Engagement occurs when we are completely engrossed in a task. When we are fully in the moment, we experience a feeling of ‘flow’ where time seems to fly. Flow and engagement occur when we are faced with a challenge and are using our highest skills to meet that challenge.
Our skills and the challenge must be matched in order to experience flow. If the challenge is too low, we will feel bored. If the challenge is too high, we will feel anxious.
When flow occurs, your whole being is involved in the activity. Every action, movement and thought follows naturally from the one before it.
The following story tells of the life of Albert Einstein who used flow to make great scientific discoveries.
Albert Einstein was born to think. He loved coming up with new ideas and imagining new possibilities. He once said that a new idea must seem a little crazy, otherwise it is not really new, or valuable.
Throughout his life, Albert made incredible discoveries in Science. But his life was about much more that science. He cared about the world and tried to end war and bring about peace.
Despite the remarkable things he did with his life there were no signs early on that he had any special gift. In fact, he claimed throughout his life, despite his great achievements that he had no special talent but only that he was passionately curious about everything.
Albert Einstein was born in Germany in 1879. As a boy he was quiet. He liked being on his own and day-dreaming. He played a lot, building and making things. His father worked in a shop selling electrical goods. Young Albert became fascinated with electricity and began to ask his father lots of different questions. This also got him thinking about other forces in the universe.
Throughout his life he often spoke about the power of imagination. He loved to imagine a world beyond the one we can see. He also became fascinated by the compass and how it always pointed towards the north. What force made this happen?
Albert got a bit bored in school because he wasn’t learning about the things that he was really interested in. So, he started to learn for himself. He began reading lots of different science books, soaking up all the knowledge he could.
Albert also loved to play the violin and his mother often accompanied him on the piano. Music calmed and soothed him when his imagination began to carry him away. When he was older, he continued to bring his violin with him wherever he travelled.
As a child, Albert would go on long walks in the countryside with his sister and cousins. He felt he could think better when he climbed higher. He was trying to understand how the world worked. He would lie on the grass and gaze up into space full of questions.
His father and his uncle encouraged him to think, as did the rest of his family, while his mother continued to support him playing music, seeing how it balanced him out.
But his teachers often didn’t have as much faith in him. His school principal said Albert would never amount to much. Albert disliked school and called the teachers ‘sergeants’ for their strict ways. He was punished for asking too many questions. Maths was his favourite subject. He loved solving problems! He taught himself geometry. Albert’s interests were constantly expanding. He began to read about history and religion, always hungry to learn more about life.
Albert was Jewish and early in life often practiced Jewish traditions. Later he would claim that his goal as a scientist was to read the mind of God!
As he got older Albert began to challenge his teachers more and more. The enemy of truth, he wrote, is unthinking respect for authority. He was seen as a bad egg in school, frustrating teachers with his wild questions and having a bad influence on the other students. Eventually, he got expelled. This really hurt Albert. He felt angry and ashamed.
His family had moved to Northern Italy and after getting expelled he went to join them. He loved Italy. The people were friendly, there were great art museums there, and he loved going to concerts. He read and thought. He took long walks on his own in the mountains. This was his ‘thinking time’. Finding quiet in nature, Albert noticed, helped bring his creative mind to life. During these times on his own he began to realise what the things that were most important to him were. The most important thing (his top value) was the freedom to think and explore his ideas. Everything in his life would come secondary to that. This principle became the meaning of his life.
He read about the great scientists and was particularly fascinated by the ones who got in trouble because they challenged the ideas of the day. Copernicus was criticised for saying the earth moved around the sun. Galileo was arrested for agreeing with him. Going against the grain could be a dangerous thing, Albert was learning.
In Italy he started to write. He began to put his ideas out there for other scientists to consider. He wrote his theories in a paper that got published. He was becoming a scientist!
Albert wanted to study Physics in College but to do that he would have to finish school first. He returned to school in Switzerland where the teachers were more tolerant of his questions. He became obsessed with the idea of ‘time’. He wondered about the future. He wondered about how time passed. He wondered if time would some day run out.
He went to college in Switzerland but had very little money. He couldn’t even afford new clothes. His apartment was very basic. He ate very little. Times were hard but it was okay because Albert was pursuing his dream. After he finished college, he looked to become a physics teacher but he couldn’t find a job. He wanted to marry his sweetheart Mileva, but he couldn’t afford to. Out of desperation he took a job with the patent office. It wasn’t his passion but it would do for now. It would help him pay for the basic necessities. Sadly, around this time Albert’s father died.
Albert was so good at his job that he got all the work done quickly and then, for the rest of the day, was able to practice his favourite activity: thinking. Thinking was Albert’s way of playing and his true passion. This amount of thinking time meant he had lots of material to write about. He got more papers published. He described this process as being like a storm breaking loose in his mind. The patent job, which, at first seemed like a curse, turned out to be blessing. Had he been teaching he would not have the same time to think, nor write.
