Outstanding psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi died on October 20, 2021. Surprisingly, the story told by Shoe Project participant Irina Umnova is directly related to the meeting with this incredible scientist and man. In memory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we publish this story.
6 Minutes with The Shoe Project
Toronto, George Ignatieff Theatre, March 2020
I loved them. I loved them although I knew that I could never buy them. Shoes were very expensive during Perestroika in the Soviet Union, and besides, my size 12 was very hard to find. There was no reason to think or dream about those red, patent leather ballet shoes with bows.
Many years later, I saw them in a small, random store during my first business trip abroad—size 12, 19.99. Of course, I bought them.
Red shoes are a symbol of a courageous, self-confident woman. I wore my red ballerina flats until they turned into worn, old slippers. Then I kept them in my office just in case I might need them one day. And that day had come.
What happens to us when we organize an event that is highly significant and powerful? And it is you who are responsible for everything. Usually, after weeks of work, here comes the event, but we can’t even enjoy it. All we can do is worry. But…that was not the case this time.
Psychologies was a magazine I edited for some years. In the summer of 2012, we invited the outstanding American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to visit Moscow and speak about his concept of flow. Flow refers to the moment when we are completely immersed in an activity and feel the most complete satisfaction of our lives. We can only experience this harmony if we trust our feelings and desires and follow them.
This concept was quite new for Russians. Many generations had grown up in a completely different paradigm. The values of a group, a country, humanity—these were always much more important than an individual’s personal needs and feelings. Thinking about others first and ignoring oneself was the right—and the only—way to live.
The lecture was to take place in the iconic Moscow venue Polytechnic Museum. The details were finalized. Tickets were sold out. And I was ready to sink in my chair to listen to him.
Before leaving the office, I took off the high heels I always wore when working and grabbed my almost forgotten old red slippers. Surely, they would help me relax and feel pleasure. Then I took a taxi to the venue.
Almost a thousand people filled the magnificent hall. I was about to take my seat when, suddenly, my colleague approached. The celebrity who was supposed to moderate this event wasn’t coming. I had to replace him.
What? I did not want this! I’m not dressed for this! My high heels are in the office! I need my high heels!
“Flow refers to the moment when we are completely immersed in an activity and feel the most complete satisfaction of our lives.”
But here I am on stage. I am confused. I am upset. It is embarrassing to be here in old slippers. I start talking, but I stumble. I get lost: What will all these people think of me? I am in despair.
It becomes deathly quiet.
Suddenly, I understand that people are here to meet the Doctor of Psychology. They only want information about him. They do not care about me or what I am wearing. All it takes is 30 seconds for me to realize this. So, I put myself, my self-consciousness, in parentheses. Instantly, I feel free and easy. I start to speak calmly and clearly. Everything is fine!
Now I live in Canada. Every day I try to make my English better. I meet lovely people, but when I start talking to them, I am still embarrassed. I stumble in my speech. The language disappears, and the thought returns: What will they think of me?
The image of my old red shoes reminds me of why I am here. It’s almost as if they talk to me, tell me to let go. I forget how I look. It just ceases to bother me. I remember that I am here to listen, and to try to understand. And to speak so that I can be understood. I must do that the way that I can now. No more and no less. I must be patient.
I smile and continue the conversation. I am taking my next step. And my next step. And my next step.
IRINA UMNOVA, journalist and psychotherapist, arrived in Canada in 2015. In Russia, she worked as the deputy Editor-in-Chief of the international project Psychologies Magazine. She has a private practice in Toronto as a Registered Psychotherapist.
In memory Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi was born into a Hungarian family on September 29, 1934, in Fiume, a city now known as Rijeka, Croatia. His father became Hungary’s ambassador to Italy shortly after World War II, but when the Communists took over Hungary, the elder Csikszentmihalyi resigned and opened a restaurant in Rome. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dropped out of school to help support the family.
Witnessing the suffering of Europeans during World War II, Csikszentmihalyi became increasingly curious about happiness and creativity. His observations led him to question what made life worth living, and he began to explore art, philosophy, and religion. Then a lecture by Carl Jung piqued his interest in psychology and the traumatized psyches of post-war Europeans. At the age of 22, he immigrated to the United States to pursue his education.
Csikszentmihalyi became a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and Claremont Graduate University and the founder of its Quality of Life Research Center. He is noted for his theory of “flow”: a state of being in which individuals are so immersed in the joy of their work or activity “that nothing else seems to matter”. He outlined his theory in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a seminal 1990 book that has influenced both politicians and athletes, among others. For some, his work was “like a flashlight in a dark tunnel”.