The Elements of Enjoyment

I found “flow” in the Peruvian Andes. I also tend to experience it while writing. I’ve achieved it while making boxes in a factory, while preparing a speech, and while mowing the lawn. (For real!) Though each of these activities was very different, they shared some commonalities that helped me get “in the zone”. This leads me to wonder: Can happiness be somehow be cultivated? Turns out, it can.

Through Mihály Csíkszentmihályi‘s research into flow (or optimal experience), he found that it’s possible for a person to gain control over the quality of their daily experience, to build enjoyment into even routine and mundane activities. His studies of diverse populations around the world have shown that our best moments contain at least one — and often all — of the following characteristics (some of which overlap):

  • A challenging activity that requires skill. Flow occurs at “the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenge is just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” To experience flow, you have to be doing something difficult — but not too difficult.
  • The merging of action and awareness. Because challenging tasks require full attention, “people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic.”
  • Clear goals and feedback. The vast majority of peak experiences occur during goal-directed actions bounded by rules, such as playing chess, programming a computer, or climbing a mountain. (Or, in my case, mowing the lawn.)
  • Concentration on the task at hand. To achieve optimal experience, you can’t be distracted. You have to be absorbed in what you’re doing. As you focus, order comes to your consciousness, which leads to contentment and joy. Fear and worry fader away. You are fully present in the “now”.
  • A sense of control. During the flow experience, you feel in control — or that you could be in control. More precisely, you aren’t worried that you might lose control, a state so typical of much of modern life. To achieve flow, you must believe that you’re able to influence the outcome of the activity.
  • The loss of consciousness. During a peak experience, you lose sense of who you are. You become one with your environment, a part of a greater whole. You’re no longer aware of yourself as an individual.
  • The transformation of time. When you’re in the zone, the passage of time is altered. In some ways, it slows — minutes seem like hours. In other ways, it quickens — hours seem like minutes. You lose track of the clock. This “freedom from the tyranny of time [adds] to the exhilaration we feel during a state of complete involvement.”

That first point merits a closer look. To achieve flow, you have to find a balance between your abilities and the challenge of the task at hand. If what you’re doing is too difficult for your current skill level, you’ll become anxious. If the task is easy and you’re good at it, it’ll be a relaxing pastime. Here’s a graphical representation of the flow model:

Flow model
This representation via globoforce.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, “The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself.” You might need to complete the task you’re working on for other reasons, but you’d do it even if it weren’t required. You’re doing it not for some future benefit, but because the task itself is so rewarding.

When do you encounter flow? Do yo have these peak experiences often? For me, writing is the activity most likely to induce the flow state. Just last week, as I was racing to complete the “Get Rich Slowly” course, I experienced this sort of peak experience. I was working at the limit of my capabilities, and I loved it. What about you?

A Trip Through the Wayback Machine

I’ve been blogging since before “blog” was even a word.

I posted my first web site over twenty years ago, in the spring of 1994. Back then, all that was available was rudimentary HTML (no cascading style sheets!) and browsers like Mosaic and Lynx. We nerds were early adopters, of course, and we made stuff up as we went along.

The earliest versions of my site no longer exist, not even in the Wayback Machine. The oldest iteration available is this version from 24 January 2000. As you can see, at first my personal website contained random stuff about fantasy football, comic books, our book group, and the books and movies I consumed.

You can see in some of these pages — especially my reading list — early stabs at blog-like structure. (If you follow the links to various books, you’ll see my reviews plus links to other resources around the web.)

But my first actual web journal (I used to hate the term “blog”) was my fitness diary from 1997. Midway through losing forty pounds, I decided to chronicle the experience on the web for my friends and family to follow. I followed that up again in 1998 after I gained back ten of those pounds.

Then, on 22 September 1998, I started my first real-life weblog, which I called Great Expectations. In my first post, I wrote:

When I was young I was a writer. I don’t mean that I aspired to be a writer “when I grew up”, I mean that I wrote. I wrote poetry, I wrote stories, I wrote letters. I wrote for myself and I wrote for others. Writing was what I did.

Sometime during college I discovered I was no longer a writer. Sure, I wrote for classes, but that’s not the same thing. Although I wrote some poetry and fiction throughout college, by the end of my Senior year my writing activities had ceased.

For seven years I haven’t written, but now the bug is back.

[…]

Over the course of the past few years I’ve discovered the curious phenomena known as “web journals”. Having read thoroughly those belonging to Karawynn Long and Michael Rawdon, I’m intrigued by the medium and believe it would be a fantastic tool to practice my own writing.

And so it began.

