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Cheating Chaos - Chapter 9 of "Flow"

“Many individuals who have suffered harshly end up not only surviving, but also thoroughly enjoying their lives.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This chapter of Flow, Cheating Chaos, may be my favorite in the entire book. Reading it was like finding the code to a secret message describing my life. Its sequence in the book felt a bit disparate to me, however, since in my own story chaos was the precipitating movement toward “flow” and not an endnote. It was not until I was in the midst of suffering that I began to understand how I had spent a great portion of my life merely surviving and it was through this new awareness that I was able to make a shift toward thriving.

By all outward appearances, my life (10+ years ago) was orderly and on track for the cover of “Storybook Lives”... until it wasn’t. A series of events involving my eldest child shook my family to its very core and left us gasping (and grasping) for new survival techniques. While I would not wish this chaos on anyone, it proved to be the pivotal turning point toward an enriched and flow-filled life. It’s amazing how life has its own agenda, isn’t it?

Mr. C indicates, “as long as everything is going well, living exclusively by genetic and social instructions is fine. But the moment biological or social goals are frustrated—which in the long run is inevitable—a person must formulate new goals, and create a new flow activity for himself, or else he will waste his energies on inner turmoil.”   

As Alex Karev (a character in television’s Grey’s Anatomy) said, “Maybe we have to get a little messed up before we can step up.” Or as a friend of mine sings in his poignant song, “I had to go there to get here.” Chaos gives us the opportunity to “step up” and reach new places we might not otherwise have considered had everything remained in a state of static status quo.


The primary thesis of Cheating Chaos is this: “How is it possible that people are able to achieve harmony of mind, and grow in complexity, even when the worst imaginable things happen to them? or “How does it come about that the same blow will destroy one person, while another will transform it into inner order?”

The initial answer comes in the form of our “coping resources” which can be broken into three categories:

1)    External support available (e.g. network of friends, family, insurance or monetary resources)

2)    Psychological resources (e.g. intelligence, education, relevant personality factors)

3)    Coping strategies (i.e. how a person confronts stress)

Number 3 is the most relevant when it comes to generating flow, because it is the one we have the most control over. While we can’t necessarily mandate how external support will arrive nor can we easily change our inborn personality traits, we can learn how to make lemonade from lemons. While we may not have a choice in our external circumstances, we do have a choice in how we respond (i.e. thoughts lead to action and, with practice, we can control them).

“Those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves, and emerge stronger from the ordeal.” M. Csikszentmihalyi


This is the part of the chapter that rang true to me like a crystal bell on a clear day. While I certainly didn’t begin by knowing how to transform a hopeless situation, I somehow mustered up the essentials for moving forward—courage, resilience, patience, and perseverance—and kept squeezing those lemons until they turned into something tasty. Along the way, I shored up my external and psychological resources while simultaneously enhancing my coping strategies by moving from a one-dimensional existence to that of transformed explorer and lover of life.

Mr. C offers three main steps that seem to be involved in such transformations:

1)    Unselfconscious self-assurance. I call this the “I have everything I need” step. By developing an attitude of believing their destiny is in their hands without becoming egotistical, individuals find a way to live in harmony with their environment rather than trying to dominate it. It requires a high level of trust of oneself, one’s environment, and one’s place in it.

2)    Focusing attention on the world. An open stance makes it possible for a person to be objective, to be aware of alternate possibilities, to feel a part of the surrounding world. It is a central mechanism by which adversity is conquered. I call this “Be open. Be curious. Accept versus expect.”

3)    The discovery of new solutions. Be prepared to perceive unexpected opportunities. My call? “Step out of the narrow box and allow the world to offer what it has to give.” If we always try to fit things into a neat and tidy box, we miss out on our true purpose in life. I lived more than half my lifetime as a “good girl” with a stable career and “normal” family. It wasn’t until my box got blasted apart and I was forced to discover new solutions that I truly started living... and I am so eternally grateful for the explosion!


This is the nutshell version of “Cheating Chaos.” Has this synopsis persuaded you to consider that chaos or tragedy could be part of a gift versus a curse? As I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t wish catastrophe on anyone, but Mr. C and I both agree that a certain amount of chaos is inevitable in life. The question is: how will you choose to greet it when it does arrive?

Today’s YOUwork is adapted from Martha Beck’s Steering by Starlight exercise, “Telling your Life Story Backward. I’ve redubbed it “How I Cheated Chaos”. In this exercise, I hope you’ll see how you’ve already (perhaps unknowingly) demonstrated the necessary skills for cheating chaos.

Click here for today’s YOUwork...


This post is part of "On the Same Page"... Summer Blog Book Club.

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