Earth history, our future

We have choice, we have self-control

A blog addressing self-control. The piece of the environmental puzzle we each own. A contribution to the whole, if we so choose.

As CoP26 gets moving past the administrative tasks of state, I find myself wondering on what it is we all do that makes changes for the common good so hard to follow through.

The piece I think we all lose sight of, is self-control. Behavioural control in its most personal form. There is contemporary debate as to what consciousness is, and whether it is even a thing at all. Whether free will or biology, given the magnitude of the dilemma we all now face together, I am minded to think that the answer to that matters little. This is our moment to make action our goal. That starts at home. With a little reorientation of our self-control

Success requires clarity of purpose and self-control

For every self-made success these two factors seem to me present. There is clarity of purpose. And intent on keeping to this task, and thereby enacting self-control. When people talk in admirable terms of ambition, effectiveness, or being on the ball. When addressing ourselves as being present. In the moment. As one person, as a team, or collaborators in a project. We purposefully take to action and all distraction is kept under control.

v | b | t

The achievement accomplished is appraised based upon what was before, compared to what is now. Or what is now possible, that was not possible before. This achievement required a visibility, a clear directed change by the actor(s). It then took behaviours directed towards this goal. A determination to overcome unforeseen event. And a personal and/or shared trust that this could be seen through.

Managing behaviour is what we do

What makes consciousness interesting here is what is going on within. We are permanently being distracted. Distraction is at the heart of what our competing systems within us do. They present us with choice, or bring to our awareness wider issues, opportunity, or threat, to give option to reprioritise some more.

The privilege of the human condition is the extent to which we have put ourselves at the fulcrum of this distraction. We can act upon distraction with additional strategic inference. We can move our inference to higher levels of perspective. We can move our enquiry to lower levels of insight but higher levels of detail. We can seek more detail or bigger picture or put time to both. We can communicate this enquiry or we can do this from within. We can place ourselves in externally different, better, more challenging, less certain, or more exciting, places to be distracted over and over again.

Choice

That is what I take choice to mean today. These days of global need. We have basic needs as individuals. Our brain and body collude to make us ever aware of that fact. Our social instincts enable that need to be embraced as family concern. Tribal influence. National pride. And now, if we choose, global unity to inform a global act.

Competition

What this also reflects is the fundamentals of our biology. Fundamentals of our chemistry before life was even a thing. There is finite resource and more demand than supply. Nature and chaos find their own delicate equilibrium. We are gifted with the means to make something of that equilibrium. By our action we do some nudging of our own.

Competing towards collaborative ends

But now we compete not for ourselves. Instead we compete for the future versions of us. As our biology today reflects from all before. Whatever happens at CoP26, that all begins right here. In each home. With our manner of self-control. Making choice toward future generations we will not know. Or taking more for ourselves, eating more seeds than we sow.

We are each a project | within this project. This is our project of correction. Of planned redirection. To find the ultimate equilibrium. The platform that can sustain us all. This place on earth remains our ultimate system. We can choose it. Or it can consume us all.

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Supplemental note: Earth History as observed in terms of behaviour

Intended change by us as humans vs the behaviours of chemistry or biology – a reflection on which is which. The latter requires none of the choice decisions we can make, but for all our talking is this road we passively take.

Archean Era to now

~3.5 Billion years of earth history. A few basics of what behaviours came before.

Settled chemistry

Any dynamic system can be said to behave. Predictably, or not. Well, or not. Living, or not. Nor is there anything in life that holds a privileged place in playing a part in change. In geology you can study what happens when the same chemistry plays out in different arenas with different agents of change. Deep within the Earth’s crust, in magma chambers, minerals and crystals can emerge differently from the chemical grabs that are made for the same finite resource. Time, heat, and gravity playing roles in what ingredients sit where. The conditions of what is left, dictating what is next. Some ingredients becoming heavy, others relatively light. Gravity settling occurring through relative viscosity. More pressure from above, or more heat from below can change the rates and settled nature within. There is only temporary stability and rates of change. Add more pressure or more heat, some of the solid masses return to liquid form, and what chemistry had been claimed becomes free to be reclaimed by new crystallising processes once again.

Change is inevitable

There was therefore behaviour before there was life. Chemical reaction and physical change well studied in timespans we humans have geologically categorised. At global scale this reflected atmospheric conditions where greenhouse effects were a positive influence. A young sun with heat held within a primitive atmosphere enabling temperatures that support liquid water to prevail. Pillow lava flows from 3.5 billion years ago evidence of this early water. Spewing into this water, were volcanic vents depositing chemical mixtures with energy and ingredients for life all mixing and settling within. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) settling amidst amino acids and other key components that would eventually make biological cells (cf. Science Direct).

