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  • Writer's pictureKatrina Grossman

flow state

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

The 'flow state' is defined as the experience you might have when you are immersed in an activity where you lose sense of time and space. As it lives at the intersection of high skill and high challenge, it is associated with both peak performance and deep enjoyment. Many people who have a creative streak will recognize this state of being; where they look up like a waking dreamer from their art medium, instrument, or coding project and realize that hours have passed while they were immersed in creation. People have described it as a loss of self-consciousness and ego, or even as the channeling of something greater than they are. (If you are curious, there are some beautiful articles on what happens within the brains of improvisational jazz musicians, rappers, and comedians while they are in the zone; here is one of them)

Some people may enter the flow state more easily than others, and some people may not experience a flow state within their lifetime. That is totally alright. In this article, I am using flow to highlight the power of perceived skill versus perceived challenge. As you can see from the image to the left, the flow model by Csikszentmihalyi, there is a correlation between confidence in one's skills and the more desirable psychological states. Interestingly enough, the only real difference between control and worry is how one thinks about and approaches challenges. Or more specifically, if you trust yourself to have the flexibility and resilience to adapt to changes, and if you enjoy learning.

Let me draw your attention to a phrase I mentioned earlier: I am using flow to highlight the power of perceived skill versus perceived challenge. I could be engaged in the same exact activity at two different times and with two different mental states and have wildly different experiences. For example, say I play piano. When I am practicing alone I can play a song over and over again, my fingers knowing exactly where to go, my heartbeat slow and steady, my eyes soft, my body swaying slightly to follow the traveling of my hands across the keys. It doesn't matter to me if I miss a note every now and then, I just keep playing, enjoying the experience of the connection I feel to the music. Now say I am joined by a concert pianist who I very much want to impress, but I feel as though my level of skill is child's play for this person. I am suddenly aware of my lack of formal training and practice, and I am positive I will make a fool of myself. They probably learned this song when they were ten years old. I notice my heartbeat is rapid, my hands are clammy, and I'm having trouble concentrating on reading the sheet music. How do you imagine I will perform now?

My actual skill level did not change. I didn't somehow become worse at piano because someone better showed up; rather, how and why I was engaging in the activity shifted. I was no longer playing for my intrinsic enjoyment, but instead I was performing to impress. Furthermore, I became stuck in my comparing mind, regarding myself as inferior to this other person and imagining their judgement. My perceived skill had just plummeted, nothing more.

So what if I instead changed my perspective, shifting from competition to collaboration? The concert pianist knows that I am not a professional musician and certainly doesn't expect me to be as technically skilled as they are. Then what are we sharing? It is the love of the thing. It is our relationship with ourselves when we play, and the pleasure of the challenge. From this place I can embrace that my skill level is my own and I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

The moral of the story is this: You are the agent of your own destiny, and you create your reality.

The other day a friend and colleague of mine compared neural pathways to paths through a wild, grassy field, saying that the creation of new pathways is like taking a new direction across that field. The more you travel it, the deeper and wider it gets. If the old path ceases to be traveled, the grass will eventually take it back over. So if the widest, most traveled path across the field of your mind is toward fear and self-judgement, try to cut a new direction today toward curiosity and confidence, even if it is awkward and unwieldy at first. Over time, it will become easier and easier to travel, and eventually your first instinct when confronted with a challenging situation will be "yes, let's play!"


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