This blog started in my head as I was watching an interview with Peter
Sellers on YouTube, having lunch. “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’ as positive psychologist Csikszentmihalyi labelled this experience a couple of decades after Sellers identified it. I had received an ambitious commission from my former employer, SABMiller, to design and write a course on supervisory/managerial skills that they wanted to roll out to all their breweries across Africa.
The shopping list of competencies that had to be included in the course resulted in a 15-day training programme. Moreover, they wanted to create a ‘sense of ownership’ among the managers at the brewery where we would launch this programme: Tanzania Breweries Limited, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I therefore had to do a comprehensive but incomplete job: I had to create scope for consultation and input.
There had to be enough meat to the bones of the programme that we could have in-depth consultations about what should be kept in, modified, excluded, or further researched, but at the end of it the management team at the breweries had to be sufficiently invested in it that they would ensure that it would succeed.
From what I’d learnt in my previous role with the breweries as performance management consultant, I set further standards for myself: There had to be a demonstrable positive bottom-line impact on the company’s finances from each learner – cost savings or profit-generating. It could be small, but it had to be job-related to the learner; it had to demonstrate the competent application of all the skills covered by the training programme, and it had to include qualitative 360° feedback.
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. Analytical and planning tools like Gantt Charting and fishbone analysis had to be included in the training. 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? You don’t.
I had recently read the Tao Te Ching. It started out as an obligatory exercise: a friend who was living in my house with me had given it to me for my birthday and was keen to discuss it. My favourite 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 me: my task would be to facilitate, not to teach. WHAT a relief that was!
I launched into the design work. I was all over the map, constantly thinking of participative processes that could be applied that would help the learners to discover a new way of thinking about things they already know, and to share their insights with their classmates. When content had to be introduced it had to be offered tentatively – asking ‘have you ever come across this idea?’ And then introducing Covey’s trim tab or sharpening the saw concepts, for example, and then facilitating a discussion about how such a concept might work in their own projects.
As the design path became more evident to me I found myself inventing ‘exercises’ that would enable increasingly complex exploring and learning. 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, my time and engaged my imagination in ways that astonished me. I would lie in the bathtub in the morning, imagining how a discussion could be moulded 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 would be irritated and even angry because they were taking me away from my fascinating project. I feared that I’d lose my personal ‘aha!’ moment while hunting them down at the river where they’d be chasing ducks, 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 little old ladies with fussy little old dogs my sub-conscious mind would pick apart, rearrange and resolve the design question. As I settled in behind my father’s great old desk it would be as if I had never left: everything fell into place
as if by magic.
“Being in your flow” 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 by 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. I had more quarrels with management about the poor management treatment our union members received than about anything else. I had always enjoyed working and loved every single job I had, and so felt that the union members who complained about being unhappy at work and hating their jobs were entitled to feel that way and that something should be done about it.
The meaning I derived from working on the supervisory training programme for SABMiller, so many years after I had left the trade union movement in Nova Scotia, was rooted in those early
experiences: I understood the pain and the disempowerment of shop-floor employees and I felt I knew what was missing: their managers didn’t k now how to manage.
I didn’t hear 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 developed my management theory based on my personal experiences and observations and then discovered, inter alia, Steven Covey, Tom Peters, Charles Handy, Michael Porter and Marcus Buckingham/Curt Coffman’s ‘First Break all the Rules’. 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 and that my ideas were by no means unique.
I very quickly got over myself, the great, unpublished, business theorist, because of the work at hand: I had a clear and compelling goal, including a non-negotiable time-line. I had a client who trusted me: a client who had decided I was capable of doing this job even when I knew I couldn’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 my work, somewhere from within me would arise the ability to meet it.
This was stuff I’d been thinking about for years. I knew I would succeed. I didn’t worry about making a fool of myself: I knew I was on the right track.
Speaking of tracks, 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. It is true that I had to make some difficult editing decisions to keep to the top limit of 10 days’ material, but what a lovely problem it was to have, with time to spare. And, when they paid me I was humbled. Imagine being paid for enjoying yourself that
We work-shopped my draft with theTanzanian management team 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 programme: we were using line managers to facilitate this learning process. 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 programme 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.
I read Cskikszentmihalyi and Frankl only after I had finished the project. In learning through their writing what it was that I had experienced, I realised that I had both flow and meaning had come my way before. Now that I knew what to look for and what it would feel like, it would always be part of my future. I simply love losing myself in my work. And, I love those ‘aha!’ moments when my students discover flow and meaning for themselves.
© Delphine du Toit