Note: Life is funny. Since writing that more than fifteen years ago, I’ve met both Karawynn and Michael. I like them both. They’re both still writing for the web, and I still read their blogs all the time. Michael writes at Fascination Place and Karawynn writes at both a personal site and a personal finance site!

That first blog lasted only a month. Then life happened. Part of the problem was there wasn’t an automated way to publish the things I wrote. I had to do it by hand. It wasn’t difficult, but it was time consuming.

But a year or two later, I discovered Blogger, a new tool that helped to automate the process of producing web journals — or “blogs”, as they’d come to be known. I resumed writing for the web at my new personal domain, foldedspace.org. Apparently my first post with Blogger was on 27 May 2001, but it doesn’t exist in the Wayback Machine. The earliest post I can find is this one from 05 June 2001 in which I discuss some early work for Computer Resources Northwest (the computer consulting firm that would eventually own Get Rich Slowly!).

Since those early days, I’ve written a lot of material for the web. I’ve started dozens of websites, most of which have fizzled out after only a few days. But on some sites, I’ve produced thousands of words. Or hundreds of thousands. And at Get Rich Slowly, I’ve written over a million words.

It occurred to me last night that I miss some of the things I wrote. Every now and then I’ll stumble upon an old article of mine while googling for something else. These old articles make me misty in a way, and I wish they were gathered together in one place. So, that’s what I’m going to do. Slowly but surely, I’m going to re-read all of the old stuff I wrote. Some of it will remain in dusty corners of the internet. But when I find an important or interesting piece, I’m going to copy it over here to jdroth.com and re-publish it on its old date.

I worry that doing this will cause you all to receive email and RSS updates of this old material. I’m not meaning to bombard everyone with a bunch of outdated articles. I just want to collect some of my favorite memories in one place. If it gets to be too much, please let me know and I’ll find a way to prevent you all from receiving these updates. Sound good? Meanwhile, I’ll be sure to share if I find anything especially fun.

Now, though, it’s time for me to go do some publicity for Get Rich Slowly: The Guide. A blogger’s work is never done…

Note: Ooohh… I just found this version of foldedspace.org. This is what I consider “classic foldedspace” — it’s from the Golden Age of my pre-GRS blogging days. I would love to replicate that look here…

Announcing Get Rich Slowly, My New 52-Week Course to Mastering Money and Achieving Financial Independence

More Than Money is in the middle of a year-long exploration of fear, flow, and freedom. Every Monday, I’m posting an article from what was supposed to be an ebook bout personal and financial freedom. That material wasn’t right for the project, but it’s right for here.

And what was that project? At last, I can tell you.

For nearly a year, I’ve been working to put together a course meant to help people master their money. Finally, it’s finished and ready for public consumption.

Get Rich Slowly: The Course

Get Rich Slowly: The Course is designed to help people of all levels take better control of their financial lives. If you’re in debt, it can help you get out of debt. If you’re building wealth, it can help you build wealth. And if you’re well on your way to Financial Independence, the Get Rich Slowly course can help you plot your course to freedom.

In the intro to Be Your Own CFO, the 120-page guide that anchors the course, I describe my mission like this:

This guide is different than most of the personal finance books and blogs you’ve read. Instead of assuming you’re a victim of circumstance, I assume that you are the master of your own fate.

Sure, you’re a part of the overall economy and subject to both lucky and unlucky breaks, but ultimately you’re in charge. Your circumstances may not be your fault, but they’re your responsibility. You are the Chief Financial Officer of your own life.

As I mentioned, the course is centered around the 120-page guide called Be Your Own CFO, which took me months to write. (And this year’s content at jdroth.com is built on stuff that didn’t make it into the final product.) But the course contains much more, including:

  • A year-long email series packed with both practical tips and financial philosophy. Each week, I’ll send you a short message meant to motivate you further on the path to money mastery.
  • Eighteen audio interviews (and transcripts) with folks like Mr. Money Mustache, Ramit Sethi, Jean Chatzky, and many many more.
  • An entire built-from-scratch website filled with supporting material. This website is pretty basic at the moment, but will grow much more robust with time.
  • And, of course, a whole bunch of downloadable material related to the ideas in the course, including PDF worksheets, a handful of spreadsheets (man, those were tough to produce!), and an entire mini-guide on how to use a Roth IRA.

I’m very proud of this Get Rich Slowly course. It feels like a culmination of my life’s work, you know? Everything I know about personal finance has been packed inside, and I’ve done my best to make the information motivational and accessible.

And I’m grateful that the early reviews of the material have been positive. For instance, Productive Flourishing wrote

Be Your Own CFO deserves to be one of the five books on personal finance on your shelf, even if that shelf is digital…The two additional resources on Roth IRAs and negotiating your salary, if applied, are worth the price of the whole product alone.”

