I was watching an interview with Peter Sellers some time ago.
“The only time that you’re really happy is
at the time that you’re doing it. Not when the film comes out; not when you’re preparing for the film; but at the moment you’re doing the take on the floor. When you do it and that moment comes out of you and when you’ve done it and you remember that….that’s the time when
the achievement – the full sense of achievement comes out.”
vividly remember the first time I realised that I was ‘in my flow’. I had received an ambitious commission from my former employer, SABMiller, to design and offer a course on managerial and leadership skills that they wanted to roll out to all their breweries across Africa.
Moreover, they wanted to create a sense of local management ownership The senior managers at the Tanzania Breweries Limited, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania had to be part of the development. I therefore had to do a comprehensive but incomplete job: I had to create scope for consultation and redesign.
The person who would oversee my work on behalf of the client was a bullying taskmaster. My deadline was 7 weeks away. I had never done anything like this and some of the topics I had to cover I’d never come across before. How do you train someone to use something that you’ve never used yourself? How do you learn to use it when you don’t have sufficient time and a bureaucrat hounding you for progress reports every few days?
I had recently read the Tao Te Ching. My favorite passage in the Tao says
My task, I realised, was not to become the expert in all the content. It was to create a process in which the learners would do the teaching and learning themselves.
I had stumbled upon a core principle of adult learning.
My process design had to ensure that the learning was not dependent on on the trainer: My task was to design for facilitation, not for teaching. The cliche’d paradigm shift had been activated.
I launched into the design work. I was all over the map. How to facilitate a conversation in which learners would discover a new way of thinking about things they already know, and then to share their insights with their classmates. When content had to be introduced, how to offer it respectful of the curiosity of the participants? Asking ‘have you ever come across this idea?’ And if the answer is ‘no’; or there is no answer, then asking whether they’d be interested in seeing a demonstration of the new idea.
The project took over my life. I no longer feared the phone calls from P. I knew that what I was creating was going to be unique and powerful. I knew I would meet the deadline because the work was driving me: it occupied my thoughts and all of my time. It engaged my imagination in ways that astonished me. I would lie in the bathtub in the morning, imagining how a discussion could be molded to create those magical ‘aha!’ moments; later, as I was walking with my huskies an even better idea would occur to me.
The dogs would sense my distraction and take off: Siberian huskies are lovely dogs but they love to run and run. They would be in their flow while I had been in mine. It was unfortunate that their flow would take them, and therefore me, to places where I didn’t always want to go, typically at times that were seriously inconvenient. I feared that I’d lose my personal ‘aha!’ moment while hunting them down at the river, but I came to see that those forced interruptions in my thinking were as necessary as sitting at my computer was.
While chasing down two playful dogs and apologizing to folks with fussy little old dogs, my sub-conscious mind would pick apart, rearrange and resolve some design question. Back home, dogs safely secured in the yard, I would settle in behind my father’s great old desk and it would be as if I had never left: everything would just fall into place as if by magic.
“Being in your flow”
It is a phrase that has become a standard in the lexicon of coaching and motivational work. In its simplest form it is loving what you do: enjoying your work. When you are fully absorbed in what you’re doing: you are focused, full of energy, excitement and enjoyment. You have lost self-awareness, you are having so much fun you don’t even know it: you are in your flow. Cziksentmihalyi defines flow as
“a 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.”
Viktor Frankl talked about finding meaning in our lives, and how that is an essential component to being happy. I had started my career in human resources management as a trade unionist on a Canadian university campus. My days were filled with complaints from union members about the way in which they were being managed. I had more quarrels with management about the poor management treatment our union members received than about anything else.
The meaning I derived from the development of the program I’m telling you about was rooted in those early experiences: I understood the pain and the disempowerment of shop-floor employees. And, in my years of working within management, I saw so many missed opportunities for learning about engaging and motivating employees. I felt I knew what was missing: Managers are often promoted based on their technical know-how and performance, and as often are not provided with the know-how of managing or leading.
Back in those union days I never heard from the union members who were happy with their managers and their jobs: it didn’t occur to me, then, to do what the positive psychologists like Marty Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did:
To study what was working in order better to understand how to turn the “not-working” around.
I had developed my own management theory based on my personal experiences and observations and then subsequently discovered, in addition to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, inter alia, Steven Covey, Tom Peters, Charles Handy, Michael Porter and Marcus Buckingham. I remember not being able to decide whether I was proud that my own theories so closely matched what the business and motivational gurus were saying, or whether I was angry that I had not been the first in print.
With this project I had a client who trusted me: A client who knew I was capable of doing this job even when I knew I wasn’t. (As Frankl says, if we expect great things of people they will rise to the occasion and become the best they can be. Helen, my client, understood that.) As I would reach the next challenge in the design, somewhere from within me would arise the ability to meet it.
I lost all track of time; I found excuses not to participate in family events, not because I feared the deadline, but because I was fully absorbed in the work. I wasn’t even aware of the volume or complexity of the job. I met the deadline and the client was more than satisfied. And, when they paid me I was humbled. Imagine being paid for just being totally in your flow. WHAT a gift!
As had been required, I engaged the Tanzanian management team in consultations about the content and design, and my new Taoist/adult learning approach delivered great results: They went away knowing that they did it themselves. I did the requisite editing and then launched into the train-the-trainer program. Line managers from the business would conduct the learning facilitation. It was a challenge to get them to let go of being the “experts” and instead to be the magicians that draw out the intelligence and insights from the participants.
A challenge and a struggle.
One person said to me “it doesn’t look like you know this material at all because you pass every question we ask back to the group to answer.” When he said “yes” when I asked whether he was satisfied with the answers thus generated, I knew we’d be ok.
Was I still in my flow then? I think it was similar to what Peter Sellers talked about in his interview: The total immersion, the in-the-moment joy of the work was over. What followed now was handing over the life of the program to others. It was gratifying and flattering to receive good feedback and excellent ROI results, but it just wasn’t the same as those intense summer days at my father’s old desk.
Positive psychologist Csikszentmihalyi labelled this experience a couple of decades after Sellers identified it. I read Cskikszentmihalyi and Frankl only some time after I had finished the project. Because of their wisdom I know now how to recognize being in my flow. It will always be part of my life. I celebrate those occasions when I lose all sense of time, fully absorbed in what I’m doing. And, I love those ‘aha!’ moments when my clients discover flow and meaning for themselves.
© Delphine du Toit