Book review – Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

People call it different things: being in the zone, flowing, hyperclarity—the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi goes over this phenomenon and how to achieve it.

You can probably think of a few experiences when you were in the zone. Shooting baskets and you’re going lights out. Giving a presentation or introducing yourself to some people you want to meet and everything you say is just killing it—maybe even surprising yourself on how you’re coming up with all that stuff.

This book goes over the science of “flow” and how people can reach it, or not reach it.

What is flow

He argues that flow is achieved when a person does something where he or she has 1) a high level of challenge in the task, and 2) a high level of skill.

Low challenge and low skill leads to boredom. Low challenge and high skill leads to relaxation, and it’s nice to take breaks now and then, but if you’re reading this blog, probably you’re not the kind to just sit around all day. High challenge and low skill leads to anxiety.

But, high skill and high challenge is what gets people in “the zone”, or what he calls flow.

Think about it. Think back to your first 70 or 80+ hour week. Maybe that’s on top of studying for one of the CFA Program exams. Yes, maybe it sucked at times. But, at least for me, my productivity was the highest it’s ever been. And afterwards, when the weekend comes by, it’s a feeling like you got something big done and you can let loose.

Then compare that to your slow weeks. Maybe checking your Facebook feed. Hear about that basketball game? Oh look, more misinformed stock market opinions on CNBC. I wonder if I left early today if anyone would notice…

Cool story bro.

Read autobiographies like Made in America by Sam Walton, or The First Billion is the Hardest by T. Boone Pickens. The concept of a 40 hour work week straight up didn’t exist in the minds of those people. I’ve said this before, but I’d rather work long hours doing something that I like than work 40 hours doing something that I don’t.

What prevents flow

Direct quote from the book:

“At certain times in history cultures have taken it for granted that a person wasn’t fully human unless he or she learned to master thoughts and feelings. In Confucian China, in ancient Sparta, in Republican Rome, in the early Pilgrim settlements of New England, and among the British upper classes of the Victorian era, people were held responsible for keeping a tight rein on their emotions. Anyone who indulged in self-pity, who let instinct rather than reflection dictate actions, forfeited the right to be accepted as a member of the community.”

This goes against a lot of modern culture, where people are taught self-esteem instead of self-discipline. Oh well. As historian Will Durant put it, “A nation is born stoic, and dies epicurean.”

Doing idle activities doesn’t get you into flow. The book specifically mentioned TV, saying “Not surprisingly, people report some of the lowest levels of concentration, use of skills, clarity of thought, and feelings of potency when watching television.”

I’d add to the list: mindlessly scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed, reading tripe on Buzzfeed or Gawker, or trying to “win” a comment war (seriously?) on the mainstream news website of your choice.


Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a thought-provoking book, and I highly recommend it. It may be the cold slap in the face that you need to make sure your thoughts, words, and actions are in alignment.

Want to start your own fund one day? Want to do some original quant/fundamental/economic research that nobody else has covered? Really, more to the point, what to do something that you actually want to do? Yep, watching that next episode on Netflix or watching YouTube videos of cats aren’t going to get you there.

Check out the book.

-Alex Cook