Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow serves as a useful introduction to the nature of fun.
There are many characteristic experiences that are associated with fun:
the sense of timelessness, of being at one (with mind and mountain), of
exhilaration, focus, immediacy. And all of these are characteristic of
what we, regardless of activity, call “fun.”
According to Dr. Mihaly
Csikszentmihalyi’s well-documented observations and research, and his
wide-scale gathering of personal observations, there is pretty much universal
agreement that when there isn’t a high correlation between the
challenge (the height of the mountain, depth of the dive) and the ability
to meet that challenge, fun is something we’re definitely not having.
The main dialog (dynamic), according to Mihaly “just call me Mike”
Csikszentmihalyi, is between Challenge and Ability. When the challenge
is greater than our abilities, we become anxious and potentially dead.
When the challenge is significantly less than that of which we are worthy,
we become bored, and potentially dead.
Maintaining the dynamic balance between abilities and challenge is key
to the fun experience in work. That is, keeping it dynamic. Making it
possible for anyone to find exactly the right amount of challenge needed
to engage exactly those abilities needed to access flow.Which means that
when something is fun we have created complex, but negotiable challenges, challenges
that allow the individual to engage or disengage, to play harder or play
So, there we have it: Fun defined as Flow, which is defined as a function
of the relationship between Challenge and Ability. (see this
for more about the attributes of Flow). Whether or not it is true, it
is definitely fun.
In my interpretation of Mike’s Flow model, every line is a vector (an
arrow). This is my way of symbolizing what Mike calls the tendency towards
“Complexity” – to increase the challenge, increase the range
of abilities, risk even deeper heights of anxiety, broader depths of boredom,
to access an ever more profound state of Flow.
The first time you jump into a swimming pool, for example, you’re probably
already too anxious to experience anything flowlike. Especially when you
don’t know how deep or how cold the water will be. And even more especially
when you don’t know how to swim.
You go to the shallowest end. Gently, you let yourself in (at the lower
end of your abilities). Next thing you know, you’re merrily splishing
and splashing, trying to impossibly run from one side to the other, and
flow is definitely what you are in.
Until you just get tired of it all. There’s still both splish and splash,
but you’re bored. And it’s not so fun. The very same water. And yet, no
Until some chemically-encoded perversity takes hold, and you decide to
get your head wet. Instant anxiety, and yet, a whole new world of challenge.
so on, and so on, challenge by challenge, stroke by stroke, between
boredom and anxiety, you wiggle your way into the deeper and colder and
more swiftly flowing waters, where the challenges become profound and
the demand absolute. And so you grow, from wader to diver, from mystery
to mastery, learning, extending your abilities. Your “flow channel”
widens as more abilities are engaged and deeper challenges faced. At
its widest, the channel incorporates the widest variety of possible
challenges and available skills. As you challenge yourself more, you
grow more, evolving ever more complex sets of skills and sensitivities,
meeting and engaging in more and more of the world, becoming an ever
more complete human being.
The High Bar
There’s an elegant model, called the “Slanty
developed by physical educator Muska Mosston that puts the concept of
individually negotiable challenge very clearly into practice.
If you’re a Phys Ed teacher, one of the things you do with kids is help
them develop their high-jumping skills. In “non-adaptive” Phys
Ed, the way you did this was to hold jumping contests. You’d hang a high
bar horizontal to a certain height and everybody would have to take a
turn jumping over the high bar. If they succeeded, they’d get to the next
round, and the high bar would be raised. The contest would continue until
only one person was left, and that person would be lavishly praised as
the one who established the high jump record for the class.
The problem with this kind of competitive incentive structure is that
the kids who need the most practice are the kids who get to jump the least
often. The worse they are at jumping, the sooner they’re out of the game.
Make the high bar diagonal instead of parallel to the ground. And let
everybody jump over any part of the high bar, and take as many turns as
they want. And what do you get?
Instead of the teacher, each kid sets his/her own challenge. The jumpers
who are not so good at jumping can still jump across the high bar as many
times as anyone else they just cross at a lower point. And, when they
feel the need to increase the challenge, they can just station themselves
at a higher part of the high bar.
No one is eliminated. No one is given prizes. Everyone wins. Repeatedly.
Slant the high bar
and the authority rolls right out of the hands of the teacher, out of,
actually, any one body’s hands, into everybody’s. The challenge (jump
as high as you can, and then jump higher) remains the same, but the challenger
has changed. It’s not the Phys Ed instructor who increases the challenge,
it’s the kids, themselves: the kids as a group, and the kids, individually.
A challenge that is determined by the individual player is more complex,
because it requires “reflective action.” The player must evaluate
not only his or her own success, but also the success of the challenge.
And even though they can get very competitive, the challenge is ultimately
self-selected, ultimately guided by sheer fun.
Without an external evaluator, each kid can devise and revise the challenge.
Of course, evaluation is going on, and whether the competition is inner-directed
or outer-directed, the fact is that the teacher, your fellow jumpers (both
higher and lower), your inner referee; somebody is evaluating your performance,
challenging you to challenge yourself.
Ideally, each kid should be seeking out his/her personal level of flow,
driven by the natural desire for complexity into a deeper and healthier
engagement with the relationships between the human body and gravity.
But, in fact, there’s still something about the way the task is framed
that draws the kids apart.
Even though nobody’s eliminated, even though everyone’s free to increase
or decrease the challenge, even though you don’t even have to take turns,
the fact is that the challenge is directed towards the individual.
With the focus on individual performance, on how high who jumps; the relationship
is fundamentally the same.
And what’s worse (or more complex), someone might be attaching meaning
to your performance, as if how high you can jump says something about
So, what if we completely redirected the challenge, away from the individual
and towards the group? What if the entire class tried to jump holding
hands? Or with their arms around each other’s shoulders? Or each other’s
Shifting the focus of the game away what they can do individually (ME),
we focus, also, on what the kids can do together (WE) – on collective
as well as individual performance.
To jump the Slanted Bar together, we need to make sure that each individual
kid is going to make it. Even though the challenge is to the group, there
are still plenty of challenges to the individual player. Each has to be
stationed at the right part of the high bar: too high and you might not
get over, too low, you might make it harder for someone else. Each has
to be able to ask for help, and provide help. Preparing for the big jump,
synchronizing the preparatory, simultaneous squat, each individual is
doubly challenged. And yet, not competing. Same slant, same task, but
fundamentally shifted experience.
Raising the high bar, you intensify the competitive relationship between
the diminishing few. The game, internally and externally, becomes one
of increasingly isolated MEs (the “winners”) against an increasingly
disempowered WE. Slant the High Bar, and the relationship relaxes, becomes
supportive, empowering, healthy, ME/WE.
Having Fun with Others
Now, merely by taking a few radical liberties with Csikszentmihalyi’s
Flow model, we cunningly arrive at a model for depicting the dynamics
of the experience of healthy, healing, fun relationships.
Instead of Challenge and Abilities, we draw the relationship between
As we learned from Mike’s concept of complexity, when we are having
When there is a dynamic balance between ME (each individual) and
Collectively, WE can redefine the relationship, rototill the groundrules,
The ME/WE balance is a function of a dynamic tension between competition
When competition is healthy, the relationship between ME and WE constantly
shifts between competitive and cooperative, like foreground and background,
the rules becoming steadily more empowering, the players increasingly
more competent. It is fun that is gained at no one’s cost, achieved to
everyone’s benefit. Fun that is more fun, for everyone.