Only Dead Fish Go with the Flow: why a little stress is good

You may have heard the practice of Japanese fishing ships keeping a small shark in their fish tanks. The first time I heard this I wondered, “Why would you want to put a fish in the tank that will eat other fish?” What the fishing companies found was that because they were having to go further and further from Japan to catch tuna, if they froze the fish, consumers didn’t like the taste. When they put the tuna fish in the tank, they would become sluggish, which apparently, also affected their taste. The shark, however, would keep the tuna darting around the whole return trip to avoid being eaten. So how can we stay fresh while avoiding life’s sharks?

One way to keep fish fresh
One way to keep fish fresh

The answer lies in flow, a term coined by Hungarian-born psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe a state of pure enjoyment, when someone is completely engaged in a fulfilling activity. This activity is the sweet spot between two axis: challenge and skills. When we observe children at play, we find that they will take something as simple as a cardboard box, and make something else out of it (a fortress, a space ship, a boat). Because children’s attention spans are limited, they soon create a game around their activities (roles, rules, objectives) which requires them to increase their skills (motor, communication, social/cooperative) to meet the challenge they have set for themselves. As I’ve mentioned in previous writings, this ecstatic state that comes from acting out our play instructs, is intrinsic to human nature. Children do not have to be instructed on how to play, they do not need to be closely supervised or given a text book that teaches them how to be successful at playing. It is the natural way that we learn.

Finding your flow
Finding your flow

Csikszentmihalyi set out to find the answer of “How to live life as a work of art, rather than as a chaotic response to external events?” He began with artists, who would often describe periods of being outside themselves when involved in a project. Time seemed to stand still and they didn’t notice what was going on around them, only being one with the creative process. We often hear athletes describe this same state: of being in “the zone”, existing completely in the moment without awareness of lights, crowds or the field. This is flow, and when we can create it, we are in complete oneness with our creative process.

Flow is something that we produce, not follow. We create flow through single-minded attention to something we enjoy doing. Through more than 250,000 surveys, Csikszentmihalyi found that most people were unhappy doing nothing and that there is intrinsic motivation to flow, in that whatever produces it provides its own reward.
Flow comes from participating in a self-designed activity or game that requires our initiative.

We become sluggish while sitting around watching TV, but devote little energy to creating activities that require us to improve our skills to meet this challenge, as we did when we were children. Part of it is that we are imprisoned in our daily routines. Another reason is that as we also care more about what others think of us, so we set our expectations at a level where we are likely to be successful. This reduces the chances for failure, but it also keeps us out of flow and prevents us from any kind of major personal growth.

From my own experience, speaking to hundreds of senior managers of Fortune 500 companies, when I ask them about their vision for themselves, almost none of them say President or CEO of the company. Invariably they express the same desires: running their own business, living in the countryside, being an actress, a soccer player, a teacher, full-time mom. It is like asking children what they want to be when they grow up, but these are 40+ year old executives. Yet because these people are already so vested in their careers, they rarely have the courage to escape them to pursue the things that they enjoy most. This is usually deferred until retirement years, where most people don’t have the energy to pursue a new career.

So is pursuit of this ecstatic flow state selfish and impractical? (I have heard this from many of my corporate students in China). If you need to support your family, how can you afford the luxury of flow when you have to struggle every day and commute a long distance? To many people, it is sacrifice and compromise, not flow that defines the majority of their lives.

As I’ve written in a previous essay about turning work into meaningful play, flow experience requires creatively and purposefully choosing your pursuits, rather than just reacting to the chaos of your environment. Achievement should not be confused with activity. Success is not simply finishing all the tasks that are assigned to you. By responding to creative challenge, you are shaping your environment on purpose, rather than letting it shape you. It’s never too late to stop and look strategically at life, change your career, take on a new challenge, learn a new skill or go back to school.

In my own life, when I am happiest, I find I can bring greater happiness to others. Happiness is directly related to productivity and when I am in flow, results come effortlessly. Happiness is not the same as going with the flow; it is the enjoyment we get from creating our own. So if only dead fish go with the flow, and creative tension keeps us fresh, then the answer is to be your own shark.