Have you ever been in the zone? Are you an athlete, musician or performer and you have simply felt like you could perform no better than you were performing at that very moment? Even sitting at your desk writing the umpteenth boring report or memo you may have felt like the effort undertaking this task was going quite well, it was easy and required little to no effort. The little effort you put into this task resulted in report that was well-received by your boss or whomever was required to read it. You probably thought, “I could do this in my sleep.”
I remember watching Michael Jordon in the “shrug” game in the 1992 NBA Finalsfirst game against the Portland Trailblazers, sinking one three-pointer after another with seemingly little effort. The three-pointers just kept coming, and while Jordan was known for his dunks and his fade-away shots and his inexorable ability to “create” shots and subsequent points out of impossible situations, he wasn’t well known for his three pointers. As he hit one more shot, he turned around as he was heading down court to defend and simply shrugged as if to say, “I have no idea how I did that.”
Michael Jordan was in the “zone” as athletes like to call it, or as social scientists have identified as being “in flow.” Flow is a measurable and identifiable activity according to those who have studied it. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a social scientist has studied flow and wrote about it in his seminal book titled, what else but “Flow.” This book, in clear and plain language identifies the phenomena of flow and how it Is used to achieve peak performance among athletes, but also common every people like you and I. The main thesis of Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), is that happiness is not a fixed state but can be developed as we learn to achieve flow in our lives. In the flow state, control over the contents of our consciousness is exercised rather than allowing the mind to be passively determined by external forces.
More recently author Steven Kotlerhas written about flow and has developed something called the Flow Genome Project which is dedicated to studying flow and assisting people in achieving this altered state of consciousness. You can find his books, including a recent fictional tale called “Last Tango in Cyberspace” addressing high performance achievers and the concept of flow.
If you have achieved anything in life, and if you are a reader of this work, you will know flow, because you have undoubtedly experienced it and have been there. We all have, even though you may have not recognized it. Simply stated, flow is an altered state of consciousness wherein the individual is completing a task at a high level of performance. In flow, time seems to stand still, and the words, actions, activities in which the individual is performing comes with great ease and with nearly little conscious thought. Think of the great pianists like Van Cliburn(for those of you of a certain age) or Lang Langripping through the keys playing a Liszt Piano Concerto.Or perhaps watching Jimmy Pageor Eric Claptonshredding a guitar solo with ease. That’s flow.
Flow for you might be the times you are writing that report, giving a presentation or leading a brainstorming session where the ideas and creativity come with little effort. Or perhaps it is that time you surprise yourself with an amazing performance on the weekend 10K run for charity and crank out a personal record, and it really didn’t seem that hard. That’s flow.
What would your performance and your life be like if you could be “in flow” more often. What if you could always have the feeling of flow in your daily activities, whether it is in the Board Room, at the YMCA basketball pick-up game, disciplining your children, or even being intimate with your partner?
To get into Flow requires a few simple steps, to stay in flow requires some work. But over time getting into flow will be a habit you generate, and your habits become you. After a while being in flow will be the norm versus the exception as you go about work or play.
What follows are some very simple ideas about what Flow looks like. When people experience flow, it doesn’t matter if they are a weekend warrior at a 10K run, a chef at your favorite restaurant, a pro athlete making millions for hitting a kicking a ball, or a factory worker doing what seems like mundane and boring work, they all describe it the same way. Summarized below is what flow looks and feels like as identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.* In future posts I will explore Flow in more detail and provide a guide for everyday flowwhich I will also make available.
When one is in flow it has been described by the following characteristics:
- The goals and the deliverables are very clear. There is no question as to what you need to achieve or complete. The race or challenge has a clear and desirable goal and outcome.
- Immediate feedback is available. You know the steps taken to reach your goal are being reached because you can feel the pavement under your feet and the distance to complete the race is shorter and shorter.
- There is balance between what the challenge is, and the skills one has. The job or task isn’t too easy but not too difficult to present a major obstacle to completion. You know you can complete the task, because you have trained for it, you have been here before (almost).
- You are aware of your actions in a complete way. Distractions are at the minimal or non-existent. You are not thinking about anything but the task at hand and there is complete concentration. The is an ultimate convergence of thought and action.
- The dimension of time, past and future is non-existent. Time goes away, and the thoughts the past and future are absent. There is no feelings of remorse or guilt for things left undone in the past and no anxiety about things to be completed in the future. Time ceases to exist.
- Failure in not an option.In fact, there is no thought of failure. Failure in not an option because you are thinking simply about the present actions required to complete the task. Time, skills, and the task on hand morph together and failure is not even a thought that crosses your mind.
- The ego diminishes and self-consciousness disappears. The ego, wanting to protect you is absent and any thought of self-consciousness, or how we appear to others is gone. One does not care about what the ego is saying as the burden carrying its load is diminished or deleted. You are one with the universe and the challenge before you.
- Time disappears. A sense of time, hours and minutes is set aside. What may take seconds, sometimes appears to take minutes, but it is enjoyable and present versus being conscious of time.
- Activities become autotelic. Autotelicis Greek for doing things as an end in itself. Most of what we do in life is exotelic or done because we need to do these things to achieve a goal. We mow the lawn, wash the dishes or write the staff report because we must. In flow, the task becomes pleasurable and done for its own worth. Getting to the point where everything we do is autotelic creates ultimate fulfillment.
What if all of our activities, all of our tasks, all of the things we dislike doing became autotelic or achieved a state of flow? What type of fulfillment might that bring to your life? What type of achievement might that being to your job or profession? It takes a little work to get there, but one day you too can shrug your shoulders after writing that report and, as they once said, “be like Mike.”
A final thought. I have a friend, when faced with a task he either does not want to do or dislikes doing says: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” Is that not what we are talking about here? Take those tasks, those challenges and change them into something autotelic. Get “into it” and get into flow.
*Flow –The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Copyright 1990 Harper-Collins