About a month back, my organization—the Flow Genome Project—put out a call for questions. We asked our community, when it came to understanding flow states, if there was anything they’d really like to know. We got a pretty healthy response. Then, after I published a few blog posts on the topic here, even more queries came. In reading through everything, most everyone zeroed in on three overlapping issues: Who can enter into flow; How do the different on-ramps into flow work; and, Is the state the same for everyone. Let’s take a closer look
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Who Can Enter Into A Flow State?
Everyone, literally. Flow is ubiquitous. The state can show up in anyone, anywhere provided certain initial conditions are met
One of the main reasons we know this is because of Drucker University psychologist and groundbreaking flow researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Back in the 1970s, while running the University of Chicago’s psychology department, Csikszentmihalyi performed one of the largest psychological studies ever—literally going all over the world asking people about the times in their life when they felt their best and performed their best.
He started out with expert level performers—surgeons, musicians, dancers, rock climbers, chess players, etc.—then moved into more regular folk: Italian farmers, Navajo sheep herders, elderly Korean woman, Chicago assembly line workers, Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members—this list goes on and on. And no matter where in the world he went or what patient population he studied, when people felt their best and performed their best, flow was the only constant commonality.
Of course, in the years since this early work, hundreds of other researchers have validated these findings. The ubiquity of flow is now one of the most well-established ideas in the field. In fact, it goes even farther than that. Because of similarities in neurobiology, flow states aren’t a human-only phenomena. There’s considerable research showing these states arise in canines, primates and—some have speculated—can be found in all higher order mammals.
Are There Different On-Ramps Into Flow?
This is sort of an extension of the first question, though it has a slightly different answer. As of right now, researchers have identified about 17 different flow triggers—that is, pre-conditions that lead to more flow. There are 3 environmental triggers, 3 psychological triggers, 10 social triggers and, as of right now, 1 creative trigger.
I won’t go into too much detail here (it takes about 90 pages to explore these ideas in Rise), but I will try to put some context around these triggers.
Take “high consequences”—a.k.a. risk—which, as many know, is a frequent and potent flow trigger. A lot of people—especially action and adventure sports athletes—ride this trigger into flow. Yet risk doesn’t only have to by physical. It can be emotional, intellectual, social—doesn’t matter. Artists get into flow nearly as frequently as athletes by taking creative risks. Check out Two-time Sundance winner Ondi Timoner talking about how film editing puts here into flow here. Truthfully, though, when it comes to risk, it’s really dependent on the individual. A big wave surfer may need to ride Jaws to pull this trigger, but an ordinary shy guy needs only to cross a room to talk to a pretty gal to do the same.
Moreover, risk is merely one gateway. Makers of all varieties—whether we’re talking about computer coders or synthetic biologists—follow the deep hours of uninterrupted concentration required by their efforts right into the state. Last week, I was speaking with Jay Rogers, the CEO of Local Motors (the world’s first successful open source car company) about the deep flow that comes from working on cars.
Athletics of all varieties also work well. This doesn’t just mean action and adventure sports. Bat-and-ball sports, track-and-field sports, doesn’t matter. Back in 1990, for example, Csikszentmihalyi point out: “The similarities between yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact, it makes sense to think of yoga as a thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which, in turn, is made possible through discipline of body.”
Altruism is another gateway. Back in the 1990s, Big Brother/Big Sister founder Allan Luks discovered there’s an altruism-backed flow state called “Helper’s High.” Originally, it was believed to show up only in hands on acts of altruism—like joining the Peace Corps or volunteering in a soup kitchen—but has since turned up in far more ordinary examples—like bidding at a charity auction.
Tangentially, one of the reasons we may be seeing such incredible success for microlending websites like Kiva.org—which allows you to make zero-interest micro-loans (usually less than $100) to people in developing countries—may be because making these loans produces a low-grade flow state and that state is extremely addictive.
In business, flow shows up everywhere as well, but is most commonly associated with startups. This has to do with the fact that entrepreneurial environments are packed with flow triggers. More importantly, the state also appears to one of the major dividing lines between business success and failure. “Because entrepreneurship is about the non-stop navigation of uncertainty,” says former Yahoo head of innovation turned Singularity University global ambassador, Salim Ismail, “being in flow is a critical aspect of success. Flow states allow an entrepreneur to stay open and alert to possibilities, which could exist in any partnership, product insight or customer interaction. The more flow created by a startup team, the higher the chance of success. In fact, if your startup team is not in a near constant group flow state, you will not succeed. Peripheral vision gets lost and insights don’t follow.”
Are There Variations Within Flow?
Yes, absolutely. Csikszentmihalyi identified ten core components that denote a flow state. These have since been validated by a throng of other researchers. His full list is below. But what’s important is that all ten of these conditions do not need to show up to produce flow. The state exists on a spectrum, sort of like any emotion. With anger, you can be a little bit irate or homicidally enraged. The same thing is true for flow. You can be in a state of “micro-flow,” when only a few items on Csikszentmihalyi’s list are present, or in a state of macro-flow, when all ten show up at once. Here’s the list:
Clear goals: expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities. Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
Concentration: a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.
Distorted sense of time: one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
Direct and immediate feedback: successes and failures are apparent, so behavior can be adjusted as needed.
Balance between ability level and challenge: the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult.
A sense of personal control over the situation.
The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so action is effortlessness.
A lack of awareness of bodily needs.
Absorption: narrowing of awareness down to the activity itself.
If you want to learn more about flow and optimal performance, be sure to check out my forthcoming book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.
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