Last night, I hosted a dinner party. It has been quite a while since I’ve hosted one. It was a magical evening, and I actually feel like I levelled up my culinary skills. I made an appetiser – Samosas – followed by Thai yellow curry and Chana Masala, finished with a Thai dessert, mangos with coconut sweet rice. I was a chef, not just a cook, and I was totally in my element. Though, I am not sure I can say that, while it was going on, I had fun. This morning, I look back, and laugh, sick with joy and overeating, and say, “Man, it was so fun!” But it didn’t feel fun while it was happening.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is renowned for defining and exploring “Flow.” We all know what the word means, but he is referring specifically to a state of mind. You have felt it before, guaranteed. Think of something you love doing. Something challenging, that you’ve been doing for a while, and have come a long way since you started. Perhaps it’s painting, running, video games, or some task at work. When you do it, time passes like nothing. You are totally absorbed, overcoming challenges (maybe self-imposed ones), and you know you’re doing well. You even lose sense of who you are while you’re in it. For you, it’s a Flow activity.
One of the most interesting points I read in Flow was that these activities are not always fun – in fact, they can be downright painful – but they are always enjoyable. Enjoyment and pleasure are not the same thing. They can come together, but often don’t. If I’m shooting heroin, yeah, I have lots of pleasure, that’s the whole point. But afterwards, when I look back, did I enjoy it? Not likely. On the other hand, if I am playing a particularly difficult video game, and swearing at it, banging my head against the screen, it’s not fun in the least, but man, I keep doing it because I enjoy it. I feel like a stronger person afterwards. This is what we want in our activities.
Which brings me back to the dinner party.
We (my friend and I were having a culinary competition) started cooking, in earnest, at 17h00, and guests were to arrive at 19h00. I had planned out my process: the whole meal was going to take, from start to finish, 3.5 hours. This left a good 1.5 hours while guests were there that I’d still be cooking. I was ON, constantly, for even longer, about 4-5 hours, getting shit together, chopping, frying, cleaning, mixing drinks, chatting, talking shit, looking at recipes, drinking sake, etc. I had no concept of time. I was in the zone. The meal was all that mattered (and the guests, of course!). It was stressful! I didn’t feel like I could rest, even after everyone left, because there was always something to do. But this morning, I woke up, and thought about the process, people’s reactions to the food, MY reaction to the food (it was bloody amazing)… and laughed a boyish laugh.
One moment in particular struck me. I had just gotten together the Thai curry and was doubting that I’d be able to do the Masala. Surely, I could just do the curry, and it would be okay. I mean, it probably would have. But as soon as the curry was ready, I looked around and thought, “What next?” The answer, of course, was “Do the Masala.” Not, “I have a moment, I can sit and relax, fuck the Masala.” I had planned for this moment, I wrote it all out, step by step, and here I was, at step 9/10, and it came together. I didn’t stop to congratulate myself – what’s a self? – all that existed in the world was the tomato/onion paste, spices, chickpeas, and squash, for the next 10 minutes. That’s the moment I levelled up. I kept on that level until the dessert was done, even when more doubts (ah, we don’t really need this dessert, you never make dessert, it will take too long) struggled to be heard.
Someone at the party said, “I can’t believe you guys volunteered to do this, for fun!” Well, neither can I. It wasn’t just for fun. It was for the experience, and it was for my friends. Everything worth doing in life is hard. Embrace it! and you will be rewarded.
Thanks for reading. Go challenge yourself!