During my freshman year of college, my sister told me about a trilogy I had to read. I was skeptical—she was only 11—but I agreed to give the first one a try. I ended up devouring the whole series in a weekend.
When I finished the last page of the third Harry Potter book, I felt exhilarated… and then dejected. I had gotten so absorbed in the story that I forgot Hogwarts wasn’t real.
That year, I read a beautiful book by psychologist Mihaly “Mike” Csikszentmihalyi that gave me a vocabulary to understand my experience. He called it flow, the state of total absorption in an activity. In his research, Mike found that although we regularly describe flow as an ideal state of being, we’re rarely aware of it in the moment. When you’re in the zone, you might not notice that it’s a peak experience until you’re out of it.
Flow helped me see why I gravitated toward activities that seemed to have nothing in common—from reading and writing to playing Mario Kart and Ultimate Frisbee. All my favorite hobbies catapulted me into a state of flow. I was hooked. I didn’t just want to find more flow; I wanted to study how we could all experience it more often. Mike’s scholarship was one of my first inspirations to become a psychologist.
In 2003, shortly before I graduated from college, I went to a conference and found myself sitting at dinner with a group of luminaries in psychology that included Mike himself. His peers spent the whole time talking about themselves and their work. He took an interest in learning about the students and their interests. I never spoke with him again.
This month, Mike passed away at age 87. He was an intellectual giant—a brilliant scholar and a constant force for creativity and curiosity. He was also a class act. A few years ago, when a group of my students chose Flow for their class book club, I went out on a limb and sent him their questions. I was struck by his generosity in responding to them all, his humility in acknowledging what he still didn’t know after a half century of research, and his practical wisdom in offering actionable advice. If Hogwarts was real, Mike would have been the headmaster.
He explained that as your skills increase, you can keep finding flow by raising the level of challenge. But he also stressed that there’s more to life than flow. “Although the flow you get from playing high stakes poker might be as deep and rewarding as the flow you get from finding a way to help a person in need, the long-term consequences are bound to be different.”
Mike believed in leading a life of passion, but he also cared deeply about living with a sense of purpose. I can’t think of a better way to honor his memory than to look beyond our own peak experiences and help others find flow.