If you haven’t yet learned about the insights of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Mee-high Cheek-sent-mee-high”) regarding optimal and satisfying life experience, you’re missing out. People have been talking about his concept of “flow” since his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, was published in 1990. The basic idea is that when someone is “in the groove” and totally absorbed in an engaging activity, they typically experience a deep sense of satisfaction and enjoyment. He explains that to be in a flow state, we must balance the challenge of the task with our skill level. If the task is much too difficult for us, we will experience anxiety, but if it is well below our skill level, we will be bored. A rewarding engaged experience is found in progressively increasing challenge that can be met by increasing skill. The chart below depicts this.
“Flow” has been a foundational concept for me as I’ve developed my own thoughts about technology and craftsmanship. To choose hand tools is to choose engagement. We all know that there is reward in pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, but this can be taken to the extreme (like anything else). Physical exertion is healthy, but some fashionable workout routines seem to focus more on enduring brutality than on steady, progressive strength building. The rate of burnout is high with this kind of stuff when bodies and emotions go into despair as they cannot keep up.
But the point is not to kill yourself – it’s to grow. Flow researcher Steven Kotler explains that for optimal experience, the challenge should be 4% greater than your skill level. That is, the task should be just out of reach of your comfort zone. Now, if you’re like me, you’re asking yourself, “How in the world do I apply ‘4%’ more challenge to my time in the woodshop?” This is an abstract way to put it. I don’t typically think of hewing or paring joinery in terms of percentages of difficulty, though there’s something to this, I think.
It reminds me of a teaching concept in my oldest son’s writing curriculum: EZ+1. Jennifer Mauser of the Institute for Excellence in Writing explains: “To avoid overloading our students with too many expectations and in the process demoralizing them entirely, [Institute for Excellence in Writing] created a reminder for instructors. Calling it EZ+1, it is IEW’s mnemonic that helps us remember to give our students only one new stylistic technique at a time. Students want to do what they think they can do. If there is only one challenging element on that student’s checklist, he is much more willing to attempt it. When a student becomes overwhelmed, believing he cannot succeed, he is much more likely to either refuse to do the assignment at all or simply give it a broad sweep with his pen, never really attempting to expand his skills at all. It mirrors how we as adults respond when we are overburdened in our own lives.”
She then asks, “what does EZ+1 look like in a practical application?” and provides this easy-to-follow method: “Simply adjust your student’s checklist so that he is only working on one technique that challenges him at a time.” Working from a place of familiarity ensures that the one new variable can get enough attention so as not to overwhelm the student. This, in turn, tells you when it is wise to move to the next lesson. “Your student’s progress determines the pace, not the checklist.”
This insight is important for us woodworkers as we take the journey to learn new hand skills: our progress determines our pace. We’re all at different places on this path, but if you maintain the level of challenge “4%” above your skill level by cutting a little closer to the line, completing the task a hair quicker, or tweaking a bit of an existing design, you are likely to find that “flow” sweet spot in your shop work. Over time, as you practice “in the flow,” you will progressively gain competence, having a blast the whole time.
So, give it a shot. Push yourself a little outside your comfort zone. Get that blood pumping. Saw right on that line. The only way to get better is to choose engagement.