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Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has died (twitter.com/sbkaufman)
338 points by fagnerbrack 89 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 74 comments

One of my favorite quotes from his book, Flow:

"The ultimate test for the ability to control the quality of experience is what a person does in solitude, with no external demands to give structure to attention. It is relatively easy to become involved with a job, to enjoy the company of friends, to be entertained in a theater or at a concert. But what happens when we are left to our own devices? Alone, when the dark night of the soul descends, are we forced into frantic attempts to distract the mind from its coming? Or are we able to take on activities that are not only enjoyable, but make the self grow?"

Csíkszentmihályi's Flow also introduced me to Seneca and Marcus Aurelius (although, I prefer Epictetus to Aurelius).

And it's staggering that most social structures are impeding that.

We need to rethink social interactions to focus on beneficial self/group growth, and not only the material/economical side.

Well. In such situations, I turn to HN. Now what does that say about me?

> Csíkszentmihályi's Flow also introduced me to Seneca and Marcus Aurelius (although, I prefer Epictetus to Aurelius).

Flow led me down the rabbit hole to philosophical Daoism. It is astonishing how closely intertwined philosophy and psychology turn out to be.

Not at all astonishing. :-) Modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) originates[1] from the 2000-year-old work of Epictetus. Cicero memorably called philosophy as "the medicine of the mind". Going back to Socrates and Epictetus, philosophy was "a way of life", and not tying clever knots in thin air and untying them.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rational_emotive_behavior_ther...

> It is astonishing how closely intertwined philosophy and psychology turn out to be.

It’d be surprising if they weren’t, if you think about it. :)

Very much so. My early studies of Taoism were affected heavily by the notion that the philosophy was a response to an unknown cataclysm of some sort, I just wish I could track down the original source on that idea. Jung’s investigation into Aion is also connected somehow to this but it is an area I need to research further.

Felt the same too. Concepts like wu wei are clearly related to flow. And Taoism has a lot of stories that relate to flow, my favorite being Cook Ding cutting up an ox.

I wonder if future generations will totally misunderstand "left to own devices." No, it doesn't mean with your phone, tablet and watch.

Yikes ... I didn't even consider the "devices == gadgets" angle when I was writing it (I'm old enough to have lived a decent portion of my life without any gadgets and gongs). I'll be charitable and hope that a sensible future reader will situate the book in its time and place.

Csikszentmihalyi was Hungarian. I live in Hungary, and often work from a coffee shop called Flow with a Csikszentmihalyi quote on the wall, "Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz."


I love Flow, it's my favorite cafe to work from in Budapest. Can't wait to visit home so I can hang out there again.

Thanks for the recommendation! In pre-COVID times, I would visit Budapest a few times per year.

My coffee stops are usually Addicted2Caffeine on Bartok Bela, and Tamp & Pull, depending on which hotel I'm staying at.

There's also Barako Kavehaz, which serves an interesting Filipino coffee varietal called Liberica Barako.

I'm a regular visitor to Budapest (both parents were born there) and have added all of these to my list of things to include on my next trip.. whenever that may be (borders).

I really love visiting there. Hoping that I can get over there sometime soon!

I had a brief email exchange with Csikszentmihalyi a few years ago over a concept he'd mentioned in an Edge essay. Discussion turned to other notable Hungarians (and Austrians), including the Polanyis (Karl and Michael). He'd known their neice, Eva Zeisel Polanyi, a ceramicist, and he dropped this small-world gem:

Karl Popper used to go hunting in the summers through the Carpatian Mountains with my grandfather; occasionally they were joined by August von Hayek, who later also got a Nobel in Economics . . . I learned a lot about my grandfather from him . . . And indirectly a lot from Popper, whose Das Logik Der Vorschung (translated into English with the strange title of The Logic of Scientific Discovery) was for years my Bible.

I'd first heard of his Flow concept on a public radio interview I caught whilst on a road-trip through a remote rural high plateau, in the 1990s. Highly memorable and mildly surreal listening to his voice as the countryside flowed past.

Vale, Mihaly.

There've also been numerous previous discussions of Csikszentmihalyi on HN. Via Algolia search: https://hn.algolia.com/?q=Csikszentmihalyi

A more complete obituary was also submitted as his death was announced though marked a dupe on HN.

"Mihály Csíkszentmihályi- Flow Theory Architect, Hungarian-American Psychologist, Dies Aged 88"


(HN submission: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28948395)

For the casual HN reader, he was the one who recognized and scientifically described the creative state of "flow" [1]

Why would it be of interest for the audience of hackernews? Well, programmers and related fields' mostly creative workers tend to experience the flow, and even though it is hard to explain (or describe, for that matter) most of us agree that it's great to be in.

