Challenge v Skills – The little graph that says a lot

This week I came across an innocent looking line graph that I’d not seen before, in a book by Derren Brown. The book is excellent, and at just 99p for the kindle edition a bargain as well. Well, I mean I’ve seen a graph like it before, but not illustrating this particular point. It looked like this.Graph of skills vs challenge

Now, this reminded me of a model that I’d come across some time ago.  The model is from the crazy times of the 1970s, and from work by a person called Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (try pronouncing that without difficulty!). At it’s simplest it suggests that there is a sweet spot between challenge and skills, and that does seem to make some sense.

Consider a person with a whole bunch of skills, but in a job that requires them to scrape powdered milk of the top of a container every five minutes (if that sounds a strange example, that’s a job that a friend of mine once had.. anyway). I would suggest that, certainly over the medium to long term, that person is not going to be very satisfied. Then consider the opposite where a person has a lot of challenge, perhaps they are being asked to program a new reporting system for a university (that was me!), but they don’t have all that much programming skills (also me!). Again, this is a recipe for not being all that satisfied.  What Mihály is suggesting is that at at 45 degree angle on the graph there is a sweet spot that they call flow. If you are operating inside a band around that angle then all is good. If you are not then you may be experiencing anxiety (more challenge than skills), or boredom (more skills than challenge).

The model has a lot more applications, and I was encouraged to see how it applied to other areas, and could be developed into a whole bunch of scales and models, however I believe there is a very simple application which applies to many of my coaching and mentoring conversations. 

Many people I see have a feeling that they struggle to name. Sometimes it’s a sense that they are not being fulfilled, or they may describe it as uncomfortable or not feeling “in the zone”. When people use this language it can be useful to see if the zone they are describing is actually the zone of flow in the diagram above, and to explore how challenged they feel compared to their skills to undertake that challenge. Often this opens up a discussion around training or competency in a certain area.

Others describe, using the words “boredom” or “restlessness” a situation where they are longing to move on, to discover now things, to have new experiences. Again, it can be useful to realise that this model may have something to give, and to explore the concept of skill verses challenge.

At the very least, it’s good to refresh ourselves with this simple context and reflect upon how it might apply to everything from long term career plans, to our ability to put up a shelf. 

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