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Finding Flow

January 18th, 2021

Finding Flow

As an undergraduate in college, I had the good fortune to learn from Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I was most fascinated with the technique that he used to collect his research data (I am, by training, a cognitive developmental scientist) and only peripherally registered his interest in creativity and expertise.

But several years down the road of my life, when I was a bit older — although probably not very much wiser — I picked up his book Flow. I remember reading it in a single sitting and trying to figure out if I had ever been in a flow state. Not when I was writing an academic paper. Nor when I was teaching. I bumbled through my memories, and couldn’t find a time when I was that immersed in an activity. I mean, maybe as an 8th grader when I read all the Agatha Christie novels in a summer, but I don’t think that is what he really meant by flow!
As I have moved through life, I have periodically wondered whether I would find an activity where I could step into flow. I have been blessed and happy in my work life, and certainly engaged and committed. But my day-to-day is usually filled with disruptions (a.k.a, meetings) and opportunities for the type of flow that Csikszentmihalyi describes are few.

On my 50th birthday, my husband gave me a DSLR.I had been shooting for my whole life, but other than a few brief years in high school, I have captured snapshots with point-and-shoots. As our kids grew up, my photography started to change, and people began to comment on my photos as artistic objects. I was skeptical, but being the wonderful guy that my husband is, he saw that and decided to give me a push.

So what does this have to do with flow? You have probably already guessed, but if you’ve read this far, I figure you’d like to hear it from me.

Being someone obsessed with learning, my husband knew that it was not going to be enough to just upgrade my kit. So, he enrolled me in a photography class as well. And, I couldn’t learn quickly enough. So, I kept taking classes, and finding new places to take classes, and on January 20th, 2018 I finally experienced flow.

The class took place in a botanical garden. We arrived two hours before opening and had the place to ourselves. We could use our tripods and wander wherever we wanted. The instructor (who has become one of my favorite instructors) shared with us some of her shots, walked us through what we needed to pay attention to in terms of technical details, and then set us free.

Three hours passed, and when the instructor came to find me to let me know that it was time to pack up our gear and leave. I was astounded. I felt like I had just started. I could have spent another 3 hours shooting. There was so much to see and create and my brain was buzzing with possibilities. What happens if I shoot from this angle? What about with this lens? Can I shoot without my tripod? What about if I move my body just slightly? This then, is what Csikszentmihalyi meant when he said that flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Two and a half years later, I pick up my camera nearly every day. I don’t always enter the flow. But I am always engaged and learning how I see.