Acting not settling

We are not rocks. Bacteria and archaea made the early headway there. How we define the precise moment that there was life is still not completely clear. At its most basic level however, the sentiment of passive chemical action makes way for biologically active intent. Perhaps. Settling into the chemical glue still brings about reactions, but the objective action may have some process its form is additionally enabling it to do.

Passive to active as regulated behaviour

An autopoiesis is what is now termed to describe these, and all subsequent, emerging first choices made. A regulation of the first defended boundary. A containment within the first cell. An inner influence to the outside chemical glue. Early life. Mobility in water. Gathering, collecting, interacting. Then finding new heat from the sun. Converting wider bandwidths of energy in the form of light.

Therein presenting a growing need for biologically active regulations.

Definition of autopoiesis

…the property of a living system (such as a bacterial cell or a multicellular organism) that allows it to maintain and renew itself by regulating its composition and conserving its boundaries… the mechanisms of self-production are the key to understand both the diversity and the uniqueness of the living.— Francisco J. Varela, in Self-Organizing Systems: An Interdisciplinary Approach, 1981

…the ancient common ancestor which evolved autopoiesis and thus became the first living cell.— Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What is Life?, 2000

Merriam-Webster

Still several billion years ago, amidst the trillions of chance events, an archaea and a bacteria were conjoined – rather than the one consumed – a Union. A first inkling into the power upgrade available if cooperation can resume. A repeatable fact that ballooned. This is mitochondrial symbiosis, that is still evidencing that chance happening today. Adding advantage of symbiosis, to the advancement and specialisms of two cells not dividing but instead remaining together and acting as one, and diversity of chance exponentially grows.

This is more than just selfish genes. This is life and 2 billion years of it as competing in rates of growth, not rates of evolution to hunt or avoid being the prey.

The predator age is much more recent. The Cambrian period. It begins in earnest 550 million years ago. With such predation the fashion of the age, competition steps up another gear.

Here is where a split of opinion in contemporary science exists. Whether the nature of us all is as savage as some would hold. Or whether a collaborative realism exists borne of that bacterial age. As explained by biochemist Dr. Nick Lane.

This discrepancy is partly responsible for the schism that has opened between Margulis and neo-darwinists like Dawkins. Dawkins’ ideas about selfish genes are equivocal when applied to bacteria (which he does not try to do). For Margulis, however, the whole tapestry of evolution is woven by the collaborations of bacteria, which form not just colonies but the very fabric of individual bodies and minds, responsible even for our consciousness, via the threadlike networks of microtubules in the brain. Indeed, Margulis pictures the entire biosphere as the construct of collaborating bacteria – Gaia, the concept that she pioneered with James Lovelock

Dr. Nick Lane pp10

Not that Dawkins deems the selfish gene to be opposing others.

My first book, The Selfish Gene, could equally have been called The Cooperative Gene without a word of the book itself needing to be changed… Selfishness and cooperation are two sides of a Darwinian coin. Each gene promotes its own selfish welfare, by cooperating with other genes in the sexually stirred gene pool which is the gene’s environment, to build shared bodies

Richard Dawkins “The ancestors tale” cited by Lane pp11-12

From a behavioural perspective, the underlying point is the active role now played. The finite resources now in chemical soups that may be ingested, breathed, absorbed, or converted within, becoming increasingly complexed, and biology finding new ways to play. The passive competition of process of chemical reactions now a regulated phenomena. All now biological actions as determined by a need.

Complex enough to choose

It is only very recently – once the rarity of a brain cortex became sufficiently engorged that chemistry, biology, and the increasing complexity of organisation of process – that the divisions and specialisms of more and complex multi-cellular organisms became a means of influence with an awareness of their all. The mammalian brain, surrounding an emotionally reactive middle, but still influenced by the compulsions of a reptilian spinal column and stem. It is with this growing complexity that the external world, offering a momentary window of stability, that symbology and learning had a chance to stay.

Even now we debate what is real. Not only of this account of a history, but also of what is real by the perceptions of own minds. What the brain translates – from messages as smells, recoding from light-sensitive retinas, vibrations of sound, and an array of felt messaging from our boundary edges coated in skin – are the best guessed of a collective system of cells in the brain (only 10% of which are neurons) is a translation of sensed experience. From this space inside a skull shaped prison, a dark and silent space between our ears and behind our eyes, our brain perceives what is real. Who are we to be so bold as to think what each brain holds true? We can but presume and suppose. Only we.

