Flow and the Art of Lawyering: Part I

From time to time I read a book that really resonates with me. I happen to like most books I read (either I would make a terrible critic or I choose good books—likely the former) but when it comes to reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, I knew my next piece for Lawyerist would be about flow and the art of lawyering. (Bragging rights to the first person who correctly pronounces Csikszentmihaly’s last name in the comments.)

Flow, as Csikszentmihalyi defines it, is that elusive state of mind in which you are so focused that you lose yourself. There are no nagging worries, no thoughts about the past or the future. You are completely involved in the present activity. Often, this is an activity you really enjoy. Maybe it’s a sport or a hobby. If you’re “lucky,” it’s your work.

In the context of lawyering, perhaps you experience flow when you’re thinking on your feet in the courtroom, cross-examining a witness or rebutting opposing counsel’s arguments, or when you’re at your desk writing a trial memo or appellate brief. In fact, the art of lawyering is a wonderful challenge, in that it provides many opportunities to find flow in a variety of activities, from legal writing to negotiation to oral argument.

But, if you’re like most of us, moments of flow are few and far between. And, if you’re like me, you want to achieve flow more often. Read on to find out how you can achieve flow in everyday experience.

As Csikszentmihalyi writes, these are the five “essential steps” in achieving flow:

  1. Set an overall goal and several realistic subgoals
  2. Find a way to measure the progress you make in reaching your goals
  3. Concentrate on the activity and make finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved
  4. Develop your skills so that you may rise to the opportunities
  5. When the activity gets boring, raise the stakes

Finding Flow is a Process, Not an Epiphany

You can change almost any activity into a flow-inducing experience. But achieving flow is elusive because of our wandering, chaotic minds. I have my bundle of human concerns: I worry whether I am on the right path as a writer who also happens to be a lawyer. (Will it lead to “success”?) I worry that the Great Recession will render me unemployed and penniless. I worry about the laundry and how I don’t want to fold it. I want to do the easy thing and go watch TV.

It’s a waste of my time and precious energy.

Eric Sonnenschein, a New York-based copywriter and fellow member of the Advertising Creatives group on LinkedIn, responded to a recent provocative post dissing copywriters as know-nothings who rarely add real value to the businesses who employ them.

Of course, copywriters counter-attacked, defending their profession en masse. And Sonnenschein wrote, “Are we really defending a profession widely considered as untrustworthy as law and car sales? Copywriters don’t need defending. The best are like great poets and story tellers; the worst are loud and annoying hucksters. And advertising is big-hearted enough to pay both.”

I won’t get into whether or not law is “big-hearted enough” to pay the best lawyers as well as the worst. But Sonnenschein makes a great point – it reminds me of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow.

I’ve practiced law and I write advertising, two challenging activities that society does not always look upon favorably. But why worry about it? Why defend it? Any challenging activity that you enjoy doesn’t need defending. The less time we spend worrying about what others think, the better. The less time we spend worrying about relative success or the choices we’ve made in life and the opportunities that have or have not presented themselves to us, the more time we can spend in a state of flow, actually enjoying the challenges we face.

As lawyers, we have a great opportunity to achieve flow in our lives.

Follow Csikszentmihalyi’s five steps and see if you can experience flow more often. (And stay tuned after the New Year for Part II, in which I apply Csikszentmihalyi’s five essential steps to achieving flow in the activity of legal writing.)



  1. Avatar Josh C. says:

    Thanks Chris. I will look for Part II before I decide to purchase the book or not.

    • Avatar Chris Bradley says:

      Well, I better darn well make it a good post, then! If you decide not to purchase, check it out from the library. That’s what I did (though I am thinking of buying it and adding it to my collection).

  2. Avatar Matthew Cantwell says:

    This is a great post which discussed a great book by Mihaly Cshchen-zen-then-whats-his-face.

    I need Flow bad! I am looking forward to reading it.

  3. Aaron Street Aaron S. says:

    Since I haven’t had any Lawyerist bragging-rights in a while:

    I believe it’s pronounced Mee-high Chick-sent-mee-high.

    • Avatar Chris Bradley says:

      According to Wikipedia (yes, I use it as a source quite often), Csikszentmihalyi is known not only for his work in psychology but also for his “notoriously difficult name.”

      And you appear to have come the closest to getting it right.

      MEE-hy CHEEK-sent-m?-HY-ee

  4. Avatar Leslie Matlaw says:

    A friend who went to college with his kid said the name is pronouned “chick-sent-me-all-ee” — but I make no warrantees, express or implied for this hearsay assertion. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written several books on the topic, ALL of which are worth reading including: “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, c. 1990 (newer editions?) — same title reviewed above/the most comprehensive discussion); “Creativity” and a 1997 paperback distillation of “Flow” which runs under 150 legible (12-point type) pages but is still very worthwhile (“Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life”). PS — I guess it takes all kinds to make a world, but am I the only one who is horrified by people who think nothing of throwing away money on cups of coffee and pressing their faces up against their phones all day long, but who spend even one second puzzling over whether to “splurge” on something really important, like how to access fascinating and life-altering ideas? Use the library, Silly!

    • Avatar Chris Bradley says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Leslie. You also appear to be about as close in pronouncing Csikszentmihalyi’s name as Aaron.

      I just got done reading Creativity, and I got the 12-point type (it actually looks smaller than that, even) version of Flow for a friend for Christmas.

      And I am in 100 percent agreement with you: I do not tend to puzzle over whether or not to spend money or time with books.

  5. Avatar Michael McKenna says:

    It is pronounced “Smith” HA HA! I win!

    what I like to do to raise the stakes is to suspend myself with a thin rope over punji sticks, insert burning candle and see if i can get the next job app out before the flame burns through the rope.

  6. Avatar Catherine Tucker says:

    Oooooh…..I wanna play. It’s a Hungarian name.

    sz=s (as in snake)
    e=e (as in the first e in elevator)
    ly=y (as in yes) with an undertone of l; a sound that does not exist in English

    ly=y (as in yes) with an undertone of l; a sound that does not exist in English

    It’s actually an easy name to pronounce for those of us who speak who Hungarian.

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