The Power of ‘Red Threads’ and Discovering Activities You Can Get Lost In

UPDATED: June 26, 2023
PUBLISHED: April 7, 2022
The Power of ‘Red Threads’ and Discovering Activities You Can Get Lost In

Before you do something, love feels like instinctively wanting to do it.

While you are doing something, love feels different. It feels like time speeding up.

Have you ever noticed how this feeling called “love” does something strange to this reality called “time?” How, when you are in love with someone, time seems to both speed up and slow down, depending on whether you’re in the presence of the one you love? Before you’re with your lover, time drags and slouches, and each moment stretches out to its very limit. You can’t wait, but time makes you wait, and wait and wait some more, as it slowly inches its way up the ever-steepening hill.

Then, finally, you and your lover are together. Time meets you on the summit… and immediately throws itself off, dashing, rushing, rolling down the hill, picking up speed, the hours turning into minutes, the minutes into seconds, the seconds vanishing and you look up at the clock and your time is up. Your whole day together speeds by in what seems like half an hour.

When you’re doing an activity you love, the same thing happens. You get so deeply connected to what you’re doing that the moments flow together, smooth, easy, inevitable. You don’t experience the activity as a sequence of defined steps, separated from you, outside of you, one taken and completed before the next is taken. Instead, the activity seems to meld with you, and you experience it from the inside out. As if it’s a part of you.

It’s hard to describe this feeling, but we’ve all had it. When we are inside an activity we love, we are enveloped, so in the moment that we are no longer aware of ourselves. You are not doing the activity. You are the activity. The eminent positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this feeling flow and said it was the secret to happiness.

We don’t necessarily need complex positive psychology theories to identify which specific activities we love. We just need to watch out for when our time flies by. When we and the thing we are doing become one.

Bored of the Rings

Every boy has a choice, so my brother, Neil, told me: you’re either a Lord of the Rings boy or a Narnia boy. (I’m not sure what choice girls had. My brother never told me.) And if you’re a Lord of the Rings boy—as he was—then you have to decide if you identify with Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas or Frodo. Neil was more of an Aragorn. I, apparently, could choose whomever I liked, but probably not Aragorn.

“How will I know?” I asked.

“Oh, you’ll know,” he said. “Everyone does.”

So, I began reading The Fellowship of the Ring and waited for the clues to show me who was my spirit guide through Middle-earth.

My problem, which revealed itself about a quarter of the way into the book, was less that I didn’t know who to root for and more that I didn’t care for any of them. To be honest, I didn’t care about any of them. I was bored. By the Hobbits, by the Nazgûl, by the people they globbed onto along the way, by the entire mission itself. It just didn’t seem terribly interesting. Or important.

“That’s OK,” Neil assured me. “You’re a Narnian.”

So, I tried The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Which also failed to grab me at all.

“Don’t worry,” said Neil. “Try The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Even LOTR lovers love that one.”

So I did. And I didn’t. Love it, that is. Not any of it. I found the book so put-downable that I didn’t even get to the “best bit,” where Eustace turns into a dragon.

To Neil, I was a bit of a lost cause. To myself, I was a big disappointment. I was odd: Why didn’t I dive into these books and love them the way other kids did? Maybe I just wasn’t a reader. If reading was supposed to be fun, and these books were the funnest of the fun books, then, well, that left me outside of the circle, a nonreader.

I sort of stayed that way for the next few years. Yes, I would occasionally try my hand at a little science fiction, and yes, of course, I would read what my school assigned me to read, but reading for pleasure? No, sorry, not for me. I’m just not a reader.

And then The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin landed in my stocking one Christmas morning. 

I don’t think I stopped reading the entire day. I was late for breakfast. Snuck the book into church. Missed the Queen’s speech, the Morecambe and Wise comedy special, had to be dragged into the living room for the traditional Christmas-night game of charades.

