Flow is the mental state of a highly motivated individual when fully engaged in a chosen activity. The person is immersed in a feeling of energized focus and a sense of total involvement. Flow is completely focused attention; it is a single-minded absorption into an event. In flow state, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but they are positively energized and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is feelings of spontaneity, freedom and joy while performing a challenging activity at the peak of one’s talents and capabilities.
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (who I refer to as “Dr. C”), wrote “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance.” He grew up during World War II in what is now Croatia, where he witnessed tragic and horrible conditions. Dr. C was fascinated by watching the adults who kept their heads and rose above their dismal circumstances to stay clearly focused on what they wanted to accomplish. He eventually wrote a dissertation on creativity and became a professor at the University of Chicago.
Dr. C interviewed more than 8,000 individuals about their richest life experiences. He focused on people who described being engaged in enjoyable yet highly challenging activities. Dr. C spoke with visual artists, composers, competitive athletes, dancers, musicians, chess players, rock climbers and many others about what they experienced when they were totally involved in their chosen pursuits and performing at their peak level of functioning.
In the interviews, people described their peak experiences feeling like water in a stream flowing smoothly. His own description of flow was “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Flow can also be thought of as a state where focused attention, strong motivation and a challenging situation intersect, resulting in a productive harmony of peak functioning.
Dr. C found that individuals with an “autotelic” personality trait were better equipped to enter into flow states and remain there longer. These traits include curiosity, persistence and a preference for highly challenging activities that demand undivided attention. These endeavors cause individuals to transcend normal states of consciousness and ordinary levels of functioning. A person like this enjoys what they do to the max, especially when they’re in flow. The autotelic personality has five main characteristics, which he called the “five C’s.” They are: clear goal, continuing feedback, choice, commitment, and challenge.
Each interviewee started out with one clear goal that had many checkpoints along the way. For example, a chess player needs to know if every move is getting them closer to winning or losing. A musician may opt to play with a beautiful sound or execute a musical phrase exactly as they want. Continuing feedback is essential to keeping focused on the task at hand and remaining in flow. Choice indicates that you have chosen a task that you not only want to do, but you love to do. The fourth characteristic is the ability to fully commit: to give everything that you have to reach your best. An autotelic person will pursue increasingly greater challenges after achieving a peak experience, constantly seeking higher motivation.
When people are engaged in challenging activities that require a high degree of concentration, they’re able to get beyond life’s daily frustrations, worries, and doubts. If they’re performing music, they can’t be worrying about their unpaid bills, or they’ll miss a note. If they’re rock climbing, and think about some problems at work, they’ll fall. They can’t afford to let their minds wander. When a highly challenging situation demands our total attention, less critical concerns quickly disappear. In the flow state, the attention that is usually split is merged into a single, highly concentrated laser beam of focused awareness. People who are in flow are much more efficient in their actions.
In flow, there is a merging of effortless action and awareness. People become completely absorbed in the challenging activity and what they’re doing in the here and now. The focus of their awareness is narrowed down to the task at hand and nothing else. Finally, there is a necessary surrendering or “letting go” to the experience, enjoying the bliss to the max for as long as possible. There is a lack of self-consciousness, namely a dropping of the ego. After flow experiences, people feel good about themselves and grateful for what they experienced after releasing their self-consciousness.
There is a critical balance between the level of difficulty and the participant’s ability to meet that challenge. When activities are too easy, not requiring full involvement or attention, people get bored and are easily distracted. If the activities are beyond people’s skill level, they get intimidated, anxious, defensive, frustrated, and often give up, or simply don’t enjoy the experience. In the flow state, you are always playing on an edge. It is an edge where control is possible, but not always guaranteed. You can fall off that edge if you lose your focus or if you don’t use your skills to their full potential. That’s what makes flow exciting and demanding.
Reaching flow state is the most desirable accomplishment in any endeavor. The accompanying joy and feeling of satisfaction can propel you to keep at a difficult task. I think everyone is capable of reaching that flow state if they remain focused and emotionally positive when performing. Sometimes the most secure performance comes from taking the greatest risks.
Dr. Don Greene, a peak performance psychologist, has taught his comprehensive approach to peak performance mastery at Juilliard, Colburn School, New World Symphony, Los Angeles Opera Young Artists Program, Vail Ski School, Perlman Music Program, and the U.S. Olympic Training Center. During his 32-year career, he has coached more than 1,000 performers to win professional auditions and has guided countless solo performers to successful careers. Some of the performing artists with whom Dr. Greene has worked have won jobs with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Opera, Montreal Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, National Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, to name just a few. Of the Olympic track and field athletes he worked with up until and through the 2016 games in Rio, 14 won medals, including five gold. Dr. Greene has authored ten books including “Audition Success,” “Fight Your Fear & Win,” “Performance Success,” and most recently “College Prep for Musicians.” In 2017, Dr. Greene was named a TED Educator and collaborated with musician Dr. Annie Bosler to produce the TED-Ed talk “How to practice effectively…for just about anything.” The video went viral and received over 25 million views across Facebook and YouTube. For more information, visit winningonstage.com, winninginsports.com and collegeprepformusicians.com.