Even our close cousins see through different eyes. Pay different attention to smell. And as for other possible consciousness such as our octopus cousins – of shared simple worm like grandparents from 350 million years ago – they skulk alone. One per 5 million or so offspring making it to their version of adulthood. Their wits tested in the extreme with plenty of interest in decision-making. Neuronal connections but in a very different home.

Each system of systems we each represents by the boundary layer of our skin, is in competition within. As it is with all complexity of life. Our distractions of our systems are just more complete in their means to make all feel as one.

How do we all win and compete?

Against this shared history of everything, this is the challenge of our time. Our whole chemical-biological-history has been about taking what our own internal systems need. Reward of survival via our selfishness, our greed. Social instinct a more recent win bonus for the biology that is able to collaborate and become more and with greater speed. That is the lesson I think we now all need to take heed.

Socially mobile, individually doomed

That it is our social skills that make us more adaptive to environments than all other living beings we oppose. Our shared ability to abstractly take constraints and limitations, add new perspective, introduce outside chemistry with our mathematics and our physics, our metallurgy, and technology, and become more. Yes, we compete. Neanderthals once vouched for how good we are at that. But we compete best together.

Now we need to compete as nothing has ever competed before. We compete beyond our inner need, and greed. Define better our tasks and our goals. Seek solutions to global problems we all now own.

Whether free will or not our biology gives us choice. What we now choose is with intent. We actively direct our next actions. We find new motivations for shared self-control. Or like rocks, we all passively sink. Let’s not leave it to nature to decide.

Making sense

Behaviour through a third lens

This blog takes on a third example of how to examine and thereby prepare to make better decisions toward behaviours. Bringing qualitative technique back alongside the quantitative techniques we are told are our future norm.

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Sensemaking – What Makes Human Intelligence Essential in the Age of the Algorithm

by Christian Madsbjerg 2017

when we commit to losing a part of ourselves, we gain something profoundly new in exchange. We gain insight. I call the practice of cultivating these types of insights sensemaking.

Christian Madsjberg 2017, Sensemaking pp5

In my opinion some of the sentiment of Madsbjerg has a sense of flow about it. He references “phronesis” to mean an Aristocratic synthesis of knowledge and experience (ibid pp6), and the type of leaders that become as one with the systems, societies, and organisations, they are stewarding “as an extension of their body” (ibid pp7).

CULTURE

From a social psychology we have theories that help explain the contextual nuance behind our social interactions. Social Representations by processes of objectification and anchoring which group or categorise based upon shared (communicated) experiences; or anchoring from pre-existing systems of thought. Madjsberg introduces similar influence pertaining to why people in that culture act the way they do (pp6).

He then (pp8) also identifies with the philosophical addresses objective reality becoming subjective understanding. Referencing Heidegger to reflect upon these unspoken assumptions “that on the basis of which beings are understood”.

we stop seeing a room as a space filled with individual items and we start seeing the structures form a cultural reality…nothing exists in an individual vacuum

Christian Madsjberg 2017, Sensemaking pp11-12

He addresses these meanings as philosophical terms reflecting our spoken exchanges. Highlighting contemporary philosophers and their terms: “Habitus” Pierre Bourdieu; “The discourse” Ernesto Laclau, Michel Foucault “The conversation”

In cognitive psychology there is reason to challenge all ideas of comparison between mind and computer, and the linear processing of information this represents. Madjsberg presents this same challenge with more philosophical underpinning. He rejects Cartesian understanding, arguing this “is meaningless without without studying the world” (pp39). Arguing a little later that sensemaking is the missing connective tissue (pp43), and that we must understand the holistic vs the atomised (pp49), and recommend us to read “no exit” by Sartre (pp51) and highlighting Google’s Ray Kurzweil 2012 book “how to create a mind” and the associated Pattern Recognition Theory of the Mind (PRTM) to which he observes “but it’s not how the brain works…” (pp52).

Heidegger helps conclude this philosophical analysis Hubert Dreyfus “Mind over Machine” as the pre-eminent interpreter of Heidegger (pp55-56). Madjsberg argues that these philosophical interpreters both argue against the mind as a rational calculator. Madjsberg instead presenting a framework of how experts achieve mastery through an engagement with culture and social context (cf. pp57-60 for his 5 stages from novice to expert).

Here are additional categorised concepts. Most pithy phrases, and all explanations are Madsbjerg’s.

