The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

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Being in flow

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has done extensive research into the concept of “flow,” which is variously described as full immersion, or complete enjoyment or absorption in one’s activities or peak experience, uses the term “autotelic” to refer to action that is rewarding in and of itself, and is done at least in part for this reason (1997). Certainly, there is an autotelic element in what Juleen describes as being immersed in movement, but I do not think that such an element implies that there is no experience of the self: when one is fully immersed in an action, it is the self that is fully immersed.

David Velleman argues that because experts are in flow, peak performance involves the suspension of evaluative judgment. He quotes Csikszentmihalyi’s work in support:
In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. “Why am I doing this? Should I perhaps be doing something else?” Repeatedly we question the necessity of our actions, and evaluate critically the reasons for carrying them out. But in flow there is no need to reflect, because the action carries us forward as if by magic. (Velleman 2008: p. 186, quoting Csikszentmihalyi 1990: p. 54)
And he also relies on Csikszentmihalyi’s research to support his view that in expert action awareness of the self disappears. Quoting again from Csikszentmihalyi:
One of the most universal and distinctive features of optimal experience [is that] people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing…[This involves] a loss of consciousness of the self. (Csikszentmihalyi 1990: p. 53.)
But does Csikszentmihalyi’s research, which is based the "experience sampling method," wherein at random times during the day subjects are prompted to write down what they are doing and what they are thinking about and then rate their state of consciousness, show that expert action is unreflective and involves no awareness of the self?

As Csikszentmihalyi himself makes clear, his research is not an investigation into peak performance, but rather an investigation into peak experience. And these two might not always line up. First off, in contrast to autotelic actions, I think that in expert performance, actions are sometimes not rewarding in and of themselves, but are performed because they might lead to a future reward, such as winning a tournament or even improving. Second, as I have been emphasizing throughout the book, expert action does not and should not carry us forward as if by magic. In some types of expert actions, there might not be much time to ponder questions such as “Why am I doing this?” and “should I be doing something else?” (though as we’ve already seen in Chapter 5 and will see again in Chapter 11, in high speed actions, there is still some time to think and ponder); however, answering such questions seems to be a very important part of writing expertise: “Why am I putting this idea here?” “Might it not be better in an earlier section of the paper?” “Should I be giving a definition here rather than simply an illustration?” Repeatedly questioning the necessity of our actions and critically evaluating the reasons for carrying them out is helpful in creating a good piece of writing, and perhaps this is why writing is particularly un-autotelic.

Dreyfus and Kelly (2011a) ponder whether part of the reason David Foster Wallace was unable to find meaning in his life was that he was incapable of simply standing back and letting things happen; he was incessantly analyzing his writing. I’ll return to the topic of finding meaning in your life in Chapter 12; however, for now I simply point out that given that Kelly and Dreyfus see Foster Wallace as a great writer, might it not be that, far from interfering in optimal writing, his incessant questioning is what led to his greatness?

Of course, if what Csikszentmihalyi means by interrupting our actions with doubts and questions is that we are wondering why we should be doing this at all—for example, if I were to start wondering whether I should train to be a pastry chef rather than trying to write a book—this is probably not conducive (and is even detrimental) to optimal performance, as well as optimal experience. However, the former types of doubts, I think, are often quite conducive to optimal performance.

In flow, Csikszentmihalyi tells us, actions are spontaneous, and one stops being aware of the self as separate from the action; it is like Yeats’ (1928) dancer becoming her dance. Yes, this sounds lovely and enjoyable, and I do not doubt that some of our most intrinsically pleasurable actions involve such spontaneity (even if afterwards you might look back and say, why didn’t I think before I acted!). However, I do not think that this melding of the self into the action is necessarily characteristic of expert performance. The cello player I quoted in Chapter 4, Inbal Segev, told us that she was trained to avoid letting the music lead her, and instead to direct it; similarly, the dancer needs to direct his movement. Perhaps the audience can’t tell the dancer from the dance, but the dancer knows. I wonder if Yeats ever danced?112

Moreover, even when experts are in what Csikszentmihalyi characterizes as flow, they still seem to be engaging their minds, for as Csikszentmihalyi sees it, “intense concentration [is], perhaps the defining quality of flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014: p. 92). And intense concentrate is neither thoughtless nor effortless. And Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999), argue that skilled athletes in flow often are deeply aware of their movements as they are executing them in performance situations and, moreover, they suggest that “without self-awareness an athlete misses important cues that can lead to a positive change in performance” (p. 105). So, even ignoring the fact that Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow applies to optimal experience rather than optimal performance, he does not seem to think that individuals in flow are performing in an unminded way. Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999) argued that “without self-awareness an athlete misses important cues that can lead to a positive change in performance” (p. 105).

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