Croskey’s Corner: Enthusiasm
Have you ever lost track of time? On an ideal summer afternoon, you might experience this. You get engrossed in a leisurely activity in which your focus is pretty much solely on what you are doing. You are oblivious to your surroundings. Or, you are a video gamer and you get completely involved in the game as you reach Level 257, the farthest you’ve ever gone. Or maybe you are a runner; you fight through the heat or the rain and really achieve a pace and momentum which feels great. You feel like you could run forever. We call it a “runner’s high.” Perhaps you are an artist or crafter. You find a project which occupies your whole mind. Once you get into it, you are full of passion, gone from this reality. We say that you are “in the zone.” Perhaps music does that to you. Heck, it can even happen in a job for which you are paid. What I am trying to picture for you is a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. This is a state which the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced, according to him, as “chicks send me high”) refers to as “Flow.”
When we find an activity that allows us to achieve a state of Flow, we can express interest and excitement in what we do. This last is our working definition of Enthusiasm. The opposite of Enthusiasm is Apathy. Csíkszentmihályi has aspects of his Flow theory that explain Apathy and its relationship to Enthusiasm.
Many of life’s tasks can be thought of on two spectrums: one is a range from Low Challenging to Medium Challenging to Highly Challenging. The other spectrum offers a path from tasks that require Little Skill to those which require a Medium amount of Skill to those which demand that we be Highly Skilled.
There are, thus, four combinations of Skill and Challenge.
1. You can be faced with a Highly Challenging task for which you are only slightly skilled. For me, this would be playing a round of golf. That state can create Anxiety for you as you are overwhelmed.
2. Or, you can face a situation where you find that task is not up to the skill level you possess and is therefore not challenging. This might describe LeBron James playing on a Third-grade basketball team. That creates a feeling of Boredom.
3. At another time you might be in a situation where your skills are low and the challenge is low; that is Csíkszentmihályi’s definition of Apathy. This is my situation in a very simple video game. I have low skills but also the game is very simple. I am Apathetic toward the task and the challenge.
So, there are High Skill-Low Challenge situations (Boredom); Low Skill-High Challenge situations (Anxiety); and Low Skill-Low Challenge situations (Apathy).
4. Finally, the ideal is a situation where your skills are rather evenly matched with the challenge level of the task. You are invigorated by the task because it seems difficult but worth the effort. You are well placed to achieve a state of Flow. I would suggest that Enthusiasm follows naturally with Flow.
OK, Character lessons can often feel like sermons or demands that we will ourselves to be “good.” I am suggesting that practicing the Character Quality of Enthusiasm is more a matter of choosing situations which will offer the possibility of achieving a state of Flow. If you are in a situation that promises to leave you Apathetic, or Bored, or Anxious, you might well have difficulty achieving a GENUINE feeling of Enthusiasm. The Character Council is not wishing that there will be a lot of community members wandering around town pretending to enjoy something they hate. So, instead, try a new activity or task. But instead of pretending to find it interesting, try to find the part of it where your skills match the challenge. You will have a better chance of achieving that state we call Flow. And your Enthusiasm is more likely to be honest.