I’m glad that I’m finally finished with this project and it’s out in the wild. For one, that means I can relax. But for another, it means I can spend more time around here, writing about meaning and happiness, the two topics that actually feel most important to me. Money is related, sure. But money is secondary. It’s personal well-being that we’re all striving to achieve.

For those of you who are curious, here’s a sneak peek inside the Be Your Own CFO guide, including the introduction and table of contents:

Be Your Own CFO
You can read more about the GRS course here.

What are you waiting for? You should check out the Get Rich Slowly course. Let me know what you think, won’t you?

One Peak Experience

Walking throught the Peruvian Andes

I like to travel.

When I leave home, it’s as if I’m an entirely different person with an entirely different life. My thoughts are clearer. My experiences seem purer, unclouded by the things I own and do at home. When I’m in another country, everything I have fits into a 46-liter backpack. I’m not burdened by an apartment full of stuff. I have no pressing engagements and no deadlines. Nobody expects anything of me.

Frequently, I’m surrounded by a language I don’t understand — or understand at the level of a child. Because of this, I’m immune to advertising. I can’t be affected by the news, good or bad. I buy only what I need — toothpaste today, a notebook tomorrow — and am blissfully unaware of the world at large.

I exist only here. Only now.

Because the baggage of daily existence has been stripped away, I’m better able to focus my attention on each moment. There’s less for me to have to worry about, which allows me to feel more in control. When I travel, I enjoy life more. I see more. I feel more.

This enjoyment is intensified when my travels take me outside into nature, when I get an opportunity to hike or raft or play in the physical world.

In 2011, I visited Peru and Bolivia for several weeks. Much of that time was spent trekking through the Andes. Walking with two dozen strangers, I carried my pack through green meadows, alongside slow-moving streams, and over snowy mountain passes.

The trek was difficult but rewarding. I was in peak physical condition, which allowed me to meet the challenges presented by the high altitude and steep trails. Some of my companions became sick. Though I once twisted my ankle, my general good health granted me a sense of control over the experience. Each day, our guide led us on a clearly defined route; the ancient Incan trails helped us stay on course.

Hiking through the jungles and mountain meadows, I enjoyed one of the best periods of my life. As my body strained to carry me across the Andes, I concentrated on the path in front of me. My steps became automatic. My sense of self melted away so that I gradually became one with my environment and with the trail. I’d found flow, that state of “optimal experience”.

At 5350 Meters
At 5350 meters in the Bolivian Andes — a peak experience.

My year-long quest to create a guide to mastering money

“How would you like to write an Unconventional Guide?” my friend Chris Guillebeau asked me last spring. As long-time readers know, I’ve joined Chris to travel across the U.S. by train, travel across Norway by train, and produce the first three editions of the World Domination Summit conference here in Portland. When he’s not traveling or dominating the world, Chris publishes a series of guides on subjects ranging from art to law, from entrepreneurship to publishing.

“What kind of guide would I write?” I asked.

“A guide about money,” Chris said — as if there could be no other possible answer.

“What would we call it?” I asked.

“How about Get Rich Slowly?” Chris said.

“No way. I don’t think the folks who own the blog would like that,” I said. “I doubt they could stop us since you can’t copyright a name, but I’d rather not make them angry.”

“Well then, how about Master Your Money?” Chris said.

I thought for a moment. I was reluctant. I’d retired from Get Rich Slowly (the blog) a few months before and was enjoying all of the free time. But something about having a specific goal appealed to me. How hard could it be to produce a guide about money?

“I like it. I’ll do it,” I said, “but I can’t start until I return from Ecuador at the end of September.”

“No problem,” Chris said. “You should be finished by Christmas.”

A writer’s life
I didn’t meet that Christmas goal. Not even close. You see, I had too much to say but couldn’t find a way to say it.

When I came back from South America, I spent two weeks performing a braindump. I sat at my computer and brainstormed everything I wanted to share with readers. There was a lot — enough for three books. I tried to mold this mountain of words into some sort of recognizable shape, but it was no use.

After three weeks of work, I’d written maybe 20,000 words but felt like I’d gotten nowhere.

The writing process
Early in the writing process. Isn’t it ugly?

In mid-October, I flew to St. Louis to attend Fincon. Mixing with a couple of hundred other financial writers sent my brain spiraling in new directions. Talking with my colleagues made me reconsider what I was trying to do with Master Your Money. I went back to the drawing board.

