Week 46: Vol. 46. The Corridor Of Flow Part 1: Building Complexity Out Of Simplicity

27 Nov

VOL. 46

“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person's capacity to act.”
-- Mihaly Csikszentmhihalyi


One of the central principles of the flow experience is the balance between perceived challenge and perceived skill. Pretty simple: If you are engaged in an activity where your perceived challenge is greater than your perceived skill, you usually experience anxiety and worry. When the opposite occurs and your perceived challenge is much lower than your perceived skill, boredom sets in, which, in time, can produce its own anxiety.

Most of us tread between these two extremes much of the time—but it doesn’t have to be this way. There are options…

We’ve all been confronted with insurmountable tasks that make life difficult—even unbearable. Equally unbearable are those hours, days—even weeks and months where tedium produces angst. The goal: finding the balance between challenge and skill.

The good news: Flow is no respecter of disciplines.

I’ve seen custodians get lost in cleaning floors (low skill/low challenge) just as I have seen neurosurgeons totally absorbed in complex procedures (high skill/high challenge). Both examples remind us that regardless of life arena or level of challenge, all of us can find more flow—if we know how to engineer it.

But how do you find your flow when you are in the high skill/low challenge space or the low skill/high challenge space? Let’s explore the former this week and next week tackle the latter.

High Skill/Low Challenge

My good friend Chuck Coonradt describes it best in his book "The Game of Work", where he details his early years as a grocery store stock boy. One day, when stocking shelves, he and his co-worker were getting seriously bored with the task at hand—counting the minutes until the day’s end. That is until they decided to re-frame the challenge.

Instead of just stacking cans, they began timing themselves to see how many cans they could stack in X number of minutes. Instead of living with a boring task, they added more complexity to it and found not only competition, not only fun, but also peak states of performance. Who would have guessed that such an experience would give him the seeds to a multi-million dollar consulting firm teaching others—in many different industries— how to make games out of their work!

Going back to my custodian reference above, you needn’t look far to build a world-class competition out of sweeping—it’s called curling! Enough said.

Like every other competition, people train for years to fine-tune the skills necessary to put that large piece of granite into the center of that frozen target!

Look up “Extreme Ironing” on Google, and you will find something rather interesting: people going to remote locations around the world with their irons and ironing boards to generate the greatest possible challenge from this very common task. So now I ask you: is there any activity that you know of that cannot be made more complex, interesting, and yes, challenging, with just a small amount of creative engineering?

Chad Hymas, a world-class motivational speaker, whose speaking platform emerged from an unfortunate accident that left him a paraplegic, speaks of the world-records he sets every morning—just by getting dressed.

Listen to Chad speak and you will see that he’s not kidding. What it takes for him to dress is no less complex than International Space station astronauts on a tactical repair mission using tiny instruments with large gloves, limited peripheral vision, and no spatial orientation.

Does the principle strike you?

Sweeping and dressing; curling and spacewalking; the former pair of activities seem so common and pedestrian while the latter pair are given an elite status. But they do share a common thread: the unlimited capacity for complexity and challenge.

Consider the many MLAs that you engage in weekly. Look broadly and see if there are any ways that you can make your work more engaging and meaningful. In my church, we call this “magnifying your calling”—looking for ways to add greater value to a task that may be simple or mundane. To “magnify” a task is to drill down and:

  • Measure in milliseconds instead of seconds
  • Add quality to quantity
  • Do more with less
  • Push the envelope
  • Test new methods
  • Add artistic elements

Regardless of whether you are cleaning the floor at a fast food restaurant or running a multi-national company, the principle of complexity is the same. Seek and apply this principle and you may find greater levels of flow and full engagement even in the most mundane arenas.


  • Choose an arena this week and see if you can identify one or more strategies to take your challenges to the next level.
No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.