Practical analysis for investment professionals
19 August 2016

Weekend Reads: Attaining “Flow,” Being Wrong, and “Why Sports Die”

Posted In: Weekend Reads

I spend a lot of time thinking about work and what it takes to thrive in one’s chosen profession. In short, to be happy and content. Likewise, about what it takes to make the leap and reinvent oneself in a second or third career. I’ve seen talented people wither in one career, and then thrive in another. What was it that emboldened them to make the leap? Many people labor for years in misery because they lack the conviction to make a change. Yet others find what they love to do and can’t believe their good fortune that they actually get paid to do it.

So I was intrigued recently when I stumbled upon an article in The New York Times by economist Robert H. Frank, “The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love,” that mentioned a concept I hadn’t given much thought to: “flow.” Frank says the happiness literature has identified flow as “one of the most deeply satisfying human psychological states.” As he explains, “It occurs when you are so immersed in an activity that you lose track of the passage of time. If you can land a job that enables you to experience substantial periods of flow, you will be among the most fortunate people on the planet. What’s more, as the years pass, you will almost surely develop deep expertise at whatever it is you’ve been doing.”

It seems obvious, but I hadn’t really thought about satisfying work in this way until I read the article. It also led me to wonder more about the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

As he tells it in a 2004 TED Talk (that examines the question: “What makes a life worth living?”), Csikszentmihalyi grew up in Europe and was a young boy during World War II. He was puzzled by how few adults he knew were able to withstand the tragedies of the war, and became interested in understanding what contributed to a life that was worth living.

It was a chance encounter with Carl Jung that led him into the field of psychology. Finding himself low on money at a ski resort in Switzerland, Csikszentmihalyi picked up a newspaper and read about a forthcoming presentation in Zurich on flying saucers. 

I thought, well, since I can’t go to the movies, at least I will go for free to listen to flying saucers. And the man who talked at that evening lecture was very interesting. Instead of talking about little green men, he talked about how the psyche of the Europeans had been traumatized by the war, and now they’re projecting flying saucers into the sky. He talked about how the mandalas of ancient Hindu religion were kind of projected into the sky as an attempt to regain some sense of order after the chaos of war. And this seemed very interesting to me. And I started reading his books after that lecture. And that was Carl Jung, whose name or work I had no idea about.”

Later he came to the United States to study psychology and the roots of happiness.

Which brings me back to where I started this post: the connection between work and happiness, and making choices that lead to increased happiness.

“Few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it,“ Csikszentmihalyi writes in Flow. “’He who desires but acts not,’ wrote [William] Blake with his accustomed vigor, ‘Breeds pestilence.’”

Here are some other articles I’ve come across recently that may be of interest:

