I happen to be one of those lucky few who do the things that I like to do. At an early age, I have decided that the best way to enjoy life coupled with my epicurean beliefs, is to focus on what you like instead of being forced to like what you get. That is why building a product or writing a new mathematical equation appeals to me more than making money at an early age. Yet, over the course of my life, there is only one occasion where I experienced a condition called “flow” (which I came to understand it recently). It happened years back and due to unfortunate circumstances, I never recovered and often pondered why I can’t get into that form again. Recently, reading Steven Kotler’s “The Rise of Superman” and Mihaly Csikszementmihalyi’s “Flow” have provided me the impetus to think about reaching flow again but for a different set of goals. I share the concept of flow here, and for those who might be interested, you can continuously pursue your passion and reaching flow in anything which you do.
To summarize the idea of flow, it’s a concept in positive psychology pioneered by Mihaly Csikszementmihalyi:
“The concept of “flow” or known as zone, is a mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement & enjoyment in the process of the activity.”
Most manifestations of flow comes from sports performance, music, education, artistic or mathematical creativity and very rarely in other areas for example, business management and other activities that require focus and attention. Group flows are even rare, which Csikzenmentmihalyi proposed that a group can work together such that each individual member achieves flow. Successful management teams can achieve that kind of flow. In fact, the writers in most Japanese sports anime such as “Prince of Tennis” and “Kuroko no Basket” incorporated the concept of flow into their story with the protagonists reaching the “zone” of perfection and use that as the basis to argue that relentless perseverance and passion can overcome the lack of talent or prodigies with talent but without discipline.
There are six factors which encompass an experience of flow: (a) intense and focused concentration on the present moment, (b) merging of action and awareness, (c) a loss of reflective self-consciousness, (d) a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity, (e) a distortion of temporal exeprience and (f) experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding. These factors can occur in combination when a person reach “flow”.
There are three conditions which has to be met to achieve a flow state:
- One must be involved in an activity, with a clear set of goals and progress, which adds direction and structure to the task.
- The task must have clear and immediate feedback, so that the individual can negotiate the changing demands from the circumstances and allows them to adjust their performance to the flow state.
- One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills, and must have confidence to complete the task.
For myself, I have only reached flow once when I was studying in Cambridge. I was solving a chain of difficult problems in quantum field theory, string theory and black holes. The overdrive and relentless pursuit to focus took me weeks to solve them. In fact, it was so challenging that I found the solution in one problem during the dream and then woke up to write it down. Once those set of problems is solved, I have no problems to transverse anything in the subject. One additional consequence of that exercise, I wrote out a solution to a research problem which aided me in thinking about my PhD thesis during that period of time. However, unforeseen circumstances broke that flow and what made it worse, is that I know that I never recovered or find a way back into flow again in the following years. The only consolation is that I found is teach two very talented individuals how to reach that state and they have both become very successful in the field now. I often have fond memories of Cambridge given that it is a very intellectually stimulating and what is even more exciting, is that there are talented people who one can interact and push you to move beyond your limit.
Coming back, I want to reach the state of flow for my own personal development and career again, given that I understand it better now through books on why I was so happy back then in reaching it even for a temporal moment. I know why I want to do so, I want to go beyond just being happy to do what I like but reach a kind of perfection that I am satisfied with in what I do. The state of flow is still far away which can inspire me to focus on what I do everyday.