The Ideaspace

Interviews, essays, and research exploring the frontiers of what's valuable and in our self-interest

Coherence and Flow

While I was the CEO of Kickstarter, I played in a long-running Dungeons & Dragons game with a group of my coworkers. (I blogged about this at the time here.)

If you’ve never played D&D, it’s basically an open-ended choose your own adventure game. The Dungeon Master lays out a scenario (following instructions in a book), and the players decide through conversation what to do.

In our initial times playing the game, we carefully debated and plotted to find the optimal answer to each situation. Every solution was bespoke. What was the right thing to do? We left no stone unturned.

One day we decided to approach the game differently. We decided our goal wouldn’t be to make the best decisions, or even to be the most victorious party. We decided our goal would be to conquer the evil creature that dominated our fantasy world, and to take their seat as the new force of evil ourselves. We were going to be the ultimate bad guys.

(You couldn’t imagine a more gentle group of people than our D&D group, btw. This is why we role-play…)

Once we decided on this goal, every situation became infinitely easier. We didn’t try to meet the situation according to its needs. We approached it from ours. Decisions weren’t things to get right. They were opportunities to manifest what we had decided to become.


I recalled my D&D experience this past week while reading the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalhyi at the suggestion of a Bento Society member (thanks Bud!).

The book is about how to cultivate optimal experiences in life and the science behind it. The psychologist Csikszentmihalhyi spells out the ultimate ideal: “To create harmony in whatever one does is the last task [for] those who wish to attain optimal experience. [It] involves transforming the entirety of life into a single flow activity, with unified goals that provide constant purpose.”

When our lives are driven by a purpose we create a “unified flow experience.” Not just in the moment. Through all of life. Every action we take ends up supporting that goal.

Think of the evil intentions of my coworkers and I playing D&D. Every action was in support of a singular goal. This clarity of purpose is what unites heroes, villains, and saints.

It’s also something most of us struggle to find.

This is where the bento comes in. The bento helps us find our flow state to each decision and, as we discover our purpose, in all of life. What Csikszentmihalhyi calls a “unified flow experience” we call “self-coherence.” Acting, deciding, and living life in a way that’s in-line with all dimensions of who we are.


Group Bento — Wednesday June 24, 2020 — 16 attendees

In last week’s Group Bento we explored the question: what are you growing into? What is at the edge of who you are? What is that purpose that’s pulling you forward? What is the thing that you are but aren’t yet?

We took two minutes to write down what we saw at the periphery of our growth, framed as where we wanted to be at the start of next year. Everyone was asked to write down what was different between that person and who they are right now.

We then split into groups of three. In smaller groups each person had ten minutes to present their future selves and to hear questions and perspectives from the group.

I observed each group and could see the anxiousness that frequently came with sharing your future vision. For some it seemed to be their first time saying these ideas out loud. People talked about what was scary, hard, and motivating about where they wanted to grow. Having others take it seriously, ask questions, and seek to better understand them was unexpected for them.

I asked everyone to spend another minute writing about that future version of themselves with the added knowledge of the conversations they had. We closed with a meditation where we tried to hear, see, and touch the Future Me that we are but aren’t yet.

The visions we named may become life-defining purposes for a few in the group. For others these visions will be stepping stones to something else. All of us are a step closer to discovering our coherence and flow. And with the bento, we’re learning to articulate and practice it, too.

DO try this at home

What are you growing into? Where might you be in six months or a year? What’s the thing you think might be developing inside or around you? What if the thing you’re working hard to make happen actually does happen? What then?

Take two minutes to write down a description of that vision. What that Future Me is doing. Why they’re doing it. Take another minute to write down how that person’s life differs from yours right now.

In the coming week, try listening to that voice and letting it guide you. Pay attention to its priorities and ideas. Make space to journal from its perspective.

To hone your Future Me even more, join an upcoming Weekly Bento session to practice with others.


“The wealth of options we face today has extended personal freedom to an extent that would have been inconceivable even a hundred years ago. But the inevitable consequence of equally attractive choices is uncertainty of purpose; uncertainty, in turn, saps resolution, and lack of resolve ends up devaluing choice. Therefore freedom does not necessarily help develop meaning in life on the contrary. If the rules of a game become too flexible, concentration flags, and it is more difficult to attain a flow experience. Commitment to a goal and to the rules it entails is much easier when the choices are few and clear. This is not to imply that a return to the rigid values and limited choices of the past would be preferable — even if that were a possibility, which it is not. The complexity and freedom that have been thrust upon us, and that our ancestors had fought so hard to achieve, are a challenge we must find ways to master. If we do, the lives of our descendants will be infinitely more enriched than anything previously experienced on this planet. If we do not, we run the risk of frittering away our energies on contradictory, meaningless goals.”

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalhyi, Flow

Peace and love my friends,

The Bento Society