THICK DATA

thin data is facts. Thick data is how we relate to the many different worlds we inhabit e.g., sensing the stress in a room (pp15)

pp70-75 four types of knowing: Objective; subjective; shared; sensory. These wide types enabling greater understanding e.g. pp76 pattern recognition or synthesis; pp79-81 literary economics. Reason, emotions, judgement, and analysis.

lack of thick data ability in boardrooms, “imagination and intuitions of top leaders are starving” pp16

PHENOMENON

time and space – reframe to a problem of a phenomenon pp99-100

SAVANNAH

pp15 Savannah not the zoo. Phenomenology of human behaviour in social context; pp18 see its ghosts

the thing in itself

pp93-96 . Avoid getting caught up in what is “real”. Example, pp96 the same champagne in a plastic cup or a fine glass from a white gloved waiter leave you with very different experience

always return to the thing itself

Edmund Husserl

Heidegger (Husserl’s best student) reversed the philosophy to focus upon social structures of worlds as opposed to Husserl’s reflecting on the thinking of the individual. cf. Sartre and existentialism

CARE

pp192 “without care, everything is correct and nothing is true

pp154-155 William James “the principles of psychology” references to attention as focalisation, concentration, of consciousness vs other thoughts. “My experience is what I agree to attend to”

Madsbjerg presents this in a number of forms. pp183 become a connoisseur; pp187 alchemy of sensemaking by being in it. He also reflects upon what is not technical understood (pp191), concluding that “care cannot be replaced with Moneyball type atomised analytics” (pp194).

CREATIVITY

as opposed to manufacturing. pp123 problem solving human behaviour with no hypothesis or clarity of what is known needs sensemaking creativity that comes through us not from us

Related to THICK DATA is need for wider perspective because, he argues pp22, our complexity is artificial and our data is inappropriately contextualised. pp21 Abductive logic affords creative insight, but that requires us to accept dead ends and serendipity. It is messy and needs a confidence to remain doubt for indeterminate amounts of time.

pp130 “grace” as creative insight travelling through us via our social sphere not from us. [the later examples on pp146 akin to flow].

pp131 psychologist Wolfgang Kohler “three Bs” bus, bath, bed as three places where environment engenders creativity. Heidegger referred to “the middle voice” or old Greek word “phainesthai” which erases the distinction between subject and object – rather how they are revealed through us not by us.

pp158 “with a click, the left and the right are equally satisfied” pp159 “the metaphor” pp160 “the derring-do is actually in the service of site constraints” rather than the signature of the artist.

EMPATHY

pp107-108 “mood mentality” neither comes from outside or inside but from our very existence in the world.

pp116 theory of reciprocity (cf Marshall Sahlins three models of giving) give to get more vs get the same vs no expectation of return;

pp 114-116 Heidegger three levels of empathy:

  • below awareness threshold which we adjust to. It may be cultural clothing norms, or particular nuance of language. Sociologists and anthropologists have debated for 100 years whether this has a socio-animalistic or formal structural undertone.
  • awareness when it’s wrong. Often triggered from first level empathy moving to this second
  • Analytical empathy which is systematic, framework and theory supported. “This is sensemaking. Theory unlimatelg reveals the insight” pp116

pp168 “assessing and responding to the core emotional interests in the room” Sheila Heen Difficult Conversation (Harvard business school) pp169 in a room full of executives who is respected? Who is carries weight of insight? Who is seen as difficult? Who is trusted? Who is beloved?

pp170 reading the leader’s relationships, including the relationship with themselves. Self-conscious, cynical, invested, self-deprecating or at least self transforming?

pp171 reading the culture of the company: competitive; egalitarian; creative; hard-nosed; underdog or alpha. Changing points and tensions.

pp173 “reading between the rules”

pp175 be with the people to read them. If you cannot be with them, then read their fiction. The descriptions of the human experience.

pp176 “the gulf of veneer” vs walking in their shoes

pp177 understanding the antagonistic world. pp178 know who you talking to, and who they are really talking to pp179 which means you must know the culture.

pp182 the key is navigating the other persons emotions. The most dangerous negotiation is the one you do not know you are in.

DISCOURSE ANALYSIS

pp101 discourse analysis – words and concepts meaning and significance.

pp116 symbols and nuance of meaning; discourse theory showing words in context (cf Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe); binary codes of social systems (cf Niklas Luhmann); stage-managed impressions (cf Erving Goffman’s “the presentation of Self in Everyday life” 1956); Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories of language – “don’t think, but look” as most language of cooperation is not verbalised.

