Monday night, I came home from work and stumbled straight into the kitchen. I flipped on the light and opened the fridge, throwing ingredients frantically onto the counter. I was breaking all of my cooking rules: don’t cook when hungry, tired, in work clothes, or grumpy. I was all of the above. But I kept going. 1/4 c peanut butter, 1/4 c coconut milk, chopped ginger, chopped garlic.
Not long ago, after a busy day like today, I would have opted for a fast skillet dish or pasta, or (if really desperate), cereal. But tonight was different. After three weeks of working two jobs, getting sick twice, and feeling unmotivated, I realized something had to change. I thought maybe of dropping a day of work. I thought of fighting for more sleep, eating more vegetables. Then I read an article by Marissa Mayer and realized the answer was not in taking things away, but in adding something.
Avoiding burnout isn’t about getting three square meals or eight hours of sleep. It’s not even necessarily about getting time at home. I have a theory that burnout is about resentment. And you beat it by knowing what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful. I tell people: Find your rhythm, understand what makes you resentful, and protect it. You can’t have everything you want, but you can have the things that really matter to you. And thinking that way empowers you to work really hard for a really long period of time.
Monday’s recipe wasn’t the greatest, but I was determined to get back into my rhythm. Cooking from scratch was the thing I had been giving up and I needed it back. I didn’t have all the ingredients I needed, I had to improvise, and I was even more exhausted at the end. But cooking this meal and sharing it with my housemate was a small attempt to protect what matters to me. Read Mayer’s full thoughts here (2 min read).
How do you identify the thing in your life that needs protecting?
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might suggest looking for a “creative problem” to solve. This, he writes, will bring you to a place of flow, a state of consciousness where one is perfectly balanced between boredom and anxiety, perfectly matched between skills and challenge, and so intrigued that they lose all sense of time. According to Csikszentmihalyi, our brains are always caught between entropy (the desire to conserve energy) and the urge to use energy creatively. Happiness, he seems to suggest, comes from knowing when to resist those entropic urges and embrace creativity instead. We might not feel happy embracing a new challenge, but the happiness that comes from creative problem-solving is more lasting than that which comes from pursuing mere pleasure or comfort.
True flow is not just a detachment from the passing of time. It’s about finding labor that taps into our inherent desire to participate in discovery, to make something new.
Flow, and what it can mean for how we understand happiness, is important not just for the individual. While finding your “flow zone” can help you find meaningful work or energizing hobbies (that prevent burnout), it’s also important for society at large. This is because finding pleasure in the right things does not come naturally. We gain our vision of the good life, of pleasure from our families and from society at large:
“Children grow up believing that football players and rock singers must be happy and envy the stars of the entertainment world for what they think must be fabulous, fulfilling lives. Asked what they would like to do when they grow up, most of them would choose to be athletes and entertainers […] Neither parents nor schools are very effective at teaching the young to find pleasure in the right things. Adults, themselves often deluded by infatuation with fatuous models, conspire in the deception. They make serious tasks seem dull and hard, and frivolous ones exciting and easy. Schools generally fail to teach how exciting, how mesmerizingly beautiful science or mathematics can be; they teach the routine of literature or history rather than the adventure.”
Echoing Plato in his belief that a rightly-ordered understanding of pleasure requires discipline and wisdom, Csikszentmihalyi calls on creative individuals to cast a new vision of pleasure:
“It is in this sense that creative individuals live exemplary lives. They show how joyful and interesting complex symbolic activity is. They have struggled through marshes of ignorance, deserts of disinterest, and with the help of parents and a few visionary teachers, they have found themselves on the other side of the known. They have become pioneers of culture, models for what men and women of the future will be — if there is to be a future at all.”
Read more about this and the nine conditions for flow, in this excerpt from his book, Creativity, or watch his TedTalk here. Speaking of cultivating a love of creative challenge children, read this article on why smart devices should be banned for children under 12. Just think, the less time they’re on their phone, the more time they could spend learning something new, like, say setting a new women’s record in rock climbing. Just a thought.