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Flow, career satisfaction and happiness

March 30th, 2009 · 2 Comments

In the past few years, I have consulted many friends about their career problems. Here are some common complaints and aspirations:

  • Life sucks.
  • I hate office politics. I’m just not good at it, and I’m sick and tired of it.
  • I feel I’m stuck at my current job.
  • I cannot wait to get out of my current job and get my MBA.
  • I’m going to get my MBA (or JD in some cases). I’ll work extremely hard for a few years. I’ll then retire and enjoy life

For the four and half years after I graduated from college, I had those feelings, too. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t like my job. I was constantly thinking about going back to business school. I was thinking about the next thing.

I applied two great MBA programs, and was accepted by both. I was proud, happy, and relieved. But, the happiness only lasted six months. I was notified of my acceptance in early March, and started school in August. During this period of time, I was able to quit my job, traveled to Europe, lived in Paris for a while, and had time of my life.

Then, I had to go back to face reality. Life in business school was quite stressful. When you put hundreds of type-A personalities in the same environment, the competition was fierce. Business School was a lot like high school — there was a tremendous amount of herd-like mentality and peer pressure. I also didn’t particularly enjoy the social environment — everyone was "nice", but for some reason I felt that there was an overall lack of genuineness among my classmates. I felt that it was really hard to make real friends in business school.

I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was miserable for a while. I did attend my shares of social events, go to expensive ski trips, and build my network. I "explored" different career options. I "developed"  my leadership skills by organizing conferences and leading clubs. But, getting the MBA degree did NOT increase my happiness by one bit.

Do I regret to spend eighty thousands dollars to get my MBA? No. Although I didn’t have a particularly enjoyable experience, I still learned a lot. More importantly, it made me realize what was missing in my life.

I need to look and search within. I learn not to let external expectation to dictate my career goals. Only I know what I want, and what will make me happy. I need to put aside the external noises, and listen to my heart.

The answer I found is quite simple: I found myself to really happy when I’m reading a good book, playing pick-up basketball, or writing. It’s a state of mind that I forget time, who I’m, and where I’m. All my attention is given to the task.

This is the state of flow. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (Masterminds Series) has a huge impact on me. I define happiness as the percent of time everyday that I’m in a state of flow.

I believe that each of us is naturally inclined for certain career options that will be more conducive for achieving state of flow. The key is to align your career goals and daily activities to achieve state of flow.

I’m starting to keep an informal "flow log" to track how much time I’m in a state of flow each day. Here are some very interesting findings:

  • It’s easier for me to reach flow state by simply reminding myself that I want to be in the flow state
  • There are a few triggers that can help me get into flow state. When I’m frustrated/sad/unhappy, I try to create these triggers to change my state of mind. For example, I love reading. I always have a few books in my office, in my car, or at home. I would turn to the books for a few minutes to calm myself down and help me get into flow.
  • I cannot reach "flow" by doing nothing. If I retire today and do nothing, it’d be very hard for me to reach a flow state. Flow requires attention to a meaningful task that I enjoy.
  • Physical fatigue ruins flow state. When I’m tired, I cannot concentrate well. Flow requires concentration. Whenever I have enough sleep and a good exercise, it becomes easier for me to get into flow state.

Are you dissatisfied with your career? Are you searching for ways to make  yourself happier? I suggest you to look into the psychology of flow. It will give you a different paradigm for you to change yourself and become happier.

I’m now in a state of flow while I’m writing this article. Are you? 🙂

Tags: Frustration@Work · Learning and Growing · MBA

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Renita Kalhorn // Apr 2, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    Interesting to hear about your 'flow log'! To your first point, flow doesn't have to be something that just 'happens' randomly, as if by chance. Trying to figure out how to get in the flow is often the best way to get in the flow… 🙂

  • 2 Renita Kalhorn // Apr 3, 2009 at 2:47 am

    Interesting to hear about your 'flow log'! To your first point, flow doesn't have to be something that just 'happens' randomly, as if by chance. Trying to figure out how to get in the flow is often the best way to get in the flow… 🙂

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