Finding Flow: A Book Review
“It is the full involvement in flow, rather than happiness that makes for excellence in life.”–Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi
The other day I was in a brainstorming meeting with several people, including a client, when the concept of “flow” came up. The client leaned over to me and said, “You know, being in the zone”.
The conversation proceeded from there.
But, it left me thinking what really does it mean to be in the zone or to find flow?
We all have an image in our minds whether it’s Top Gun, or a sweat drenched athlete ecstatic in victory, or the musician lost in his craft, but what it is really and how do we get there?
So, I pulled Finding Flow off my shelf to re-read.
The book Flow is dense, full of research and nuance.
My memory of Finding Flow was that it was lighter and had applications beyond sport and coaching.
I was right on both counts.
It is still a wonderful read filled with insights about happiness and the power of intention in our lives. Rather than focus on the emotion of happiness he suggests we focus on purpose, which drives our actions.
As he says,
“In other words, the excellence of daily life finally depends not on what we do, but on how we do it.”
So, what is flow exactly?
Csikszentmihalyi describes it as an environment in which the challenge is significant, but we have the skills to match so that we are caught neither in boredom nor anxiety.
We lose ourselves in the task at hand.
Self-consciousness evaporates, problems and physical ailments are mitigated. Our focus is wholly on the task or event taking place.
“Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted; hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does is worth doing for its own sake;living becomes its own justification. In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own.”
Sounds pretty good.
How do we get there?
He lists several factors essential to reach flow:
1. A clear set of goals which creates clarity
2. Immediate feedback
3. Skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenging goal
The result is attention that is ordered and fully invested.
One does not find herself caught in boredom because the task is too easy, nor in anxiety because the challenge is beyond his skill set. Instead she is on that edge where he is challenged, reaching and engaged.
What are the implications for coaches?
Games provide a clear set of goals, immediate feedback and a challenging environment.
The bigger issue for a coach is to create a developmental environment that facilitates flow on a more regular basis. This might be difficult in a team sport with a wide range of abilities. Or for a team who dominates their league, or is always under-matched. The coach must find different ways to challenge the team or keep them engaged.
Keeping an eye on these three criteria can be very valuable in optimizing the experience and performance of the team.
This concept also contains powerful implications for the coach herself.
Coaching is a career designed to give an individual many opportunities for the flow experience. All of the necessary ingredients are often a part of our daily lives: clear objectives, immediate feedback and a challenging environment.
We have to be constantly learning and evolving to keep up with the demands of the game, the changes in the athletes we teach and the rapid development of our competitors.
A coach cannot stand still and succeed; growth is endemic to a successful career.
Here’s what the author says about the intrinsic rewards of some jobs. I think you can add coaching to the list:
“Highly productive and creative artists, entrepreneurs, statesmen and scientists tend to experience their jobs like our hunting ancestors did theirs–as completely integrated with the rest of their lives. One of the most common tropes in the nearly hundred interviews I conducted with such persons as Nobel Prize-winners and other creative leaders in different fields was “You could say that I worked every minute of my life, or you could say with equal justice that I never worked a day.”…For such individuals, flow is a constant part of their professional activity. Even though operating at the edges of knowledge must necessarily include much hardship and inner turmoil, the joy of extending the mind’s reach into new territories is the most obvious feature of their lives, even past the age when most people are content to retire.