ABDUCTIVE LOGIC

Abductive – nonlinear – educated guesswork of most likely.

cf Peirce 1877 “the fixation of belief”; 1899 “first rule of logic”; 1903 “pragmatism and abduction”. Observing that Pierce was critical of deductive or inductive logic the former asserts correctness, and the second asserts unknowns are knowable with more technical ability.

NORTH STAR

not GPS. pp23 sensemaking shows the breadth of textural context needed. Following the North Star not head stuck upon the gps.

pp173 teaching is a negotiation. You’re negotiating for engagement and credibility. Once content is known you can speak from inside the content and thereby respond in the moment to the context.

pp195 Heidegger “meaningful difference”. The opposite in nihilism which corporate hierarchy is filled with. cf Heidegger 1954 “the question concerning technology” which he argues has not only replaced our gods but also replaced us. Optimisation of the material rather than flexing with it to find its best repurpose. pp197 we do this with people as interchangeable widgets vs “the source of meaning in our lives is not in us…it is in being in the world…we can all bring out what is best in ourselves” Hubert Dreyfus.

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v | behaviour | t

As a foil to the biological and behaviourist sentiments of Robert Sapolsky, Christian Madsbjerg’s equally contemporary writing presents the more nuanced reflection of what the mind offers in problem solving, rather than the explanations of behaviour as bio-chemistry and the brain.

The significance of sensemaking as presented in this wonderfully engaging book is its engagement with philosophical discussion in a practical way. Principally reflecting upon the necessary skill sets we all need when managing the very human reality in decision-making. This is the third blog from me this week addressing perspectives on behaviour. All of which I treat as equally valid in potential for understanding behavioural challenge, and therein the means by which controls and directions to decision-making can be outlined.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Show and tell

A trickster mask unpacked

This is how I created the Trickster image that ends each of my blog entries. I also share some other work to emerge from the same learning journey this represents.

I do more than just work and research from my desk…

There is a dabble of psychology here. A reflection upon flow. Mostly however, this is just a tentative peak into my creative process. Amidst those tougher moments I am sure we all have to make our way through from time to time. In any collaborative process, communication is key. Sometimes that communication and understanding is necessary from within…

Free hand shapes can be drawn in VisioPro. This mask and cave-drawing were adapted from numerous stock images, mouse controlled freehand. Thereafter repurposed, fragmented, shaded. All within VisioPro.

Jack-a-lope (unpacked) – completed 7th February 2021

Visio (Microsoft Visio Professional 2016) is a tool I use for preparing workshop materials in my consulting role. I find using such software as artistic mediums both a means of creative release and reason to be learning new skills I can bring back to the workplace.

A YouTube video inspired logo

I discovered easier ways to fragment images using Visio – YouTube full of tutorials on how to create logos in using this tool. It takes a little practice but basic shapes such as this are surprisingly straight-forward. If considered in the context of flow, these skill improvements are incremental, but each leads to the next, empowering an inner confidence to try more difficult things.

Jaq O’byte (see below) was produced using similar start points of imagery, and built up over several days. I was having a tough time in my head in these few days. Visio becoming a creative outlet. With some increasing ambition as new tricks, tips, and visual effects were learned, discovered, applied and adapted. Even on the tough days flow becomes easier to find when basics are built upon over time.

Jaq O’byte (completed 13th March 2021)

These characters are more than random images. They each became intermingled with narratives, short-stories, and psychological examinations with my therapist. Typically these moments of high creative activity become directed toward wider thought, but inner struggle directed me inwards. The art-work sometimes cause and sometimes effect of the ebb and flow. Much of this is symbolic and with personal meaning. Maybe I will elaborate on this at some point. But not today.

This logo began life as an ambitious attempt at explain how critical controls between parties need a connecting piece to be shared – projects | within projects was in mind as this emerged on a page.

A project of integration to connect two projects of control (completed 16th March 2021)

Thanks for reading to the end. Not directly research or work related, but hopefully a little more visibility upon a process. A little understanding of how behaviours turned toward inner need can become productive. A little trust derived from better understanding of such demands and needs.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Flow

What is flow? Can we find it in our projects?

This blog summarises several accounts from academics in psychology and neuroscience on the subject of flow. To which I then add some context as I believe it can apply to projects and outlined using v | b | t.

the positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This blog is prompted by an observation and a question asked of a correspondent friend on LinkedIn. Who posted a ponderance as to whether the feelings of flow has a place in more group activity. It is a question I have been pondering for a while. Others have been writing of it for decades.

