“Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hungarian-American Psychologist and Author
January 22, 2022 ~ Telling stories has always been part of my nature. English teachers at James Lick High School gave me a strong foundation. At San Jose State University, my historical research and methods professor hammered home the point that writing is a craft that requires hard work and dedication. With infectious enthusiasm, her lectures inspired me to understand that every word, every phrase, every punctuation mark can make a story come to life. I was hooked.
Needless to say, I love to write. On Saturday, I was going through my ritual of preparing for the San Francisco 49ers vs. the Green Bay Packers playoff game. A pair of old worn jeans, vintage Jeff Garcia jersey, snapback baseball cap, Niners socks: CHECK. Game day snack menu: CHECK. Watching CNN, and chatting with Sandra and Marisa as the hours and minutes slowly ticked by: CHECK. Then, out of nowhere, the writing bug hit me.
Game preparations came to an abrupt end! When it’s time to write, I gotta write. Inspired by Professor Erma Eichhorn, I lovingly caress every word, every phrase, every punctuation mark in my effort to bring life to my thoughts. Sitting behind the laptop puts me in a Zen-like state. Nothing else seems to matter. Luckily, I finished before kickoff. I was fully present and excited when the Niners won with a last-second field goal!
April 10, 2018 ~ The Oak Grove High School gym was packed. Seated in chairs placed on the floor were some 200 East Side Union High School District Latino and Latina students being honored for academic achievement. Another 1,000 or so parents, family members, and friends filled the cavernous space. Even though I no longer served on the school board, the event organizers invited me to be the keynote speaker.
Public speaking is something I enjoy doing. Like writing, I found my passion for making speeches in college. The oral communications professor was an amazing communicator himself. With clarity and precision, he taught the importance of organization and speaking without notes. Perhaps his best advice was to speak from the heart once a structured outline is in place. During senior year, I sharpened those skills by tutoring freshmen students in his public speaking course.
When I stepped up to the mic at the East Side awards ceremony, my prepared outline was seared into my mind. The purpose of my remarks was to inspire students to embrace their dreams and work hard to achieve them. Thinking back to when I was their age as an East Side student, I put myself in their shoes. With laser focus, I talked for about 15 minutes. It was as if no one else was in that gym but me and each student. All went quiet in my mind until applause signaled the end.
March 30, 2010 ~ A Republican multi-millionaire tech executive named Steve Poizner scheduled a campaign event at Mt. Pleasant High School to announce the publication of his book, Mount Pleasant: My Journey from Creating a Billion-Dollar Company to Teaching at a Struggling Public High School. The book is about his experience teaching one class for one semester at the school. It was a vehicle to launch his education reform campaign.
As president of the East Side Union High School District board, I sent a letter to Poizner prohibiting him from visiting Mt. Pleasant for campaign purposes, citing California law. The book was filled with negative stereotypes about Latino kids and students in general from the east side. The community was in an uproar and planned to protest the candidate’s scheduled book signing later in the evening.
There was a mix of tension and anticipation outside of Barnes & Noble bookstore in Eastridge Mall. About 100 students, staff, and community members gathered there to take a stand against the book and its author. As Poizner approached the side entrance to the store, I asked him to justify his critical portrayal of our students. Unimpressed by his meaningless campaign talking points, I listened intently anyway, unaware of news reporters that crowded around us.
Hungarian American psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi could have described my state of mind in all three examples above as a “Flow State.” In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he introduces the theory that “flow” is a mental state in which a person is fully focused on an activity with “energy, full involvement, and enjoyment.” Athletes call this being in a zone. Forty Niners kicker Robbie Gould was in a zone when he made a high pressure field goal to win the game on Saturday.
Flow can be an antidote to anxiety and boredom. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it’s also a secret to happiness. He wrote, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” It can be anything that you’re passionate about. That’s when we’re happiest, his research shows.
I’ve written extensively on this blog about my 10-year struggle with heart failure and my emotional challenges related to post-transplant life. I’m pretty sure I was in a zone throughout the heart failure years. I was hyper-focused on eating a low fat low salt diet, taking medication as prescribed, and exercising no matter how tired I was. Despite the all-consuming nature of living with heart failure, I can say that I was pretty content during that time.
Transplant recovery and Covid isolation have been especially hard for me. My state of mind thrives on social interaction and withers in seclusion. When doing activities like those shared above, I’m definitely in a zone and in good spirits. Finding my flow has been elusive for at least two years. That’s been frustrating and dispiriting. Doing research, jotting down stories, and thinking about this post just might be the inspiration I’m looking for.
I find joy in writing, public speaking, and fighting for causes that are important to me. What better way to find my flow again than to do just that? In the coming weeks, I plan to finish writing the manuscript of my memoir, Summer in the Waiting Room: Faith, Hope, Love. The story is about how a heart attack, modern medicine, and faith in God converge to nourish an amazing spiritual journey. I hope to speak to individuals, small gatherings, and large groups about causes that matter to me: heart disease, faith, hope, and love.
I’ll move forward on this project much wiser. I no longer have the insatiable hunger to be “successful.” I’ve learned that working myself to the brink of death isn’t noble. Writing my story has taken more than seven years. Each word, each phrase, each sentence has been massaged with love, patience, and care. My goal for the Summer in the Waiting Room project is simple. I hope to educate readers about heart failure and inspire them to give faith a chance.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believed that anyone can achieve flow. He said that, “inducing flow is about the balance between the level of skill and the size of the challenge at hand.” It’s important to note that flow isn’t about work. It’s doing something that you’re passionate about. Go ahead, find your flow. It just might decrease your anxiety, free you from boredom, and help you discover happiness.
To read about the Steve Poizner incident, see the April 1, 2010 Los Angeles Times article below:
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Summer in the Waiting Room: Faith, Hope, Love, by Eddie García