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Like just about everyone I know, I'm not always a happy camper at work. Even though I love my job, I find it hard to be exuberant all of the time. But I know someone who literally whistles while he works. Not long ago I asked this fellow--Sam, a local handyman and gardener--what it is that he has going for him. Specifically, I asked him how much St. John's wort (or other herbs...) he had consumed to get into that state:

"Nope, that's not me," he replied. "I'm just working in the zone right now, that's all. I've got good moments and bad moments like anyone else, but I love what I do and I work hard to stay in the flow."

Working in the zone? Staying in the flow? I live and work in an unusual area of the country--the artists' community of Sedona, Arizona. If there were a place where this conversation wouldn't be out of the ordinary, it would be here in Sedona. This is a town that has a very high tolerance for nontraditional thinking and New Age philosophy. But I'm a midwesterner--often the exact opposite sort of person--and I have to confess that I greeted Sam's comments with skepticism. My conversation with Sam proved useful, however, when he lent me a couple of his self-help books on work habits and I was able to research the topic on my own.

Believe it or not, a few weeks later I was whistling as I did my income tax paperwork. I was smiling as I sat in the audience of a boring business seminar--and I felt a renewed sense of optimism for my future as I gazed out the window of a 747 on the way home.

A "C Zone" or "Flow" Experience

If you are like most people, there are periods when things are going so smoothly that you totally lose track of time. This may happen at work--in which case, you can presume that you've chosen a fulfilling career--or it may happen while you're pursuing a hobby or a sport. Regardless, you probably have found that at certain times of your daily life you are transported to a place where:

  • Everything seems to fall into place

  • It feels as if you are not working as hard, despite the highest productivity

  • You feel confident in yourself and your abilities

  • You develop an intense concentration and focus

  • You have an abundance of energy and a sense of well-being.

Dr. Robert Kriegel, co-author of The C Zone: Peak Performance Under Pressure 1 says that professional athletes often reach this mindset in their work and that they refer to it as "playing in the zone." Kriegel's work dovetails nicely with that of another author, behavioral psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Csikszentmihalyi's Finding Flow 2, which focuses less on pop psychology and more on science, landed a spot on the personal-favorites area of my bookshelf. His book is subtitled "The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life." It is when you truly become engaged in your work that you find Csikszentmihalyi's "flow."

My goal in this column is to acquaint you with these concepts and to suggest that you use this knowledge to move to a new view of your duties--whether they're ongoing work-related tasks or the tasks of looking for a new job.

The Roots of Fulfillment?

I've always wondered why two experts doing similar work can have dramatic differences in job satisfaction. For example, Bill is a microbiologist who describes his job doing process validation in a biotech manufacturing facility as "pure drudge; the kind of thing you'd have to pay me twice what I'm making to enjoy."

Sheri, another microbiologist with similar training, described the same job for me in this way: "I like process validation because I enjoy honing my skills on these instruments and becoming the expert around here in the process. I'm mentoring a couple of younger scientists now and writing up a manual about how this job is done. There's always some kind of problem around every corner--it's a blast!"

Is it, as Bill suggests, simply a matter of money? Of course not. Money has nothing to do with it. In fact, I'm certain that if you doubled Bill's salary he'd still be complaining. After reading both of these books, I know what the difference is between Bill and Sheri: Their "Mastery-Challenge" points are at opposite ends of the scale.


As you'll see in the figure, Zone author Kriegel believes that people seek out their own balance between new opportunities (Challenges) and areas of expertise (Mastery). Some, like Sheri, focus their energies on the "mastery" area and thrive on incrementally improving their skills. Others, notably my contact Bill, need to have a constant diet of new experiences. Because of their different approaches, Bill sees his current job as just so much mundane repetition, whereas Sheri sees it as a chance to hone her mastery of particular scientific techniques.

Finding Flow

In Csikszentmihalyi's lifelong study of happiness, he has found that in the course of an average day, about one-third of the time people say that they do what they do because they want to do it, another one-third of the time because they have to do it, and the final third of the time because they have nothing better to do. He found that when people are doing tasks that they want to do or have to do, they are generally happy or at least engaged in their activities. It is in that period of time that they have nothing better to do that they flounder. Wandering aimlessly and proceeding without goals seems to be the nastiest form of punishment for most people.

When you think about it, isn't this the trap that many people tend to fall into when in the throes of a job search? Instead of approaching their search with the planning and strategy that they would put into their work at the bench, they allow the job search process to proceed as if they have "nothing better to do."

Become Truly Engaged in Your Tasks--And in Your Job Search

Although these books focus on daily life--and applying some of their principals has helped me eliminate that drifting sensation that led to occasional job dissatisfaction--the mechanisms they tout will also work in your job search.

In fact, both of my microbiologist friends, Bill and Sheri, were able to make job changes. It took Bill a number of months of searching, but Sheri was juggling two offers within the first few weeks. The difference? Sheri, as you might guess by her comments above, brought the level of enthusiasm that she has for her work to her job search.

Chances are that with a bit of effort, you'll be able to make your job search run more like Sheri's than Bill's. If you identify those times when you were truly in the flow--engaged and successful--you can then take those attributes and, like Sheri, bring them to the task of looking for a job.

Here's a list of practical suggestions that I have distilled from these two books as well as from my own personal experiences and those of successful job seekers:

  • Recall and describe in detail a high-performance episode in the past, one in which you were truly engaged. Remember what you were feeling and thinking at that time.

  • Think back to how you reacted physically, and identify the qualities you possessed (such as confidence, courage, power, poise, and charisma).

  • Use this information to put yourself back into that frame of mind. Get up and walk around. Allow yourself to feel the way you felt then.

  • Imagine making a networking call as you would in that state. Imagine doing your next job talk or interview with that level of enthusiasm and interest.

  • Avoid turning important job search processes like networking into unscheduled, spur-of-the-moment occurrences.

  • Find the right mix of "mastery" and "challenge" when in your job search. If you feel comfortable in presenting your thesis work in a seminar, get out there and do as many informational interviews as you can. But, don't forget to add the "challenge" of making those networking calls. It will be the mix of both that gets you ahead.

  • Use a "to do" list in your job search process. Mundane tasks like developing a new version of your CV or getting correspondence out will feel a lot better when you can check them off your list. The feeling of making progress and advancing your goals is a key ingredient in becoming engaged in the process.

So, find the zone; get in the flow--and good luck!

References for this article

1. The C Zone: Peak Performance Under Pressure, Robert Kriegel and Marilyn Kriegel (Ballantine Books, New York City, NY, 1984); see the authors' Web site.

2. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (BasicBooks Division, HarperCollins Publishers, New York City, NY, 1997.