First, I need to introduce the two scholars of note by summaries of their work I hereafter refer:

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyl
  • John Vervaeke

I begin with a summary of key matters on the phenomena of flow

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“Flow: the psychology of optimal experience.” (1990)

The book is written in ten chapters, of which I will offer some detail from chapter 4, “Conditions of flow”. For context the ten chapters read as follows:

  1. Happiness revisited
  2. The anatomy of consciousness
  3. Enjoyment and quality of life
  4. Conditions of flow
  5. The body in flow
  6. The flow of thought
  7. Work as flow
  8. Enjoying solitude and other people
  9. Cheating chaos
  10. The making of meaning

Chapter 4 – conditions of flow

Individual conditions to enable flow

pp71, Chapter 4, the Conditions of flow. The conditions within us to achieve flow are briefly summarised. The opening paragraph presents heightened concentration; lost self-consciousness; a sense that skill set is adequate in ability, relevant to task, and under control. Control in this context presented as a rule-bound action system with clear clues as to the quality of performance of task (ibid pp71). In flow, the activity becoming one performed for its own sake, in of itself the reason.

The autotelic personality

These personal traits or characteristics are what become referred to as the autotelic personality. Pp83 makes contrast to the autotelic personality, i.e., opposite traits are presented. These are traits of those of us unlikely or just incapable of flow. Reasoned by their inability to deny distractions from task focus. By one extreme, the schizophrenic’s curse of being compelled to take note of all feeling and need, without choice. By the other extreme, the excessively self-conscious person so concerned for their imagined appearance to others that the task itself cannot be central in attendance (ibid pp84). Both the inner compulsion or the outer more concern present a lacking of the “attentional fluidity needed to relate to activities for their own sake” (ibid pp85).

attentional fluidity needed to relate to activities for their own sake

What it is to be autotelic (Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 1990 pp85)

Flow channel – between boredom and anxiety

In all cases of flow there is an expanded complexity to our conscious experience, not so much as to cause anxiety, but enough to overstep thresholds of predictability and boredom (ibid pp74). To which Csikszentmihalyi offers an idea of a flow channel where the levels of skill required are such as to keep us beyond boredom. These skills applied to challenge that is manageably difficult. i.e., presenting enough difficulty to be keep our interest but below a point that anxiety of the scale of challenge consumes our calm. By this 2D measure, an increasing challenge is needing of more skill, and vice-versa (pp74).

Situational conditions to enable flow

Next, the conditions of the activity are examined. pp72 flow activities are described as paramount reality being felt toward optimal experiences in everyday life. Therein pp72, citing Roger Caillois’ four categories of game play to outline a range of activity that can enable a state of flow:

  • Agon (competitive games);
  • Alea (games of chance);
  • ilinx (vertigo – situations that challenge balance or altered body need)
  • Mimicry (as anything altering the reality or context such as the arts)

Csikszentmihalyi is presenting each category as requiring us to expand the edges or boundary condition of one form of our ordinary perception. From the four categories stated these expansions are outlined as: elevating skills to meet those encountered of an opponent; elevating our sense of future focus; the shuffling of different sense perceptions or the altered focus of consciousness we perceive; or temporary transformation into something other than ourselves (ibid pp73).

Scaled up to societal levels

For Csikszentmihalyi, this is also more than a singular experience, reflecting upon flow at much greater scale. Outlined in terms of culture, nation, and therefore whole populations being more at one with a great task. These can be moments of great focus or adversity. Wars, building of great wonder, eras of great advancement, discovery, and change. The common theme being that the individual or the group is brought back to the moment. Less distracted by what else may otherwise demand our attention or want more of our time.

Contextual denying conditions (Anomie or alienation)

Structural impediments are also outlined. At sociological levels these are referenced as anomie (lack of rules) and alienation.

Anomie could arise from great upheaval where societal norms are lost or collective circumstance changes without clarity of what that now means. Periods of sudden mass wealth, mass poverty, or displacement, or falsification of truths, all equally able to remove any clarity on what is permitted and what is not.

Alienation being the opposite, as an overly constrained set of rules oppressively forced upon a people in ways that contravene their beliefs and goals (pp86).

These are sociological and therefore situational or contextual conditions for flow but structural conditions can also be considered as blocks to flow within each of us.

Personal denying conditions

Neuroscience and psychology are then revisited from pp86. Some people shown to have attentions towards concentration more than others. Cortical activations and “evoked potentials” from senses other than those being used in a task being more active and therefore more able to distract in some people, than others. Compared to the more able to concentrate more singularly on the task at hand.