When I returned to Portland, I spent a crazy week cooped inside my office. I wrote without ceasing. When Kim came home from work every night, I’d greet her with non-stop talk. She laughed. “This is funny,” she said. “You should see the difference between how you are now and how you were two weeks ago.” The difference was I felt energized. I was no longer suffering from writer’s block. My writing had purpose and direction.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong direction.

At the end of October, I met with Chris and showed him what I’d written. Over Thai food, he leafed through the pages. “Hmmm,” he said, and I knew that wasn’t good. “This is interesting stuff, but it’s not what I had in mind. This is about fear and freedom. It’s about happiness. I thought you were going to write about money. Besides, these sections are too short. The guide reads like a blog.”

I’d written 50,000 words of great material, but they were the wrong 50,000 words.

Note: Die-hard readers know that I didn’t just abandon the stuff about fear, happiness, and freedom. Instead, I’m using it as source material this year at More Than Money. Every Monday, I’m publishing one piece of this abandoned version of the guide. Last month, I finished the section on overcoming fear. Now we’ve begun exploring what it means to be happy.

So, I went back for a third stab at Master Your Money. I still thought maybe I could finish by Christmas. But I didn’t. Again, I lost my way. I couldn’t find anything to latch onto, no central theme. What did that mean, master your money? It seemed so vague.

On the day after Thanksgiving, I met Chris in a coffee shop. “It’s not going well,” I confessed. I showed him my outline. He nodded.

“What’s this bit?” he asked, pointing to a section where I described how I’d decided to manage my personal finances as if I were running a business. “I like it. Why don’t you focus on writing about how to be the chief financial officer of your own life?”

That simple suggestion was all I needed. For a fourth time, I started to write Master Your Money. This time, no problem. The words didn’t flow out of me unimpeded, but I had a clear idea of what I wanted to say and how to say it. I knew I’d found the angle that had been missing for months.

More than words
Master Your MoneyAfter a few weeks of writing on this fourth iteration of Master Your Money, it became clear that I wouldn’t be finished until spring. “No problem,” Chris said. “We’ll shift things around. But maybe you should start working on the other parts of the course too.”

“Course?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Master Your Money should be an entire course, not just a single guide. We can call the guide How to Become CFO of Your Own Life or something similar. But with a name like Master Your Money, we want to provide even more. For instance, you’ll probably want to record some interviews with top financial writers and experts.”

For the next two months, I interspersed writing with recording. Although I’d become accustomed to being interviewed, I hadn’t yet mastered the art of interviewing others. But I figured it out. Before long, I found that I enjoyed conducting interviews more than I liked writing!

I recorded interviews with some of my favorite finance folks, including:

  • Jean Chatzky, whose books helped me start digging out of debt
  • Gretchen Rubin, best-selling author of The Happiness Project
  • Liz Weston, one of the country’s most popular financial columnists
  • Ramit Sethi, the mastermind behind the book (and blog) I Will Teach You to Be Rich
  • Adam Baker, former Get Rich Slowly staff writer and a good friend
  • Mr. Money Mustache, whose polarizing ideas and personality have had a tremendous impact on my philosophical development

In the end, I’d accumulated 18 interviews totaling over eight hours of audio!

“Great,” Chris said. “Let’s do more. When people buy the course, let’s give them a weekly email to remind them of all the different things they can do to master their money.”

Back to the office I went. I created a list of 52 topics that I thought were crucial for anyone wanting to take control of their finances. I researched. I wrote. I edited. I scheduled these emails to go out every Monday for an entire year.

“Now it’s time to put the finishing touches on the course,” Chris said the next time we met. “You need to create some tools for people to use. We want to give them a sort of money toolbox.” More time in front of the computer! This time I researched data on saving and spending, best practices for negotiating salary increases, complex formulas for retirement and investing.

Ready for launch
After I’d finished with the spreadsheets and handouts, I met with Chris again. He looked them over. He looked at the list of email topics. He looked at the interviews. He paged through the guide, which we were now calling Be Your Own CFO.

“It all looks great,” he said. “But I don’t like the name. We shouldn’t call it Master Your Money. We should call the course Get Rich Slowly. That’s what it’s all about.”

I’d long ago surrendered to his ideas for this course. I’m a writer. I produce content. Chris has proven time and again that he’s a marketing genius. I trust him. So, I approached the company that owns Get Rich Slowly (the blog). I told them about the course that we’d created. I explained that we planned to launch it as Master Your Money, unless…How would they feel about us using the name Get Rich Slowly?

To my surprise, they agreed. In fact, they thought it was a good idea, a way to cross-promote.