[1]: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)

He didn't just describe the flow state, but also identified the conditions to achieve it. One can modify their experience according to these conditions to enter a flow state. For example, when the problem you're working on is too hard, then first work on a simplified version; or make it harder if it's too easy! When feedback cycle is long, then first make it shorter, e.g., make tests run faster, etc.

I highly recommend reading his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”.

Rest in peace sir.

Summoning that successful kind of creative, productive, free play state of mind is really difficult in software coding job interviews. There's a lot of back and forth, warming up as well as looking up things and experimenting to reach that flow state. Once you're in it, you know you're in it. You've shipped robust apps thanks to it.

Having to explain that almost instinctive process to a complete stranger who has control over your career and income can really hamper or destroy the ability to get into that groove. I've found it really useful to know about flow, what can get it going and when it's just not happening, and most interviews just aren't set up to encourage it. Csikszentmihalyi wrote a shorter book called "Finding Flow" which speaks of creating situations that bring out the best in others and us.

FWIW, I mostly find these interviews useless on almost every aspect, including measuring candidates programming abilities that could contribute the projects/products given company is hiring for.

But it's an interesting aspect anyway, if a candidate ever experienced / aware of flow

I tend to describe flow as "when an hour passes in three minutes".

I love it how it's ambiguous whether the three minutes or the hour is supposed to be the real time passed in your comment, but according to Csíkszentmihályi both can indicate a flow state.

> One of the most common descriptions of optimal experience is that time no longer seems to pass the way it ordinarily does. The objective, external duration we measure with reference to outside events like night and day, or the orderly progression of clocks, is rendered irrelevant by the rhythms dictated by the activity. Often hours seem to pass by in minutes; in general, most people report that time seems to pass much faster. But occasionally the reverse occurs: Ballet dancers describe how a difficult turn that takes less than a second in real time stretches out for what seems like minutes: "Two things happen. One is that it seems to pass really fast in one sense. After it’s passed, it seems to have passed really fast. I see that it’s 1:00 in the morning, and I say: 'Aha, just a few minutes ago it was 8:00.' But then while I’m dancing... it seems like it’s been much longer than maybe it really was." The safest generalization to make about this phenomenon is to say that during the flow experience the sense of time bears little relation to the passage of time as measured by the absolute convention of the clock.

"...and you're happy with the time spent", to exclude time blindness, zoning out in a meeting, etc.

Strategy video games (Civilization series, SimCity, Total War series, Tycoon games) are right on the knife edge of this. I love the process. I love playing the game. Especially total war. I love conquering my neighboring nations and living out historical fantasies. But the next day, I feel awful.

Ah yes, though those tend to be "three minutes pass in an hour" for me.

Or that which open plan offices most effectively destroy.

Sad to hear. At one point I realized (due to his name) that three non-fiction books I read in a row all referenced his studies, despite spanning entirely different subjects. Clearly an influence on many authors and researchers.

can you tell us the titles of the books you've read?

I believe it was these three:

Daniel Kahneman, "Thinking, Fast and Slow"

Susan Cain, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking"

Daniel Pink, "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us"

So, maybe not entirely unrelated, but I certainly wasn't looking for a specific theme. Just working down my non-fiction list.

Might be a strange question to ask, but do you "get" anything out of reading non-fiction? Like, is there a substantive benefit you gained from reading these books?

As an adult human, my life experience contains too many variables to reach scientific certainty about the entire causal chain.

However, my early 30s were still marked with a heavy insecurity, ennui, lack of direction, failure to focus and achieve in the workplace, and failed romantic endeavors.

I began with work on boundaries and understanding self by Henry Cloud, ways to achieve like Find Your Strengths, and even business related work like Good to Great.

Flow was an excellent part of this collection, as it helped me turn work into something more enjoyable and progressive. Drive was very neat, and I really enjoyed Your Brain at Work.

I also have a personal interest in education, so I read a lot on that, including by Sir Ken Robinson. And I read Power of Habit.

Overall I think the things I learned improved my habits at home and at work, grounded me, improved my confidence, and made me a better resource for others. (Of course I must not assume I always have the answer or am absolutely right just because I read things in a book.) In general when I have deep conversations, I seem to be able to follow along and better understand how people work and how relationships work.

I'm very happy with my job, feeling very productive, significant and learning new skills (in my 40s). I've been married 6 years and have a very high satisfaction with our marriage. There's still a struggle with getting everything done I want, like gathering firewood for the winter, but largely I feel that I rise to meet my responsibilities.

