Living Downwind from the Flower Shop

08/24/2010 04:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the great mysteries in life is why some of us prefer to be swamp-dwellers. Not literally. I'm not dissing those living in the low country of the Gulf States or, frankly, anyone stuck in less than pristine living conditions. No, what I'm talking about is why some of us choose to be prisoners of our own minds. My grandmother used to tell me, "Some days, you need an escort to take you through that dangerous neighborhood that is your mind."

Ask a thoughtful swamp-dweller why they perennially veer toward the negative and they may tell you that low expectations translate into less disappointment in their lives. In fact, philosopher William James once wrote that self-esteem could be distilled down to an equation: success in life divided by expectations. Recent studies have shown that Asian-American students coming from families with high academic expectations of them tend to have lower self-esteem even when they score very well on their exams, so maybe there's some truth to this. But, low expectations can also translate into less success when one's spirit and motivation is poisoned by a lack of hope, meaning, or possibility in one's life.

In the context of business, we're all aware that some corporate cultures create a momentum of victory while others create a constant feeling of failure. Given that my company often takes over the management of hotels that are in a downward spiral, I know the signs of a troubled culture: passive aggressive communication, lots of finger pointing, and universally low expectations. Yet, there are many companies that have risen from their swamp whether it's Continental Airlines with a newcomer CEO Gordon Bethune in the 90's or Apple with returning CEO Steve Jobs at around that same time. In both cases, these execs first had to help all in the organization believe in themselves again and identify a few initial victories that they could point to in order to start building that momentum of victory.

My son has just been released from prison after a Federal Judge found that his constitutional rights had been violated (due to mistaken jury instructions). While he was initially ecstatic about being out after being wrongly accused for four and a half years, he started to gravitate back to familiar territory: Will the County District Attorney choose to appeal the Judge's ruling? Of course, this has enormous implications for his life, but it's also something he has little influence over and, for the time being, there's so much life to catch up on and to celebrate that obsessing on the D.A.'s actions can become a no-win game. One of the responsibilities of friends and family is to escort each other through the dark alleys of our minds when there are sunny, open spaces just around the corner.

I've been fortunate enough to spend the past few days in Montana with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and his wife Isabella), the author of Flow and many other books on how to live an optimal life. One of the basic premises of Flow is that life is at its best when we're expertly navigating between challenge and skill. Think of a graph with two axes: with challenge on the vertical axis and skill on the horizontal axis. Flow occurs as we move diagonally away from the intersection of these two axes toward the upper right hand corner. But, most of us spend our lives toggling between boredom (low challenge, high skill) and anxiety (high challenge, low skill) living a life that feels too full of inertia or exertion.

Mihaly says someone in Flow

...concentrates their attention on a limited stimulus field, forgets personal problems, loses their sense of time and of themselves, feels competent and in control, and has a sense of harmony with their surroundings...they cease to worry about whether the activity will be productive or whether it will be rewarded...they have entered a state of flow.

This is true of individuals inside and outside of work as well as companies that pursue an organizational predilection toward Flow.

Manifesting a good life by just thinking positive thoughts is not enough. There's no doubt that healthy psycho-hygiene creates a greater likelihood of living a life in flow with the world. But, I prefer to think of this as more like planting yourself "downwind from the flower shop." Your willingness to build your skills and to accept challenges -- emotionally, professionally, intellectually, athletically, spiritually -- is your means of placing your destiny at a fortuitous intersection where good things come wafting your way. To understand how to find that flow in your life, read Mihaly's book of the same name or Finding Flow or Good Business (to understand the context for work) or The Evolving Self (how Flow can make a difference to society).