Crucially, this was not deemed to be genetic or predisposed, but potentially a learned skill in of itself (pp88). By way of further examination Csikszentmihalyi then proceeds to consider the role family and early years learning can have on this learned phenomena in later life. Not however to deny us the potential for flow, but simply to have not presented environments where it is naturally able to be encouraged.

People of flow

The chapter concludes with a brief examination of examples of people who have achieved noteworthy outcomes attributable to flow.

Those people who faced up to moments or lives subjected to great ordeal but who not only survived but thrived by their experience. Richard Logan cited as finding a connection between such accounts as those who “found ways to turn bleak objective conditions into subjectively controllable experience.

Blueprint of flow activities

Here Csikszentmihalyi presents a common theme that connects them all.

“blueprint of flow activities.

[1] First, they paid close attention to the most minute details of their environment, discovering in it hidden opportunities for action that matched what little they were capable of doing, given the circumstances.

[2] Then they set goals appropriate to their precious situation, and closely monitored progress through the feedback they received.

[3] Whenever they reached their goal, they upped the ante, setting increasingly complex challenges for themselves.”

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 1990, pp90

To which he concludes with a uniting observation that the many examples of those incarcerated who find flow “even though the person is objectively a slave, subjectively [they] are free” (ibid pp92).

In wider survival stories where the adversity is the threat of the environment itself, this was similarly deemed most survivable by those applying themselves in manner akin to flow.

“intrinsically motivated by their actions, they are not easily disturbed by the external threat. With enough psychic energy free to observe and analyse their surroundings objectively, they have a better chance of discovering in them new opportunities for action. If we were to consider one trait a key element of autotelic personality, this might be it.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) pp92

Chapter 4 concludes with a pithy reflection upon some being more naturally, or more fortunate in early learning, to be adept at managing themselves in this way. But also reflects upon how everyone can build their skills towards the goal of more flow, in body, in mind, in group or isolation, in work and in play. Ultimately, in life.

This is the natural segway to introduce some contemporary work by another psychologist of note. John Vervaeke, and some of his recent attempts to present these ideas to a mass audience. And who’s polymath interests and subject cross-pollinations have certainly influenced me.

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John Vervaeke

John Vervaeke PhD is described on his YouTube channel as an award-winning lecturer at the University of Toronto in the departments of psychology, cognitive science and Buddhist psychology. Amongst his contemporary series of work three presents detailed psychologically relevant material that make reference to flow:

The elusive I further introduces concepts such as recursive resonance realisation which I will revisit in later blogs.

Flow in meditative practice

During the early days of the Covid Crisis, Vervaeke launched a meditative series that combined his cognitive science teachings and practices of meditation and contemplation. The third lesson (dharma day) addresses flow, as part of the initial setting up of any meditative practice. The whole practice being taught (lessons one through to ten) ultimately become a basic series of meditative practice intended to slowly train the mind to become more agile between externally focused contemplative focus, and inner meditative practice. This practice intentionally becoming gradually and increasingly a skilled discipline of increasing challenge that requires modal agility between extremes of inner and external address. In lesson six he advises cognitive science is indicating it is this observational modality that offers the benefits with mindfulness, a very effective way of gaining new insight.

Awaking from the meaning crisis – series

This is an epic series of lectures. Ideas of flow but a small part of much wider reaching ideas. Flow features in the following episodes.

Meaning Crisis Part 1. Meaning is a key to life.

What wisdom connects life meaning and self-transcendence? Building on the ideas of shifting the mind early roles of Shaman, flow state, mystical experience and subset as awakening experiences this episode reflects upon sources of meaning and insight which can be compared to the Csikszentmihalyi referenced stretching of boundary conditions of our ordinary perception.

Meaning Crisis part 2 Flow as a metaphor

Being in the zone. Demanding tasks that go just beyond the skill state. Skill improvements and increasing challenge are presented as being the basic engagement qualities that keep us focused on virtual realities – flow state being central to the video game. This is presented as a deeply positive experience. Which Vervaeke argues this to be a directly connected experience akin to what is sought in finding meaning in life.

Vervaeke’s suggestion (00:27:15) is the three means of gaining the better insight are the same three factors that enable flow state: clear feedback; tight coupling with environment; and error matters. He argues that implicit learning and flow sit in the same conditions of cognitive effectiveness. And these become self reinforcing. Because these insights are intuitive the sense of loss of self can be disconcerting or in the Shaman context “otherly”. In cognitive science this is parts of the brain talking that otherwise do not. The metaphor “to bridge”, reflected upon language as a means share meaningful experience. Better language becomes intertwined with metaphor – which is revisited in Part 3 as language complexifies to enhance trust in the message and how in touch this is with reality. All aiding to the possibility of the flow state.

