05 July 2009

Flow as the Compass for Social Invention

We’ve now reached a curious and potentially powerful point in history in which our social reality will be less defined by any one dominant institution or certain traditions than the act of intentionally engaging in social invention. It will, however, be social invention to a particular end.

A lot of our practices are about imitating. This is the opposite of inventing. We don’t call it imitating. We say that we’re studying principles of organizations and looking to apply what is proven or successful. But we’re imitating.
The problem with this and the practice of it is perhaps seen most readily in our approach to work within organizations.

In his book, Good Business, Csikszentmihalyi quotes Robert Shapiro, former CEO of Monsanto. He makes a critical point about how individuals are fit into organizations.

“The notion of job implies that there’s been some supreme architect who designed this system so that a lot of parts fit together and produce whatever the desired input is. No one in a job can see the whole. When we ask you to join us, we are saying, ‘Do you have the skills and the willingness to shape yourself in this way so that you will fit into this big machine? Because somebody did this job before you, somebody who was different from you. Someone will do it after you. Those parts of you that aren’t relevant to that job, please just forget about. Those shortcomings that you have that really don’t enable you to fill this job, please at least try to fake, so that we can all have the impression that you’re doing this job.’”

“It’s a Procrustean concept, and it studiously and systematically avoids using the most valuable part of you, the part of you that makes you different from other people, that makes you uniquely you. If we want to be a great institution, that’s where we ought to be looking. We ought to be saying, “What can you bring to this that’s going to help?” Not, ‘Here’s the job, just do it.’”


What does Shapiro mean by “a Procrustean concept?” Procrustes was a figure in Greek mythology who forced travelers to fit into his bed by stretching their bodies when they were too short or cutting off their legs when they were too long. It is probably true that the vast majority of employees are both stretched to the limits of their capacity in some aspects of their job and literally cut off from real and crucial parts of their self in others. In either case, fitting into a job in such a way does little to realize their own potential or, by extension, the potential of the organization.

In fact, such programming of one’s actions is antithetical to what any society would hope to see emerge: genius. “One admires genius because one has the imagination to see that there is no mechanism in him or his work, nothing that can be analyzed and rationalized, ” Barzun writes. Again, imitation is the opposite of creativity, a way to suppress genius.

And yet tailoring even a job to the individual is something we rarely do. We prod students, congregants in church, employees, and citizens into a particular way of being. We are focused on what is “best” without regard for what is unique.
But what if the purpose of social inventions like church, school, and business was to provide a forum for the individual to realize his potential and not simply realize the vision of some leader?

In this world, the guide to progress will be rooted in the psychology of engagement, in what makes us most happy.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has spent decades studying what makes people most engaged. He has called the state of engagement “Flow” and has found that it is in this state that people are most happy, most creative and from which people are most likely to emerge more able and developed. In short, the path of flow – found in challenges that stretch us beyond those in which we feel in control (much less bored) and less than those that make us feel anxious (much less overwhelmed) – is the path to self development. It is by following the path of flow that we find our own unique path and realize our potential.

If you can imagine a world in which learning and work follow the path of flow for the individual, you can begin to imagine a world in which social invention is necessary – where work and learning are as dynamic as a video game that raises the challenge as the gamer gets more skilled. This world is not chaotic, but it certainly is not static or generic.

And such a world is congruent with the basic theme of progress since about 1300: increased autonomy. We have increasingly given the individual more options and more freedom on how to construct his own life.

Accomplishing this will require massive amounts of information that is custom to the individual. That is, this kind of world could only sit atop an information age. There are a great number of obstacles to creating such a world but the major obstacle at this point in history is simply awareness: very few people are aware it is possible or even that is desirable. It’s time we ended this. Pass the word along. It’s time we stopped settling for somebody else’s life and created the context for our own.

1 comment:

Big Al said...

One question: how do you pronounce this guy's name?
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi?