I recently wrote a post for the Lively Work blog on Surfing, Flow and Good Work. After diving into a bit of personal history, I explore the relationship between autonomy, intrinsic rewards and value creation within an organization. I’m publishing the text below for archival purposes.
I’m Matt Schutte and I’ll be one of the contributors to the lively work blog. This piece is just a little intro to a few of the concepts that I’m looking to explore as part of this project.
My personal interest in the subject stretches back into my own childhood.
I was a kid with a very active brain. Most nights saw me staring at the ceiling for hours, trying to fall asleep, but instead dreaming up math equations, entrepreneurial schemes and more.
Sitting in my third grade class one afternoon, I came up with a little game. I would try to tip my four legged chair up and balance on one leg. Of course, initially, I wasn’t very good at it. But that only drove me to attempt it over and over. Tip up, lose balance, fall back to four legs. My chair would thump the floor with each attempt.
My poor teacher, probably at the end of her wits with this hyperactive kid, eventually recommended that I be put on Ritalin, stating that I was having difficulty with the material and was distracting the class.
Fortunately, my mom intervened. “He’s bored!” she said. “Give him more work to do — and maybe take away the chair.” That worked.
The sight of this towheaded kid, circling his desk, working away at one problem or another — chewing his tongue furiously in concentration — was definitely not the standard model of school room order, but it worked for me and solved the noise problem that my chair games had created.
That said, it wasn’t until I began surfing at 15 that I found a challenge that I could consistently lose myself in and that actually boosted my ability to focus on other tasks throughout my day.
Years later, as I dove into the research on flow states — what some have argued are the key to a meaningful life — I began to understand why.
Flow involves losing oneself completely in an engergizing and enjoyable concentration — usually accompanied by losing track of time and of ceasing to be self-conscious. Flow is accompanied by feeling in control, yet feeling as though the action or inspiration is simply flowing through you rather than being steered or generated by you.
We find it incredibly enjoyable. In fact, though flow is the term used by psychologists to describe this mental state, you may be more familiar with its non-scientific name — ecstasy or ekstasis; from the Ancient Greek ἔκστασις, “to be or stand outside oneself.” 1
Researchers claim that entering a flow state requires an activity with clear goals, immediate feedback and a balance between a person’s perceived skill set and the challenge they are facing.
Flow can be reached while surfing, working, playing games, writing music or any number of other activities. That said, in recent years, researchers have studied big wave surfers, rock climbers and other extreme sports athletes to gain a better understanding of flow because people engaged in these activities tend to enter flow on a more consistent basis than any other group that they’ve studied.
For me, surfing was my gateway to flow.
It involves not only mastery of physical movement, but is essentially like dancing upon a constantly shifting surface. I simply can’t succeed in that environment without focusing all of my attention on predicting how the ocean surface is going to change shape and on adjusting my body to take advantage of those morphing contours. Add on top of that the ability to choose an infinite number of different paths as you travel across those contours and the variety becomes mind boggling.
However, though the opportunity for complexity is limitless — at any point in time, I was free to constrain my objectives to some more limited task that wasn’t too far beyond my current skill set.
At first, simply the act of balancing on the board while laying on my stomach required my full attention. However, over time, those skills developed and got “put on autopilot.”
That allowed me to shift my attention to paddling out,
then to catching 2 and 3-foot high waves,
then to standing up and riding straight toward the shore,
then to riding along the wave at an angle,
then to turning,
then — as my skills improved and those waves became less frightening,
I began to approach bigger waves — first 6-foot, then 8-, then 10-, 12-, 15-, even 20-foot waves.
At each stage, the cycle was the same. I would first get to a place where I was comfortable enough to paddle out, then to paddle for waves, then I would pull back — intimidated. I would curse. I would tell myself that this is only a little bigger than what I had done before. I would try again.
Eventually, I’d commit. And driven into full focus, there would be the rush that accompanies any flow state. Through this whole journey, there were many other minor skills focused on — specific types of turns, barrels, airs, etc. Each pursuit providing the challenge to strain against, the task to lose myself in. The list was endless.
Today, I seek out waves in the 40- or even 50- foot range. In these waves, I’m usually riding straight. Not many big turns. Not many maneuvers. Still, that level of complexity and risk allows me to “lose myself” in the experience in ways that going straight in 3-foot waves no longer does.
In my late teens, the fact that I surfed almost every morning before school meant that the neurological after-effects were carrying over into the rest of my day — resulting in increased abilities to concentrate. My grades improved. My sleep improved. For the first time in my life, I was regularly “in the zone.”
The point of this little foray into surfing is that the drive to acquire skills was fueled — throughout the process — by intrinsic motivation. At each step, taking on the next challenge would allow me to “lose myself” in the experience. The growth of my skill set, my knowledge, my capacity was almost a side-effect. In essence, flow was the way that I got “paid” for the work I put in.
Oddly enough, it was just about the only form of compensation I received for all of that effort. For some reason, no else felt like handing me money to go surfing.
The reasoning was simple enough — my going surfing didn’t help anyone else solve a problem that they were facing.
Unlike my surfing, work must create value for others.
However, in addition, I believe that the best forms of work enable the loss of self that accompanies an appropriately complex challenge.
Some would describe this as a pipe dream — or certainly something that is only a possibility for some narrow elite. However, organizations that are able to solve this riddle and are able to harness intrinsic motivation to create extrinsic value for ourselves and others, are able to “pay their people double.”
Thus, most of us head into the world hunting for the challenge that will both “feed us” emotionally by allowing us to lose ourselves in the doing and create value for others in ways that benefit us as well — whether in the form of cash or status or improved social ties.
Individuals and organizations that can master this dance tend to win.
But to make things more complex, creating value for others tends to be a moving target — the problems that we are faced with change over time — as do the solutions available for addressing them.
Similarly, as was the case for me with surfing, the “intrinsic motivation” side of this equation is a moving target as well — and is so for each individual within an organization.
This is actually one of the stronger arguments I can think of in favor of increased worker autonomy. When individuals are given some freedom over what they are going to work on, they are able to “get paid by the doing” on a more regular basis.
Without that autonomy, we are left with people being assigned tasks by others — and unfortunately, your boss’s boss’s boss isn’t very good at predicting which task will allow you to lose yourself in the moment, particularly as that shifts over time.
Organizations that give their employees little autonomy are forced to drive motivation only through extrinsic means (pay, status, threats etc.) They’ve essentially tied one hand behind their back. At the same time, if every employee is off pursuing their own ends, with no coordination of effort or clarity regarding how the organization as a whole will work together to create value more broadly, the firm — and the people within it — are unlikely to thrive as well.
For me, this lively work blog presents an opportunity to explore the dynamic interplay of these two sides and the ways in which “good work” can lead to — and result from — “a good life.”