  • In “Growth Without Goals,” Patrick O’Shaughnessy, CFA, writes about the experience of wondering what it would take to be a great father and, more specifically, what he could teach his children that would help them live good, fulfilling lives. “Inventing the future is another way of saying ‘setting goals,” he writes. “Success, especially in the West, then becomes about achieving those goals. We accumulate accomplishments and call it success. Success means something very different to me, and I think being a great father will be about effectively communicating this different definition of success to my kids. Success is about building a set of daily practices, it is about growth without goals. Continuous, habitual practice(s) trumps achievement-based success.” As for where he sees himself in five years? “Goals still sneak their way into my brain. I try, but sometimes fail, to snuff them out. I am working on it. There is always that stupid interview question: where do you see yourself or your company in five years. Instead, we should ask, what things do you think are important to do every day?” (The Investor’s Field Guide)
  • I recently heard a radio interview with Olympian Frank Shorter about his book My Marathon, and it reminded me of a 2011 article from Runner’s World that led to “Frank’s Story.” Shorter won the gold medal in the marathon at the 1972 Summer Olympics and is credited with igniting the US jogging craze of the 1970s. But as the magazine article explains, there is much more to his story: “By all accounts, Frank Shorter is the father of the modern running boom. He spins a captivating narrative about winning the ’72 Olympic Marathon, leading the fight against illegal doping, and being the last person to see his friend Steve Prefontaine alive. The story he hasn’t told is the dark truth about his own father, a truth Shorter has run away from all his life but that ultimately has defined him as a runner, and as a man.” (Here & Now)
  • Barry Ritholtz recently sat down with Michael Mauboussin, author, managing director, and head of global financial strategies at Credit Suisse, for his Masters in Business series. In a wide-ranging interview, the two discuss freestyle chess, the work of Daniel Kahneman, luck versus skill, cognitive dissonance, Ritholtz’s pet peeve of people on television “blaming uncertainty for the economy, stock market, or whatever,” and some of the common behavioral biases, such as framing, overconfidence, anchoring, and confirmation bias. It’s long, but well worth sticking around for the full podcast. (Bloomberg Radio)
  • During the discussion, Mauboussin mentioned Kathryn’s Schulz’s book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, and it reminded me of her TED Talk on the same subject. Schulz is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She recently won a Pulitzer Prize for her July 2015 article, “The Really Big One,” about the rupturing of the Cascadia fault line. As editor David Remnick put it in the cover letter for the entry: “Few pieces have shaken readers as much as Kathryn Schulz’s on the Cascadian subduction zone. It is terrifically illuminating about its subject — the hows and whys and what-ifs. But it is also terrifically illuminating about the art of writing — the use of voice, image, and structure to turn lessons in civics and geology into a mind-blowing, heart-wrenching, pulse-pounding, hair-raising story.” (The New Yorker)
  • Oaktree’s Howard Marks, CFA, has a new memo that delves deeply into economic reality, Brexit, the US presidential election, and the implications for politics in the future. It’s long, so settle in with a good cup of coffee and a comfortable chair. (Memos from Howard Marks)
  • Richard Thaler’s take on Brexit? Poor choice architecture. (Financial Times)
  • One of my favorite magazines is NautilusNot only does it have beautiful original artwork, it also publishes some of the best content out there. (We are here to tell you about science and its endless connections to our lives.”) True to form, and in keeping with the spirit of Rio Olympics fever, comes “Why Sports Die.” Here’s an excerpt: “Sports are a human universal, found in every known culture,” writes Allen Guttmann, a professor of English and American studies at Amherst College, and author of The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games and From Ritual to Record. We can hardly imagine England without cricket or the United States without baseball, basketball, and football. Japan without sumo wrestlers is no longer Japan. Cultural change is another human universal. Over the millennia, cultures have emerged, flourished, declined, and disappeared. This cultural ebb and flow raises a question. What happens to a culture’s sports if that culture disappears? The answer is deceptively simple. When the culture disappears, its sports vanish.” I learned that Cherokee stickball is still played, but has been transformed and serves as a tourist attraction. And the Olympics connection? “The Olympics are yet another example of a reinvention so thorough that the original sport is played in name only. Ancient Greek culture did not vanish as did the cultures of Minoan Crete and pre-conquistador Mexico. Indeed, much of what the Greeks achieved is still with us. But the ancient Olympic Games did vanish. They were forbidden after the Roman Empire’s conversion from paganism to Christianity in the fourth century.”
  • In “The Riddle of the Wall Street Brain Drain,” Noah Smith, Bloomberg View columnist and a former assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, notes that a decade ago, “It seemed like everyone with a brain and big ambitions wanted to go to Wall Street,” and that this “flow of smart people to finance inevitably spurs talk of a brain drain that leaves other industries begging for skilled workers.” So, he asks, is it true that many of the brightest minds are being wasted? You’ll need to read the article to find out the answer. But there is one point I would make: The paragraph that jumped out at me was Smith’s description of the importance of finance. He writes, “Finance is absolutely essential to the functioning of a modern, productive economy, which needs to borrow many billions of dollars every day just to function. Corporations must issue bonds and sell stock to finance investment, startups need to do initial public offerings to raise the capital to grow, people need mortgages to buy houses and everyone needs a retirement-savings account. Without finance, the U.S. and most other countries would be much poorer.” It reminded me of something I heard when I was interviewing senior women in Hong Kong about the role of women in finance and the investment management industry. One of them, Rebecca Terner Lechtner, said: “The economy and understanding economics and the way business is done has lifted billions of people out of poverty. If you want to impact the world, finance is a great place to do it.” (Bloomberg View, CFA Institute)
  • And last, but not least, a few hilarious (and spurious) correlations for your amusement. (tylervigen.com)

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: iStockphoto.com/JLGutierrez

About the Author(s)
Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster is a content director on the professional learning team at CFA Institute and host of the Take 15 Podcast. She is the former managing editor of Enterprising Investor and co-lead of CFA Institute’s Women in Investment Management initiative. Lauren spent nearly a decade on staff at the Financial Times as a reporter and editor based in the New York bureau, followed by freelance writing for Barron’s and the FT. Lauren holds a BA in political science from the University of Cape Town, and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

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