Eric Miller QC ‘12 and Jim Stellar
In his book “Drive,” on intrinsic motivation in the workplace, Daniel Pink mentions Mihayl Csikszentmihalyi and discusses the concept of “Flow.” To begin with Csikszentmihalyi, he was born in Hungary in 1935 during the most volatile period of the 20th century; World War II was raging across Europe. Hungary was under a fierce Nazi occupation and was being devastated by Soviet troops. At the age of ten, he left the country with his mother and two brothers, unaware that in five months a majority of his family would be dead. Later, Csikszentmihalyi recalls his ten-year-old self thinking at the time, “There has got to be a better way than this.” That experience later inspired him to search for what made life meaningful in the field of psychology and still later led to do studies focused on creativity and play. It was during there that he developed his famous concept of “Autotelic experiences” (self-goals) or what he came to call “flow.”
Flow is defined as a transcendental, “spiritual” state in which everything being done seems perfect; goals are clear, feedback is immediate, success is assured.Flow is a state of complete engagement, producing a degree of focus and satisfaction which far surpasses routine motivation. The concept began to gain traction in 1990 when Csikszentmihalyi wrote his first book on the topic; the exposure to a wider audience produced a following. It has become a constituent in many theories of spirituality, self-help, education and business.
Flow underlies a majority of Pink’s arguments for inspiring a new sense of intrinsic motivation in employees who are working in organizations which “goes against” human nature. People want to be engaged in their work, not merely compliant. People crave autonomy- the freedom to do what they need to do in their own way and at their own pace alongside people they want to work with. They seek opportunities for mastery- to engage in “goldilocks tasks” which are not too easy and not too difficult, goals they can reach while still feeling a sense of accomplishment and betterment. Though mastery is admittedly asymptote- close but never caught- it is that which makes it both frustrating and alluring, constantly worth striving for.
Most importantly, people seek purpose. They want to know that what they are doing matters, not just for now or for themselves, but for everyone, everywhere, for all time. That is the ultimate goal, the greatest pursuit. Without the urge for achievement, correlated with our personal efforts and methods, we would not be human. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would never have the opportunity to identify flow because it would never have existed. Flow is the key to rising above the need for survival and realizing self-actualization.
We have seen its existence in literature and movies, noticed it working out in the gym or performing duties on the job, observed it in the fervor of religious prayer. Its existence seems unquestionable. So what is its role in experiential education?
If colleges can design programs different from what Pink calls Motivation 2.0- the old system based on extrinsic rewards and punishments (e.g. classroom grades)- then perhaps they can create opportunities for flow. We agree with Pink that situations in which intrinsic motivation dominates are ones in which people, including students, have more potential for autonomy, mastery of a task, and working in sync with others. It is difficult in the classroom; the dedication to structure and fairness means little engagement and the possibility for failure is punishment rather than motivation. Rather those situations can powerfully occur in an internship, on a service-learning project, doing undergraduate research, or stepping into another culture/country on an abroad program.
When a student loses herself (flow is occurring) in a specific internship or community service moment, that experience can help clarify the choice of major (e.g. political science) and a career path (e.g. pre-law). The student only familiar with classroom experience cannot be as confident in their decisions. Flow is the positive side of the so-called “school of hard knocks” that most college students experience only as alumni. The sooner students are exposed to “real world” education the more engaged they will be in learning. Students can be passionate about their careers and put in the required hours Malcolm Gladwell calls for in his book “Outliers.” Where Alum and Roksa say colleges fail in their book “Academically Adrift” there can be achievement. Incorporating experiential education allows students to experience flow in the “real world” which compliments what happens in the classroom and curriculum. It allows upper education to be effective.