Now, after nearly a year of work, my Get Rich Slowly course is ready to launch. Next Tuesday morning, it will be released as one of Chris Guillebeau’s Unconventional Guides. The course will contain a 120-page guide describing how to Be Your Own CFO, 18 audio interviews with transcripts, 52 weeks of action-packed emails, and a variety of tools in a sort of “money toolbox”.

Wow.

“I can’t believe I’m finished,” I told Kim the other day. “It’s so much! I never would have started if I’d known it would take this much work.”

“Well, you know what they say,” she replied. “If you want to eat an elephant, you’ve got to do it one bite at a time.”

And that’s how I created the Get Rich Slowly course — one bite at a time.

Be Your Own CFO
The finished product. Isn’t it pretty?

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

For fifty years, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “me-high cheek-sent-me-high-ee”) has studied human happiness and creativity. Much of his work has focused on flow, which is his term for “optimal experience”.

Here’s how he describes it:

We have all experienced times when instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we [feel] in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment.

Csíkszentmihályi says that, contrary to what we might expect, these peak experiences don’t come during passive moments. We enjoy a night out with friends or a vacation to Italy, but these aren’t the best moments of our lives. Instead, “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.”

People are happiest when they forget their surroundings to focus on doing their best at something that challenges and interests them. In short, happiness is produced by total engagement in the pursuit of excellence.

We can experience flow during activities as basic as riding a bike or as complex as building a bridge.

Sometimes flow is achieved through physical activity. Athletes refer to this state as “being in the zone”. People achieve this state of bliss while climbing mountains, sailing boats, or swimming oceans. But even mundane activities like mowing the lawn or baking cookies can produce flow, if they’re done well.

Peak experience also comes from mental pursuits. Many computer become so engrossed in their work that time streams past like water. I experience flow while writing.

This morning, for instance, I’ve been working to complete my guide on how to become CFO of your own life. This will be published next week as part of a complete “Get Rich Slowly” course I’m creating. While I wrote this morning, my mind was so active and so engaged that it almost felt euphoric. I was happy. I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere other than in front of my computer, writing about money.

I was in a state of flow.

For more on flow, spend a few moments to watch Csíkszentmihályi’s TED talk on how flow is the secret to happiness:

If you want to learn more, pick up a copy of his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

How to Be Happy

Overcoming fear is one part of living life without regret. You do that by being open to new people and new experiences, and by acting even when you’re afraid. Another aspect of a rewarding life is learning to find happiness in your daily existence — and building upon that happiness to construct a meaningful life.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, “All knowledge and every pursuit aims at…the highest of all good achievable by action.” What is that good? “Both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well with being happy.”

Happiness, he said in the Nicomachean Ethics, is “the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

To some extent, a good life requires good fortune. Happenstance can undermine the well-being of even the most virtuous person. But Aristotle held that ultimately happiness isn’t a product of chance. You can allow misfortune to crush you, or you can choose to bear the blows of fate with “nobility and greatness of soul”. Although fate may play a role in your affairs, Aristotle believed that in the end, happiness depends upon yourself.

Modern psychologists agree.

In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky shares the results of years of research into what makes people happy. Studies with twins indicate that about half of human happiness comes from a genetic setpoint. We’re each hardwired for a certain baseline level of contentment.

Other studies have shown that roughly ten percent of happiness is determined by our circumstances. Some of these conditions — such as your age or eye color — cannot be changed. But some of these external factors — such as your job, income, or marital status — can be changed.

But the surprising part of Lyubomirsky’s research is that the remaining forty percent of happiness comes from our intentional activity, from our attitudes and actions. It’s a by-product of the things we think and do.

Because circumstances play such a small role in your well-being — and because many of your circumstances are unchangeable — it makes more sense to boost your bliss through intentional activity, by controlling the things you can and ignoring the things you can’t.

I’ve been reading and writing about money for nearly a decade. I’ve been reading and writing about happiness for nearly as long. The subjects are deeply intertwined. Based on my research and experience, I’ve developed not only a philosophy of well-being, but a short summary of the research into how to be happy. This hundred-word piece is a sort of personal roadmap; whenever I sense I’m drifting off course, I re-read it, and I find my way again.

My friend Lisa is a graphic designer. Recently, for kicks, she and I collaborated to create a print based on my summary of how to be happy. It looks like this:

How to be happy

That’s dozens of books about meaning and happiness compressed into one hundred words. Notice that none of this advice involves waiting for someone or something to make you happy. All of it requires intentional activity on your part to increase your well-being. Happiness isn’t something that just happens; happiness is a byproduct of the the things you think and say and do.

We’ll talk a lot more about happiness in the months to come. Stay tuned!