Part 9 – Insight

Mindfulness introduced as the means to use attentional scaling between inner detail and external reality and back. Optimising between the two enables prajna or non-duality to bring an enhanced realness and meaning. Higher states of flow. [The more expanded exploration of these concepts referenced in the meditative series highlighted above.]

Part 10 – Consciousness

Salience landscape cf.  Wallace L Matson “sentience”.  The salience of information is what Matson calls ‘sizing up’.  This is a ‘featurisation’ and ‘foregrounding’ in a recurring process that configures i.e., figurisation, all recurring until the problem is suitably framed.  This dynamical system has three or four levels of recurrence becoming a highly textured and flowing landscape of problem framing.

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How can we move our teams into flow state?

Returning now to the question which prompted this outline of flow. There are key characteristics described which can be reset against our engagements as teams, and in broader context, how we perform collectively or opposed in project environments.

Csikszentmihalyi present two key factors which can be considered in any project setting, of which I split the needed control as a third:

First, nurturing autotelic traits

First the traits of the autotelic personality. Heightened concentration; lost self-consciousness; a sense that skill set is adequate in ability, relevant to task, and under control (Csikszentmihalyi pp71).

Second, providing situational arenas of flow

Second is the situational conditions that encourage flow states. Which Csikszentmihalyi describes by way of the boundary condition of one form of our ordinary perception being challenged. Such as the competition between players, the means of contemplating future outcome; acuity toward the specific information of relevance without distraction; or the means to temporarily live as another to expand perspective.

Third, create flow channels via the right kinds of control

Thirdly, is the manner of keeping the balance of skills demands and challenge to keep teams in the flow channel. Given the key needs of focus, freedom to be, and the sense of psychological safety to be at the edge of skills to challenge, this increases the need to have clarity on appropriate control. Control in this context presented as by Csikszentmihalyi as rule-bound action system with clear clues as to the quality of performance of task. To which Vervaeke might argue is necessarily focused upon clear feedback; tight coupling with environment; and a retained sense of error rates matter.

The conditions for flow restated as v | b | t

Visibility | b | t

autotelic need for clarity of goal; observe and analyse their surroundings objectively, they have a better chance of discovering in them new opportunities for action; situational need for a real time acuity and wider context; closeness of leadership to action to retain the visibility to offer the necessary feedback and checking for error and regular feedback.

v | behaviour | t

autotelic heightened concentration; situational sense that skill set is adequate in ability; enabling adaptability for retained tight coupling with environment; shared vigilance and retained sense of error rates matter; necessarily presenting means for self-management, developing skills over time, and means to not interrupt project momentum when in the right flow channel. This would also mean the checking and feedback was also adaptable, and task challenge and skill orientated to enable project learning, team development, and means to measure, maintain, and improve.

v | b | trust

the autotelic traits all demand a heightened sense of trust. A trust in each other. A trust that focus on the task is not at the expense of missed danger from outside. A trust that mistakes are to be called out early, dealt with and corrected, against clear metrics, and fair feedback and recognised betterment in time. Trust that allows lost self-consciousness is to have psychological safety, trust in the shared respect of peers, and trust in the transparency of leadership upholding the standards to which all are equally judged. A team in flow, in the flow channel, is high energy, but necessarily making and correcting mistakes. Trust must also be shared and enable anxiety at challenge to quickly be reassured by the action orientated correction. This is therefore tied into the clarity of rules, training, and governance, that enables the sense that skill set is adequate in ability, current and therefore relevant to task, and under corrective control.

Concluding remarks

How many of us in construction, or wider project management per se, can read these descriptions of a state of flow and see our project environments and controls encouraging these traits? Who reads the Construction Playbook and see this environment being developed at our next generation of projects are born? Who amongst us sees the command and control manner of management as harnessing these flow channels to match challenge to skills?

These concepts are not new. But the questions are asked regularly and anew. Phrases I have in mind are notions of being like “a military operation” or “like a machine” or “acting as one”. There is more to say here, more to compare. Notably the striking similarity some of these traits reflect when describing the traits of the HRO (High Reliability Organisation).

HROs and Flow is a write for another day. For now, perhaps I need some feedback of my own. And a moment to regain my flow…

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here: