Mihaly Csikszentamihalyi, a world-renowned psychologist, discovered the psychology of optimal experience, what he calls “Flow“. In Flow, Dr. Csikszentamihalyi found that surgeons, musicians, athletes, and other top performers share a similar immersive experience, where the world withers away and only the person and their work exist. Where the challenge of the job matches the skills of the performer. Where time seems to disappear and optimal productivity emerges. Where goals are clear and feedback immediate. Where opportunity balances with control, sitting always at the edge of what’s possible.
Given this description of Flow, it was with much interest I read Dr. Csikszentamihalyi’s recent book, Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. Unfortunately, the book sorely disappoints. It failed on multiple accounts. First, no new business advice was presented. Given the novelty of his psychological research, I expected insights that could revolutionize business processes, particularly human resources. Instead, I found three pieces of well-worn business advice: 1) clarify goals, 2) give feedback, and 3) match skills to the job. Any MBA worth a salt can tell you that much.
The second failure of the book, however, destroys any possible value you might find from reading it: Mihaly fundamentally misunderstands the process of value creation. This leads Mihaly to equate the business of value creation with enhancing human well-being. This is only a half truth. Yes, a product must be of value to other humans before they will be willing to trade for it. But business is not fundamentally about enhancing all humans or even some humans. It is primarily a system for exchanging values for values. While both parties should strive to enhance their own life in the trade, there is nothing inherit in business that suggests it should strive to enhance anyone’s lives but those involved with the trade. It is this fundamental misunderstanding that leads Mihaly to appeal to altruism and promote common liberal sentiments throughout the book. This is unfortunate, because nothing within the concept of “Flow” supports Mihaly’s appeal.
To Dr. Csikszentamihalyi’s credit, he attempts to reconcile this problem in Chapter 7, where he discusses how a “Soul” of a human requires a vision for the future. He claims that a business vision articulates the soul. Business leaders do this successfully, says Mihalyi, by helping others. But this confuses cause and effect. While certainly some business owners are motivated by selflessness, they simply could not do their job if that was the primary motive. Business leaders need to articulate a vision to focus the minds of the employees, but if the vision does not inspire personal growth and selfish motives, it will ultimately fail. And so, Mihaly’s appeal ultimately fails. A “soul” is no substitute for good philosophy.
Because there is nothing fundamental new in this book and because of the bad philosophy perpetuated throughout, I recommend you avoid this book. If interested in the concept of “Flow,” I would recommend Dr. Csikszentamihalyi’s first book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It avoids many of the philosophic errors in this book.