Now I can't say how much came from dedicating time and effort into learning, and how much comes naturally from experience and age. But I certainly don't regret any of that self-education today.

Mortimer Adler's classic How to Read a Book addresses both the why and how. I'd suggest ... reading it, synoptically, to answer your question.


Simply: reading is communication over time. It enables earlier others to share their thoughts and insights. Often, as suggested in this thread, ideas arising in one domain have relevance in others --- they provide insights, clarity, metaphors, understanding, mechanisms, skills, ...

Why do you read Hacker News?

It is an interesting question, and one I think about once in a while. My recall of specific facts from books I've read is pretty terrible (not sure if this true for others, or if it is related to my aphantasia in any way). That's true both for fiction and non-fiction I read. That said, I do feel that a certain amount of knowledge does remain, somewhere below the surface. I can carry on a conversation on a variety of topics, concepts that I have encountered before are processed faster, my worldview shifts and expands. I have general awareness of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his work :) Is the benefit substantive? Hard to say. But I enjoy the process and get to be a slightly more well-rounded person, so why not.

That is an odd question to ask, lol.

It's a perfectly fine question. A lot of nonfiction books contain their authors' pet theories, along with a bunch of anecdotes and handwaving to make them seem justifiable or even scientific. Some of them quote "scientific" research from fields like psychology - but that research itself is hardly scientific (hence recent replication crisis) and is also used out of context in the book.

As for the question if these books add value - they certainly provide entertainment for the reader, but they may also warp his view of the world (if the reader is not careful, they may become convinced that the book's thesis is true even if the evidence/ancedotes laid out are hardly conclusive).

This seems like a very bizarre characterization. Technically On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and Relativity by Einstein are non-fiction. I'm very happy to say I've had my mind warped by their pet theories.

They both present compelling evidence and can be thus classified as science. Darwin spent a couple decades accumulating evidence before he wrote the book.

Also, majority of non-fiction textbook are about psychology, economy, sociology, history etc. which are vastly more intractable than biology and physics.

I agree -- it is an odd question to ask. One might as well ask, "Do you derive any benefits from this life thing?"

Tangentially related, but has anyone here read his other book, "Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention". I loved "Flow" (his main book) so I wanted to read something else from him, but somehow it was just not the same. In the Flow book, I understood which concepts I should understand as a reader and the background of them, including individual stories, was very coherent. I can't really say the same about the other book. I would be interested what others think about this.

ten years ago I took a college freshman course that centered around "Creativity." I've never actually read all of Flow and so "Creativity" was my introduction to the Flow concept. I was an art student at the time so it was convenient to have source material that did the work of showing me how any of this was relevant to what I do. That said, it definitely seems like "Creativity" was a re-hash of the concepts originated within Flow. It has been a long time since I read it and should probably revisit.

I often forget, but it was this book that helped me decide to become a programmer. I flip-flopped a lot between college majors and just generally what the hell it was i wanted to do for a living. The professor who ran that course asked me what job would easily create (and sustain) flow states for me. For me, it was programming that did the trick. Not even art, which i did for 12 hours a day at the time, worked quite as well.

For those interested in the flow state, I became convinced that this is the kind of state achieved while practicing Zazen meditation :


At one point, the only activity of being sit is the one necessary to reach the flow state.

I just checked Flow out from the library yesterday. :(

Mentions on HN: https://hacker-recommended-books.vercel.app/category/0/all-t...

Oh, what a loss. I think I first heard of his work in Lyall Watson's book Neophilia in the late 80s. I was so mesmerized by the concept of flow that was always looking for anything new Csikszentmihalyi had published, or any psychology or neuroscience studies about flow and related ideas on human cognition. He will certainly be missed.

That is a remarkable last name.

Never knew of this man, but getting into the “flow state” more often has become one of my core objectives in life. Sad to hear of his passing.

"Chick-sent-me-high" was given as a good approximation to pronounce his name in one of his books.

Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high-y would be my approximation for the full name. The Twitter post and the HN title has an extra ‘i’ after his first name. Rest in peace, nyugodj bekeben.

HN readers in Hungary are just waking up to this news, but I can confirm that's a pretty decent approximation.

cheek-sent-me-high would be even better.

One of the lesser known Hungarians (even Hungarians don't really know of him), but definitely remarkable life and research.

I can confirm this. On the back of "Good work" - book with Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi and Damon they mention the Chick-sent-me-high pronunciation.

Is chick-sent-me-holly wrong?

