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Finding the right flow at work

If there is one word I'm rapidly growing tired of, it's passion. Not the sex and love type, but the workplace kind. Lately, it seems, I keep hearing career counselors advising the unemployed to identify and develop their passion. Then they need to turn that passion into paid work and presto! They're now in a career they love.

I know I'm being somewhat flippant, but I do wonder if passion is being oversold. Are we falling into a trap of believing that our work, and indeed, our lives, should always be fascinating and all-consuming? Are we somehow lacking if we're bored at times or buried under routine tasks or failing to challenge ourselves at every turn?

Now before I go any further, I know, I know. In these economic times, fewer of us are worried about being fulfilled and more of us are concerned about simply being paid. But as switching jobs and careers becomes increasingly common, as whole professions are disappearing, we're more frequently forced to ask ourselves what we want to do with the rest of our lives.

That's where passion comes in.

So first of all, what is it? I turned to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University in California, who has looked at the idea, though he calls it "flow."

"It's a state of complete involvement," said Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHECK-sent-me-high), who first wrote about this in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It's when we're totally immersed in our activity, not watching the clock, not thinking of what others think, but simply absorbed in the experience. He first studied it, he said, in relation to activities people chose freely, like chess players, rock climbers and musicians, then later in terms of work and everyday life.

Although Csikszentmihalyi says he does not believe that people can constantly be in a state of flow, he has written a great deal about how it can be encouraged in the workplace and elsewhere.

While he outlines a number of factors needed to feel good about your job or life, two of the major ones are a sense of personal control over a situation or activity and a balance between one's ability and potential so the endeavor is neither too easy nor too hard.

Peter Warr, an emeritus professor at the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield in England, builds on this concept. He talks about the "needed nine," or the main external sources of happiness and unhappiness, not just in work but in life.

These include, he says, having some sense of empowerment, using and expanding your skills, enjoying some variety, having a clear sense of your situation and what is required, and doing something you believe in, as a worker, a parent or a member of your community.

Warr added three factors for work: supportive supervision, job security and the possibility of promotion, and fair treatment.

He acknowledges that it is not easy to attain these goals, especially now. But it can still make a difference in your job satisfaction, he says, to examine what your strengths and needs are, and try, as much as possible, to match your work with those attributes. It doesn't always mean getting a new job or career, but perhaps changing some things in your current employment.

"You might need to shift a wee bit for more goodies," he said.

It would probably be better, Warr suggested, to think less in terms of passion and more in terms of job satisfaction or finding meaning in your work.

The drive for passion or excitement, or whatever you call it, is deep in our genes. We feel good when the neurotransmitter dopamine is activated, and that's what happens when we accomplish a given goal, said Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University.

In fact, playing video games may not seem to be much of a passion, but if you've ever watched teenage boys going at it, their intensity and obliviousness to the outside world is the epitome of flow. And that's no accident.

"The way to be happy in life is to set a series of achievable goals," Marcus said. "That's why video games are so attractive to human beings — because they're structured to offer incrementally more difficult goals."

So if playing video games offers all that, is it as legitimate a passion as running marathons or taking up the violin or becoming a doctor?

Not really, Marcus said, because one has to look at the skills and the knowledge you are gaining, say 10 years down the line. It's not just about short-term gratification but long-term goals. And this is as true in the workplace as anywhere else.

Byron Wolt, who speaks on a variety of topics to high school seniors, said, "It's false to just throw out there that you should love what you do."

He added: "I love what I do, but, for example, I had to drive two hours today to get home, and I don't love that. What I found is that if you love what you do, what you don't love about it isn't so bad."

Lawler Kang, who wrote the book Passion at Work: How to Find Work You Love and Live the Time of Your Life, estimates that "if 85 percent of what you're looking for is there, that's great."

So maybe searching for a passion is not so bad. But it is also important to remember that someone else's passion may be your idea of drudgery.

And sometimes life — and work — is simply going to be putting one foot in front of the other.

Finding the right flow at work 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 11:02am]

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