Sunday, October 25, 2009

Flow - At Work

I've been reading this book kind of sporadically. Part of the reason its been so sporadic is because I'll read a segment and it'll shake up me so profoundly, I'll have to just stop right there allowing it to sink in. I just had one of those experiences.

Some background, the whole point of the book is that the way to find happiness or as the book puts it, optimal experience is by pursuing "flow-inducing" experiences. Where you take on tasks with increased complexity, and in pursuing the activity you lose track of time and expand and grow in the pursuit.

Here's the segment:

"Occasionally cultures evolve in such a way as to make everyday productive chores as close to flow activities as possible. There are groups in which both work and family life are challenging yet harmoniously integrated. In the high mountain valleys of Europe, in Alpine villages spared by the Industrial Revolution, communities of this type still exist. Curious to see how work is experienced in a 'traditional' setting representative of farming life-styles that were prevalent everywhere up to a few generations ago, a team of Italian psychologists led by Professor Fausto Massimini and Dr. Antonella Delle Fave recently interviewed some of their inhabitants, and have generously shared their exhaustive transcripts.

The most striking feature of such places is that those who live there can seldom distinguish work from free time. It could be said that they work sixteen hours a day each day, but then it could also be said that they never work. One of the inhabitants, Serafina Vinon, a seventy-six-year-old woman from the tiny hamlet of Pont Trentaz, in the Val d'Aosta region of the Italian Alps, still gets up at five in the morning to milk her cows. Afterward she cooks a huge breakfast, cleans the house, and depending on the weather and time of year, either takes the herd to the meadows just below the glaciers, tends the orchard, or cards some wool. In summer she spend weeks on the high pastures cutting hay, and then carries huge bales of it on her head the several miles down to the barn. She could reach the barn in half the time if she took a direct route; but she prefers following invisible winding trails to save the slopes from erosion. In the evening she may read, or tell stories to her great-grandchildren, or play the accordion for one of the parties of friends and relatives that assemble at her house a few times a week.

Serafina knows every tree, every boulder, every feature of the mountains as if they were old friends. Family legends going back many centuries are linked to the landscape: On this old stone bridge, when the plague of 1473 had exhausted itself, one night the last surviving woman of Serafina's village, with a torch in her hand, met the last surviving man of the village further down the valley. They helped each other, got married, and became the ancestors of her family. It was in that field of raspberries that her grandmother was lost when she was a little girl. On this rock, standing with a pitchfork in his hand, the Devil threatened Uncle Andrew during the freak snowstorm of '24.

When Serafina was asked what she enjoys doing most in her life, she had no trouble answering: milking the cows, taking them to the pasture, pruning the orchard, carding wool ... in effect, what she enjoys most is what she has been doing for a living all along. In her own words: 'It gives me a satisfaction. To be outdoors, to talk with people, to be with my animals ... I talk to everybody - plants, birds, flowers, and animals. Everything in nature keeps you company; you see nature progress every day. You feel clean and happy: too bad that you get tired and have to go home... even when you have to work a lot it is very beautiful.'

When she was asked what she would do if she had all the time and money in the world, Serafina laughed - and repeated the same list of activities: she would milk cows, take them to pasture, tend to the orchard, card wool. It is not that Serafina is ignorant of the alternatives offered by urban life: she watches television occasionally and reads newsmagazines, and many of her younger relatives live in large cities and have comfortable life-styles, with cars, appliances, and exotic vacations. But their more fashionable and modern ways of life does not attract Serafina; she is perfectly content and serene with the role she plays in the universe."


"But what of the case of an urban laborer, whose work is not so clearly tied to subsistence? Serafina's attitude, as it happens, is not unique to traditional farming villages. We can occasionally find it around us in the midst of turmoils of the industrial age. A good example is in the case of Joe Kramer, a man we interviewed in one of our early studies of the flow experience. Joe was in his early sixties, a welder in a South Chicago plant where railroad cars are assembled. About two hundred people worked with Joe in three huge, dark, hangarlike structures where steel plates weighing several tons move around suspended from overhead tracks, and are welded amid showers of sparks to the wheelbases of freight cars. In summer it is an oven, in winter the icy winds of the prairie howl through. The clanging of metal is always so intense that one must shout into a person's ear to make oneself understood.

Joe came to the United States when he was five years old, and he left school after fourth grade. He had been working at this plant for over thirty years, but never wanted to become a foreman. He declined several promotions, claiming that he liked being a simple welder, and felt uncomfortable being anyone's boss. Although he stood on the lowest rung of the hierarchy in the plant, everyone knew Joe, and everyone agreed that he was the most important person in the entire factory. The manager stated that if he had five more people like Joe, his plant would be the most efficient in the business. His fellow workers said that without Joe they might as well shut down the shop right now.

The reason for his fame was simple: Joe had apparently mastered every phase of the plant's operation, and he was now able to take anyone's place if the necessity arose. Moreover, he could fix any broken-down piece of machinery, ranging from huge mechanical cranes to tiny electronic motors. But what astounded people most was that Joe not only could perform these tasks, but actually enjoyed it when he was called upon to do them. When asked how he learned to dal with complex engines and instruments without having had any formal training, Joe gave a very disarming answer. Since childhood he had been fascinated with machinery of every kind. He was especially drawn to anything that wasn't working properly. 'Like when my mother's toaster went on the fritz, I asked myself: 'If I were that toaster and I didn't work, what would be wrong with me?' ' Then he disassembled the toaster, found the defect, and fixed it. Ever since, he has used this method of empathetic identification to learn about and restore increasingly complex mechanical systems. And the fascination of discovery has never left him; now close to retirement, Joe still enjoys work every day.

Joe has never been a workaholic, completely dependent on the challenges of the factory to feel good about himself. What he did at home was perhaps even more remarkable than his transformation of a mindless, routine job into complex, flow-producing activity. Joe and his wife live in a modest bungalow on the outskirts of the city. Over the years hey bought up the two vacant lots on either side of their house. On these lots, Joe built an intricate rock garden, with terraces, paths, and several hundred flowers and shrubs. While he was installing underground sprinklers, Joe had an idea: What if he had them make rainbows? He looked for sprinkler heads that would produce a fine enough mist for this purpose, but none satisfied him; so he designed one himself, and built it on his basement lathe. Now after work he could sit on his back porch, and by touching one switch he could activate a dozen sprays that turned into as many small rainbows.

But there was one problem with Joe's little Garden of Eden. Since he worked most days, by the time he got home the sun was usually too far down the horizon to help paint the water with strong colors. So Joe went back to the drawing board, and came back with an admirable solution. He found floodlights that contained enough of the sun's spectrum to form rainbows, and installed them inconspicuously around the sprinklers. ow he was really ready. Even in the middle of the night, just by touching two switches, he could surround his house with fans of water, light, and color.

Joe is a rare example of what it means to have an 'autotelic personality,' or the ability to create flow experiences even in the most barren environment - an almost inhumane workplace, a weed-infested urban neighborhood. In the entire railroad plant, Joe appeared to be the only man who had the vision to perceive challenging opportunities for action. The rest of the welders we interviewed regarded their jobs as burdens to be escaped as promptly as possible, and each evening as soon as work stopped they fanned out for the saloons that were strategically placed on every third corner of the grid of streets surrounding the factory, there to forget the dullness of the day with beer and camaraderie. Then home for more beer in front of the TV, a brief skirmish with the wife, and the day - in all respects similar to each previous one -was over."

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