Reading Csikszentmihalyi on a family Bank Holiday in sunny France, I was reminded of the tyranny of progress and performance. 

Not that it was Csikszentmihalyi’s fault. We’d been talking with friends the night before going away about learning musical instruments and the merits of lessons and regular practice. 

Now I firmly believe that the best way to improve at anything is to practice regularly – the action of water on a stone is gradual, but inexorable. I have also learnt that the best way to practice anything regularly is to integrate it your daily routine. The problem is there are only so many hours in the day. What to do? More, less often?

I remember from my time working in advertising in France in the 1990s that people have predictable daily and weekly habits. But we do not generally form monthly habits and signally fail to form fortnightly habits. This gave rise to the unspoken rule, never buy an an Ad next to a monthly or worse a fortnightly TV show – they never pull in a regular audience and generally fail. Even if they are well liked once, people forget to tune in ever again. We are creatures of routine.

So where does that leave us with practice, hobbies and busy lives. My conclusion is the only practical options are dedicating daily or weekly slots. My daily slots are all pretty much full: kids, work, kids, eat, dishwasher, potter briefly, bed. 

The brief evening pottering – which recently was when I walked our ageing dog – is the remaining ‘purposeable’ slot. But a few minutes spinning the wheels, albeit aimlessly, seems a very small concession to relaxation. It’d take something ‘light’ and ‘fun’ to fit in edgeways in that small nook in a way that didn’t feel like a chore. 

The ukulele used to be that thing. And for nearly a year I played five songs nearly every night and went from hopeless and tuneless to strumming comparatively competently. Then the dog got incontinent and the habit got broken. So I could go back to the uke. But here’s where the tyranny of progress kicks in. Our friends feel I should have lessons, improve, look to play publicly or at least in private duets and preferably drop the four strings and migrate to a proper six string guitar. 

Phew. Where’s the eudaimonia in all that – the pressure to rapidly improve my skill to meet the challenge of musical excellence feels most unappealing. I said ‘no thanks’. They looked at me like I was mad – what’s the point of strumming the same five songs and never playing them with, or for, someone. Where’s the progress, where’s the performance. The point though – I think – is I quite enjoy it as a personal exercise for me, for ten minutes at night. The simple challenge I set myself is met by my rudimentary and very slowly improving strumming skill: producing modest, low-impact, private, musical ‘flow’.

Separately, on hols I was congratulated twice on my French – one woman said “Vous parlez très très bien Monsieur”. Another asked me if I was a French teacher in England. 

I had given up keeping up my French. I’d given up listening to ‘intermediate French’ audio magazines I subscribed to when I first came back from France. There were no opportunities to match my once reasonable skill with any worthwhile challenge at home. Talking about nothing much in French, just to speak French, seemed pretty pointless. And over time I felt myself going backwards which made matters worse.

But ‘flow’ in French has returned. Family holidays now provide me the perfect opportunity to navigate the modest but important challenges of travelling, accommodating, feeding and entertaining my little family. And they seem quietly impressed and genuinely grateful for my efforts. Now I have a stage on which to perform, some modest (daily?) investment in progress and improvement suddenly seems worthwhile – I’ll be looking at what the web has to offer for ‘intermediate French’ these days.

‘Flow’, progress and performance are closely intertwined, so much Csikszentmihalyi amply demonstrates. But I conclude the recipe and mix aren’t always the same. There are things we do well, some we may do very well and many we could do better. I believe good day-to-day ‘flow’ lies in accepting that not everything we do has to be excelled at. Sometimes the only audience that matters is ourselves. 


I’ve been working in the USA this week – same language, quite different working cultures. Still Brits talking to Americans is easy enough. But add Germans, South Africans, Sudanese, Cameroonians, Central African Republicans, French, Colombians, Turks, Japanese and Koreans – and an age range from 18 to 70 and you have plenty of difference to accommodate.

The very different people I was working with cared about very different things. They wanted to talk about different things and wanted to do different things. My job was to facilitate and find a collective conclusion. Enough to give me a thumping headache. But not this time. Why?

Usually on overseas work trips the combination of travel, missed sleep, wall-to-wall meetings, some sort of set piece event to speak at and produce an outcome from – plus lunch meetings and formal dinners – gives me a throbbing headache by 3pm on day one. It then goes on to throb the whole time I’m away. But this time, no headache. Why? Mainly thanks to an Aristotelian virtue – drawing my courage a little more from confidence than fear.

When I first read: “Courage is the mean between confidence and fear” it didn’t seem a particularly significant insight. My first thought was Aristotle was on about ‘courage’ in the sense of ‘fight or flight’ – there was after all a lot of fighting in ancient Greece. Given the clank of metal and the clash of swords is rarer these days, I didn’t think much about Aristotelian courage – one for the battlefield I thought. Who knows whether I’d stand and fight or run into a hail of bullets. Hopefully I’ll never find out. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see Aristotle’s point with ‘courage’ is as much about motivation as action.

I’ve come to realise that from school to university to the bigger world of work, I’ve used fear of failure as my prime motivation to perform. And it has always worked. Fear failure, worry the detail, think of what might go wrong, fire up the adrenaline, run flat out on intellectual broadband and the job gets done – and well. But at what cost? Stress, tiredness, raggedness, fraught, strung out and brittle.

So, thanks to Aristotle, once, a few months ago, when I started to feel the rising tide of anxiety and the throb of the vein in my head – the feeling of spotting and galvanising myself for another tough challenge – I stopped myself. I stopped myself from firing up my fear generator: what might go wrong, might I fail, what will people say, will I look like a duffer – and the killer: will someone say I did a bad job?

Instead I fumbled in my kitbag for something else – confidence. This could go well, I know how to do this sort of thing, I’ll be fine, who’s better than me to do this – and if someone says I did a bad job, so what, I’ll learn from it. The first few times I tried to do it I’d readily flip back to fear. I’d have to concentrate hard to find the courageous ‘golden mean’ with confidence. But with practice I’m learning how to plug in and stay more connected to confidence. And the courage to do new things with a smile flows from there.

As Aristotle said:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence [arete in his words], then, is not an act, but a habit.”

To help me form the habit, I’ve started to think of Aristotle’s courage as a choice between two different forms of energy. One is red, electrical, crackling and spitting like lightning or charge sparking from a Tesla coil – fear. The other is blue, pure, unwavering like a beam of laser light – confidence.

Both work. Both help me get the job done. But the red form is hot, sparky, volatile and the toxic by-products pollute my environment. The blue form is cool, reliable and powers me with clean reusable, renewable and sustainable energy.

In the USA I was running on ‘blue energy’ – better mastering myself, enjoying the experience more, enjoying the different people, performing and getting the job done. No headaches, heartaches, worries or lost sleep. I came home quietly pleased, quietly satisfied and with a spot more confidence to draw on.

Day to day courage, like the battlefield kind, is the mean between confidence and fear. Developing Aristotelian virtue and excellence is simply developing good habits. And, I’ve come to realise, what is at stake, is developing the courage to live a confident happy life – not one haunted by the spectre of constant fears, real or imagined.