I managed to achieve “flow” this morning. This is not, I should clarify, an admission of prostate problems, but rather a celebration of having achieved a cognitive state so engrossing that several hours passed without my noticing. The notion of flow was originated by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, but it’s a state of mind that we all (hopefully) get to experience from time to time, either in our work or while we’re engaged in a favorite hobby. The key to achieving flow is “just manageable challenge”: that is, the task we are trying to achieve has to be one that is not so easy that it seems routine nor so difficult that it becomes frustrating. Flow exists at the upper edge of our skill set.
So what was my flow experience? I was trying to develop a simple web resource that would help people who are learning a second language. This has been on my mind because for the past ten months I’ve been studying Arabic. The web resource that I envisioned was one where a user could put his or her mouse over each and every word in a passage (of Arabic) and a small pop-up window would appear that explained the meaning and grammar of the word (all without navigating the user from the original web page). When I couldn’t find such a resource on the web, I set about to create one. The task was one that challenged both my language skills (i.e. defining the Arabic words and annotating their grammar in the given sentence) and also my technical skills (i.e. creating a script for the pop-ups, finding a way to have the web page simultaneously display the English from right to left, and the Arabic from left to right, and so on) . For me, this challenge was just manageble — and thus I experienced the rapture of flow.
Incidentally, you can see the the Arabic web resource that I’ve begun to develop here.