As I dive deeper into passion, I’m frequently asked: “isn’t this just another term for Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of “flow?” Indulge me with a brief detour before I answer this question more directly.
Leaving rules behind - exploring the edge in extreme sports
Since the 1980s, a feud has raged between skiers and snowboarders, resulting in apartheid on slopes all over the world. In the US, Alta Ski Area, Deer Valley and Mad River Glen in Vermont snowboarding has been banned altogether.
Douglas Rushkoff’s 2006 book Screenagers: Lessons in Chaos from Digital Kids boils the hostility down to etiquette:
They don’t even take lessons. They wear weird clothes, talk like surfers, and represent a complete break from the time-honored tradition of skiing. And if that weren’t enough, they seek out the bumps and avoid the smooth straightaways.
Rushkoff points out that “boarding” had become endemic in sporting subcultures in a digital age. He calls surfers “children of chaos,” as athletes whose chosen field is not subject to the measure, manicure and temperature control enjoyed by almost any other sport. The ocean is complex and unpredictable (dynamical to use Rushkoff’s term), and the surfers who ride it do not have the pretence of “taming” it. They prefer the unpredictability of the edge.
Surfing may have started the trend, but young people everywhere have embraced its chaos-ethics, as with snowboarders who prefer the lawless mountains, and skateboarders who similarly challenge themselves to “make the most of a particular set of surfaces”—in this case the contours of the urban landscape. The key distinction between extreme and traditional sports involves the place of “rules.” For young athletes today, there are none. Their practices push them to the edges of a society who deems them “punks”—uncomprehending of the staggeringly high level of skill these so-called punks develop.
Because the ethics of board sports are so rooted in pushing limits and breaking rules, theirs is a culture of one-upmanship, where athletes attempt to outdo one another and set the bar ever higher for others. In skateboarding, there is a thriving culture of both underground and sponsored low-budget videos where kids film one another attempting perilous stunts in urban environments, spreading the footage virally through the skating community and establishing a DIY catalog of tricks for others to master and emulate. The 2002 video, “PJ Ladd’s Horrible Wonderful Life,” (today one of the most well-known skate videos in history), is a classic example of amateurs who can become underground cult heroes and innovators of technique:
Ladd’s technique in this video has been considered by many to be “visionary.” One reviewer writes, “This video is essential viewing for anybody that wants to see where skating is going.” (Emphasis mine).
Now try to imagine a similar thing being said of traditional team sports. Though athletes of incredible talent and super-human skill may command a mythos within different sports cultures (Michael Jordan in basketball, Babe Ruth in baseball and Roger Federer in tennis, to name a few), they are considered more than anything masters of their craft—innovators within it perhaps—but they were all ultimately confined by the pre-made rules of their sport. Jordan, Ruth and Federer, unlike Ladd, didn’t exactly take their sport anywhere.
Similarities between passion and flow in the moment
Having made this detour, let me now more directly respond to the question about the similarities and differences between passion and Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s theory of “flow.” There are certainly many similarities between Csíkszentmihályi’s concept and my own.
Flow describes an “optimal experience,” which is frequently felt by those pursuing their passion. When someone is in flow, they concentrate deeply on “the moment,” caught up in the pleasure and challenge of an immediate task; they clear their minds of all else. Both flow and passion welcome this state because it offers intrinsic satisfaction and enjoyment in our everyday lives. However, the differences become apparent as soon as one moves beyond the moment itself and attempts to identify the factors that lead up to “optimal experience.”
Differences between passion and flow - the context
Csíkszentmihályi emphasizes that in order to achieve flow, we must pick goals that have meaning (in either our personal or professional lives), determine the structure it sets out for us (the terms of both games and work), and then play by rules. In other words, Csíkszentmihályi prefers we stay in-bounds and are well-behaved on the courts, slopes and fields.
One finds more occasions of [flow] on the job than in free time . . . this finding is not that surprising. What often passes unnoticed is that work is much more like a game than most other things we do during the day. It usually has clear goals and rules of performance. . . Thus, work tends to have the structure of other intrinsically rewarding activities that provide flow, such as games, sports, music, and art. (59, Finding Flow.)
And elsewhere he writes:
Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate response. It is easy to enter flow in games such as chess, tennis, or poker, because they have goals and rules for action that make possible for the player to act without questioning what should be done, and how. (29, Finding Flow)
An example of this sporting mindset appears in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, where Csíkszentmihályi cites the example of a factory worker named Rico Medellin. Csíkszentmihályi explains, “The task he has to perform on each unit that passes in from of his station should take forty-three seconds to perform—the same exact operation almost six hundred times in a working day” (Flow, 39). Rico manages to enjoy this laborious and monotonous work 5 years into the job because he approaches it like a game—attempting daily to beat his own record. Playing by the rules of the game is cited time and again as a key access point for achieving flow—and Rico has certainly mastered this.
Csíkszentmihályi tends to focus on the problem of psychic disorder, the chaos of psychic entropy and, in this context, views flow as an effective way to bring order to the natural state of psychic entropy – it is about imposing order to make progress. MC defines the autotelic personality as “the ability to create flow experience even in the most barren environment” (149, Flow), where, “In theory, any job could be changed as to make it more enjoyable by following the prescriptions of the flow model” (154, Flow).
To say, then, that Rico actually enjoys his job is misleading. Rico has merely managed to make his job bearable by ordering his consciousness through rule-making and goal-setting, which makes it possible for him to forget, in the moment, everything else (in Rico’s case, I imagine that would include working on an assembly line for 5+ years). Rico’s process may be an exemplar of Csíkszentmihályi’s “optimal experience,” but he as the antithesis of the passionate one. To mistake the two is to mistake “coping,” with “thriving.”
Passion is not about finding work bearable. It is the process by which people get in touch with their true loves in life and fearlessly pursue them, motivated by the opportunities and spaces for development, which often require that they ignore any rules that get in their way of achieving that potential. It is about love.
Like flow, increasing “complexity” and seeking challenge is typical of pursuing passion but the motivation behind these endeavors have crucial differences: where Csíkszentmihályi would have us tame chaos and uncertainty, passion energizes us to embrace dynamic systems and explore the unknown. How can we take ourselves where we are going?
Back to the edge
The emergent star of the 2010 Olympics was surely snowboarder Shaun White for his daring move, the “Double McTwist 1260.” What astonished viewers and boarders alike was the fact that no one had done this before (at least at the level of international exposure). White had already secured the gold before this drastic stunt—a fact that might have prompted others to “play it safe.” But White dared to push the boundaries nevertheless. Accepting medals on podiums may be reward enough for some, but for a boarder as dedicated as White, the passionate drive to explore new possibilities was far too tempting. Watch the White’s great Olympic moment here.
We shouldn’t be too surprised after this display that a number of snowboarders were already showing off their own versions of the Double McTwist 1260 at the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships only about a month after White made set the bar. White, however, was conspicuously absent from the event. As the New York Times reports, he’s taking it to the streets—setting plans for a competitive skateboard season where he plans to develop some new tricks. Among them the 1080, “a maneuver that has never been landed in a skateboarding competition.”