The Joy is in the Work

I’m making my way through Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s great book Creativity again, and chapter 5, “The Flow of Creativity”, challenges me to examine some deep places in my life of creative work.   Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on the study of happiness–Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience–proposes that states and experiences of deep joy are very different that what we normally think of when we think of that which makes for happiness.  Weekend grilling, beach vacations, the various temptations of body that all seem to roll back the difficulties of life and create moments of ease and peace…these are things that are far from the world of what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.   (See the Wikipedia article for a condensed explanation of the various components of flow.)

Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention is based on interviews with ninety-one “exceptional” individuals, leaders of innovation and cultural change in a wide range of “domains.”  The list of interviewees is a Who’s Who of brilliance, some famous, some not, but all of whom have made deep and powerful contributions to the world in the sciences, the arts, the humanities, religion, sports, and business and economics.   The book is an exciting read for me–I love looking into the minds of these kinds of people–but it also brings me up short as I think about where I am in my own pursuit of creative work.  In this time of transition from full and part-time ministry to full-time freelance writing, acting, directing, and teaching, I am deeply entrenched in an evaluation of my values, my heart, and my motivations for the work.

Here’s the opening statement of chapter 5:

“Creative persons differ from one another in a variety of ways, but in one respect they are unanimous: They all love what they do.  It is not the hope of achieving fame or making money that drives them; rather it is the opportunity to do the work that they enjoy doing.  Jacob Rabinow explains: “You invent for the hell of it.  I don’t start with the idea, ‘What will make money?’  This is a rough world; money’s important.  But if I have to trade between what’s fun for me and what’s money-making, I’ll take what’s fun.”  The novelist Naguib Mahfouz concurs in more genteel tones: “I love my work more than I love what it produces.  I am dedicated to the work regardless of its consequences.”  We found the same sentiments in every single interview.”

Csikszentmihalyi then goes on to explain that it’s the process of discovery that is the most compelling aspect of flow, and that our “expansive” tendencies are balanced by “conservative” tendencies that favor the status quo largely because of entropy.

Why does all this talk of flow and fun and loving what you do bring me up short?

Truth is, what I love to do…what I know I love to do…isn’t as much fun as it once was.  What I mean by that can be captured by a phrase that I used to use all the time, almost mantra-like, not because I needed to, but because it was simply the truth of my understanding of things.  That phrase was the title of this blog post.  “The joy is in the work.”  To be fully engaged in discovery, in writing and acting and making moments, with all its passion and sweat and faulty starts and reworking, with its potential for all manner of success and failure…this is sheer joy if the whole heart–the whole person–is in it.

Discovery is a primary human action.   I have to say that one of my favorite things in the world is to work with actors in teaching situations.   I will always cherish the moments where actors young and old make discoveries of moments; small, profound, imaginative understandings of a character in action, and emotion and life and intelligence and need and desire move across their faces and bodies in waves that are strong enough to break your heart.   That’s why audiences around the world pay big money to watch stories of human beings in action, making discoveries of mind, soul, heart, and body, and making decisions of pursuit based on those discoveries.

What I know is that these days I’m not yet in the “flow” of the work I love to do.  I’m rusty, fighting back all the fears that naturally come with the territory.  But if I don’t want to take on the fears, I should just sit down and shut up, because it is part of the nature of the fun to work at that which challenges us to our very core, given that we have the faith that we can rise and meet that challenge.

Faith.  There’s that word again, the way of moving through the world for which we were designed.

Saturday afternoon, in the second act of Man of La Mancha, I made a discovery in the prison scene early in the act that propelled me powerfully through the rest of the play, and I was in a deeper state of flow than I’ve been in a long time.   Emotion both dark and light was close to the surface and the moments slammed into place with clarity and force.  It was sheer joy.  Did the audience get anything special that day?  I really don’t know.  But my faith is that if I’ll stay true to the process of discovery, the work will grow, get richer.

Push back the entropy…discover…pursue joyful work…for God’s glory and the needs of the work, the whole heart is required…

Your kingdom come…

One Reply to “The Joy is in the Work”

  1. When I’ve had the opportunity to go sailing I relished the simplicity of the whole thing. It’s nothing but God’s breath, and the shape of the sail that pulls the boat forward.

    When we would tack, that is change course, the transition would take our energy away. For a brief time the sail luffs, or flaps in the wind before it takes it’s new shape and the wind again pulled us forward from the other side, and in a new direction.

    I also learned that before you tack you must have momentum or else the process of changing direction could cause us to stop altogether. It would take longer to re-engage God’s breath, gain speed, and move forward again.

    I believe the source of flow for any artist of faith is of course God, and when we must change course and tack, I have always found it laden with questions, and loaded with new and incredibly exciting discoveries.

    Thank you, Jeff!

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