I fully admit that to you—and to many, many other people—Boorstin’s book may read like the phone book. But to me it was riveting. It is the story of us human beings as discoverers. It contains no dragons, no talking lions, no dwarves and no Gollum. Only real men and women grappling with how our world works and how we came to live within it.

This sort of stuff may bore you to tears, but me, I was hooked. 

In school I didn’t particularly care for physics or chemistry, and any classes on philosophy were met with one massive yawn, but this book was different. This was a whole book devoted to thousands of people all asking “Why?” Why does the light of a thunderbolt always precede its sound? Why does a heavy boat float, and when and how can you make it sink? Why do all creation myths around the world have such striking similarities? Why does every human society ritualize death? These questions were, for me, as breathtaking as anything that Frodo might be doing with his ring. They drew me in and encircled me, and then lifted me up and transported me back to ancient Alexandria, to London during the Great Fire of 1666, to Marie Curie and her fatal laboratory.

I was a reader after all. Just not a reader of fiction. But any book where the author was trying to peel back the layers of the world, and in particular how we humans move through the world, was almost instantly riveting to me. 

Find Your Red Threads

Did I know that my interest in these sorts of books would guide my career and lead me to leave my home and family for the American Midwest? No, not really. To begin with, my interest was just a sign of something I loved, something not shared by my family or friends, something about me I could hold on to as I tried to figure out how to make myself useful in the world.

You’ll have activities like this. Activities where you disappear within them, and time flies by. Think of these as your “red threads.” Your life—at school, home, work—is composed of many threads, many different activities, situations, people. Some of these threads are black, white, gray, brown, emotionally meager, a little up, a little down, don’t do much to move the needle.

But some of them are red. Red threads are made of a very different material. They appear to be extremely positively charged. You find yourself instinctively wanting to pull on these threads. And when you do, your life feels easier, more natural, time rushes by. These threads are the source of your Wyrd, your uniqueness, felt and then expressed in certain activities.

The Red Thread Questionnaire

The conventional wisdom tells you that your past behavior is the best predictor of your future behavior. However, importantly, the data reveals something different: your frequent past behavior is the best predictor of your frequent future behavior.

So, to help you identify your red threads, the trick is to identify your frequent patterns. And the best way to do this is to prompt yourself to think about a time, an instant, when something happened that made you feel a certain way. Because if I prompt you to think of an instant that’s specific by time or by person or by situation, and something immediately pops into your mind, the chances are that this instant is not a one-off, but is instead part of a pattern that happens frequently. If something is happening to you frequently then, no matter when I nudged you, a specific instance would pop into your head because this sort of instant, whatever it may be, is happening all the time.

Once you identify these red threads, your challenge will be to weave them into the fabric of your life, both at home and at work. We’ll get into how to do that later in the book, but for now please know that you do not need an entire quilt made up of only red threads. You don’t need to “do only what you love.”

Instead, you need only to find specific loves—red threads—within what you do

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from LOVE + WORK: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do, and Do It for the Rest of Your Life by Marcus Buckingham. Copyright 2022 One Thing Productions Inc. All rights reserved. Photo by @kytawillets/Twenty20

Marcus Buckingham

Marcus Buckingham is the author of two of the best-selling business books of all time, has two of Harvard Business Review’s most circulated, industry-changing cover articles, and has been the subject of in-depth profiles in The New York
Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, Fortune, Fast Company, The Today Show, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. After spending two decades studying excellence at the Gallup Organization and co-creating the StrengthsFinder tool, he
built his own Coaching + Education firm, The Marcus Buckingham Company. As CEO, he quickly turned it into a Human Capital Management company working with some of the world’s largest organizations. He is known as the world’s most
prominent researcher on strengths and leadership at work, and today leads research at the ADP Research Institute. Challenging entrenched preconceptions about achievement to get to the core of what drives success, Marcus’s strengths-
based approach is defining the future of work as we know it. He is the author of nine books, and his previous book—Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World—takes an in-depth look at the lies that pervade our workplaces and the core truths that helps us change it for the better.