He married Mileva and they had a son, Hans Albert. He was offered a job as a professor at the university in Zurich. He was paid to teach and think about physics. This was Albert’s dream come true.
Albert came up with his famous theory of relativity. What was relativity? Imagine a plane moving. If you were right beside it, it would appear to be travelling very fast. But if you are looking at it from the ground it seems to be moving slowly. This is because different things appear to be moving at different speeds based upon where they are being viewed from.
He loved to teach and his students loved his teaching. He believed good teaching was about awakening joy and creative expression in the students. He travelled to cities like Prague and Munich, on different teaching jobs.
Albert came up with ideas that seemed really crazy and ‘out there’. He claimed that light bent as it travelled through space and that everything in space, including the sun, is always moving. What’s more he was able to prove a lot his theories correct.
Albert was an odd and eccentric character. He only ever buttoned his top button, he forgot things often, and lived really simply, without fancy things or a fuss. It was more important, what we are on the inside, he thought, than how we look to the world.
Throughout his life Albert held firm to his vision and his mission. He even chose to leave his family behind to serve the higher cause towards which he felt called. He once remarked that one of his main characteristics was the pursuit of a larger goal beyond himself over a prolonged period of time. Albert was determined and unwavering. He had a strong sense of purpose.
As he grew in fame after winning the novel prize, Albert decided he wanted to use his fame for good. He was offered money to give talks for entertainment but instead chose to begin talking about a cause he was really passionate about – opposing war and finding world peace.
Another cause he cared deeply about was helping the Jewish people find a homeland after years of persecution. He went to America to drum up support for this idea. While sailing the ocean he marvelled at the great blue ocean that surrounded him and became, feeling himself dissolving into a unity with nature. This gave him perspective. He could see, in the grand scheme of things, that his life was not as important as it often seemed with all the fame and attention he received. It felt like putting down a burden. This made him feel very happy.
At this time Albert was living in Germany and the Nazis were on the rise. Albert’s books were being burned by the Nazis who hated him because he was a Jew, a pacifist and an intellectual. Hitler declared he was a spy and issued a death warrant for Albert. His life was increasingly in danger and those close to him pleaded with him to stop speaking out against the Nazis and to flee Germany for safety. But Albert refused. His mission had now evolved into the pursuit of justice. He would stay true to himself. He would not remain quiet in the face of injustice.
He agreed to leave Germany, but the Nazis could reach him in many other European countries too. With his second wife, Elsa, they fled to the United states for safety. In the face of all this Albert kept his humour, making jokes about the perilous situation he found himself in. When learning of the huge reward the Nazis had put out on his head he remarked, “I never knew I was worth so much!”
They settled in New Jersey. Sadly, soon Elsa passed away. Many of his friends were being murdered in Germany. This was a difficult and lonely time for Albert. But it hardened his resolve. He became more determined than ever to do what he could to stop the Nazis. Albert also sought to stop the arms race in which different countries tried to develop nuclear bombs.
In his later years Albert continued to enjoy taking walks and sitting watching the natural world – the birds, flowers, the sun. He was still fascinated by everything and drew inspiration from the miracle of life. He thought about family and the people he loved, dwelling in fond memories. Just before he died in hospital he had been working on new ideas. One of his last public communications was a plea to end the build-up of nuclear weapons. To the end he remained true to these two great callings of his life.
He never wanted the house he lived in to be turned into a museum in his honour. He feared people would think too much about the memory of him and not enough about their dreams for their futures. He stands today as a shining example of a life lived with passion, purpose and in the pursuit of peace.
We can see from the story of Einstein’s life that we are often at our best (most creative and productive) when we are in ‘flow’. What were some of the ways that Einstein found flow?
Cast your mind back to moments where you felt deeply engaged with an activity. What were you doing? Where were you? Were you on your own or with others? What was the experience like?
Flow requires that we engage with an activity that is challenging enough so that we must give it full focus and put our skills to the test. When we are in flow, we lose our sense of self. We get ‘lost in the music’. Time flies. Even when there is a lot of effort involved the activity can feel ‘effortless’. Athletes call this ‘being in the zone’.
Common flow activities include: Team sports, running, swimming, creative activities (painting etc.), cooking, gardening, mountain-biking, surfing, reading and writing. Flow can occur when we are on our own or with others.
Make a list of all the activities in your life that give you flow. Then make a second list of challenging activities that you would like to try that involve skills development.
This week see if you can schedule time for one ‘old’ flow activity (something you have done before) and a new one (an activity you have never tried).
Journal about your experience afterwards and share with your class. Compare your experiences. Hearing about other people’s flow activities can give us ideas for things we would like to try.
Try to increase your flow activities each week. Flow is also known as ‘optimal functioning’ and is very important for well-being.