a moderate level of difficulty, we may be able to love what we’re doing while we put in the hard work practicing the things we love doing.
Jeanette Bicknell, Ph. D., is the author of Why Music Moves Us (2009). She lives in Toronto, Canada.