Yes. In Hungarian, ly is pronounced like y, the l is silent.

There was a recent episode of CBC Ideas discussing him and the concept of flow in general: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/flow-making-the-impossible-po...

(OT) One big problem of completely different languages sharing the same alphabet is the tendency to keep the spelling of names in the original language rather than convert it to reflect the way it may be read off in your own. For the life of me I can’t even guess how to pronounce this post’s title. (Or, when you have to call a guy whose last name - in English - is Chrząszcz, what do you do?)

The Mnemonic (which I heard from Merlin Mann's podcast) is to approximate the pronounciation of "Csikszentmihalyi" as "Chick sent me, hi"

He and his name have Hungarian origins, and Hungarian words can be pronounced letter-by-letter, with emphasis on the first syllable. The main problems: what are the letters (some consist of multiple characters), and how are they pronounced.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

- M: /m/

- i: /i/ approximately as in big

- h: /h/ as in “hi”

- á: /aː/ as in “father”

- ly: /j/ as in “yes”

- Cs: /tʃ/ as in “cheek”

- í: /iː/ as in “cheek”

- k: /k/ as in “cheek”

- sz: /s/ as in “scent” or “saint” (which means “szent” in Hungarian)

- e: /e/ as in “scent”

- n: /n/ as in “scent”

- t: /t/ as in “scent”

- mihály: as his first name

- i: /i/

Overall: /ˈmihaɪ ˈtʃiːksɛntmiˌhɑːji/ ≈ mihaay cheek-scent-mihaayi


You can't convert all names to English anyway, because there are sounds in some languages that do not exist in English.

I am Danish, and have yet to hear anybody not a Dane pronounce Søren Kierkegaard[0] correct. I wouldn't have a clue how to rewrite the name so that it becomes more clear.

[0]: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6c/Da-S%C3%...

But the pronunciation does not have to be correct. The way similar words (and names) are pronounced in a given language is a matter of that language alone. You cannot demand that a Chinese student must pronounce the name as a Dane would; you cannot require that a Russian student knows and uses the original spelling, either. So, Sorren Quirky Guard is the best I can do; my preference, of course, would be to have a more correct sounding "native" spelling that an English speaking person would be able to read.

I can wholeheartedly recommend languages which do not care about original spelling, either by having different alphabets (was it "Хрящ" you wanted to know? Easy-peasy in Cyrillic) or just imposing their own rules (e.g. Latvian: "Mihājs Čīksentmihāji"). Elsewhere, if you are e.g. learning German, you have to at least master German, English and French pronounciation with some bits of Latin grammar.

Proper pronunciation is, of course is a completely separate topic, because Chrząszcz, for instance, might end up sounding like “crotch” in English, even though in the original language it sounds different but uses phonemes that are difficult to approximate.

May his soul rest in peace _/|\_

May he flow in peace _/|\_

Tangential question: Could someone tell me how you're supposed to read "Csíkszentmihályi" ?

To me it seems that names are supposed to be broken up into their syllables, but I could be very wrong:


Essentially the same as:


If you look through the few dozen comments here, there's several threads about this. In fact, it seems to be the primary topic of conversation.





I remember a cassette set from 2 authors who referred to his works on creativity. They eventually met him and occasionally consulted.

The audio said, "His last name is pronounced Chick-SENT-me-high-ee. We call him Mike!"

It should be something like: tcheek-sent-me-hal-yee in english

With which accents? I teach and always embarrassingly stumble when I need to announce him.

As a musician his work has been immensely important.

Noticed there are two other stories on the HN front page now featuring pop psychology: one on Kahneman's work and another by Dunning. I wonder if this news is part of the reason why?

The correct name is Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (never mind the diacritics, but the "i" appended to the first name is definitely wrong).

Explanation for language nerds: Mihály is the Hungarian version of "Michael", Csíkszentmihály is a Hungarian village in Romania with a name derived from St. Michael (https://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mih%C4%83ileni,_Harghita), and the "i" at the end denotes a toponymic surname (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toponymic_surname).

"Cheeks sent me high"

Hungarian here: that is a remarkably close approximation. Almost perfect, except the vowel in "me" is longer than our short "i" which sounds just like the vowel in the word "in".

Looks like there are a whole bunch of towns with similar names: Csíkszentgyörgy, Csíkszentkirály, Csíkszentmiklós, ... (from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cs%C3%ADk_(disambiguation)) - Csík was a county of Hungary that's now in Romania, so a lot of towns in that area have Csík in their Hungarian names.

Fixed in title now. Thanks!

That was copy/paste from the tweet

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