This continues from Part 1 of our discussion of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s eight “characteristic dimensions of the flow experience” outlined in his book The Evolving Self.

We talk about this a lot. But, what is Flow

First of all, you may read about Flow and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the leading expert on the topic.

Flow is that experience when deeply engaged in an activity where you feel like you are “being carried away by a current, everything moving smoothly without effort.”

Contrary to expectation, “flow” usually happens not during relaxing moments of leisure and entertainment, but rather when we are actively involved in a difficult enterprise, in a task that stretches our physical and mental abilities. Any activity can do it… It turns out that when challenges are high and personal skills are used to the utmost, we experience this rare state of consciousness. (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Evolving Self, p.xiii)

What is sometimes misunderstood about flow is that it comes from a deep engagement in dealing with a challenge, in solving a problem, in coordinating your effort with something more complex than you are comfortable with. It is not a casual state of happiness or pleasure associated with simple or easy activities. The brain craves puzzles and rewards us for working on them.

To experience flow one must begin with a certain level of skill, training, and discipline. Here is how a professional ballerina describes her flow experience; note the importance of disciplined preparation, and of having a harmonious consciousness in order to perform well physically, a point repeatedly mentioned by most athletes, as well:
This type of feeling begins roughly after one hour of warmups and stretching, when one has achieved a fine-tuning of muscle strength and psychological security. I feel happy, satisfied, light. Training helps make it come about, but I must be very serene and mentally relaxed to get into it. What makes it go on is fitness, willpower, and enthusiasm. (p.177)


Training For Flow

This is my personal overall training objective: I want to get into flow state sooner in the activity, to enjoy it for longer uninterrupted periods of time, and to regain it quickly if lost. I train for this in swimming, in running, in writing, in cooking, in lots of things! When in flow I feel the most energy, the most creative, the most productive, the most engaged with the people and things before me. 

I train to be able to access flow while swimming faster, longer, and in more challenging conditions (cool water, rough water, etc). Speed training and distance training are environments for developing flow so I like to work at both ends of the spectrum. I don’t seek faster those external measurements of speed and distance to show off for others, but use them to measure progress in my ability to access flow state; this is far more satisfying and useful for my entire life.  The practice is not about getting more recognition from others but about using energy better in my body and mind so that I can be a more productive person in relationship and life. Flow is a skill that I must work on continually so that I may access it in a wider range of activities. 

It’s not a problem to seek those external results of more speed or distance, and to enjoy recognition from others for your achievements. But also ask yourself what you want your inner experience to be like from these activities? And what mental skills do you take from it back into the rest of your life?


Does Flow Lead To Skill Mastery? 

In our TI Coach discussion forum, one coach colleague offered a link to an article that was opposing the idea that ‘flow leads to skill mastery’ – two topics that are important to TI coaches and swimmers. I just happen to be reading Csikszentmihalyi’s book The Evolving Self where he clearly explains in Chapter 7 (page 177 exactly) that mastery of skills leads to flow state, rather than flow state leads to mastery. The author of that article cited Anders Ericsson’s work which I wrote about in this series on Deliberate Practice some months ago. I offered a way to reconcile the principles of flow and the principles of deliberate practice in Difficult And Enjoyable Practice.

With new insights from Csikszentmihalyi’s book I would modify that a bit more to include this idea: that one must start with a process of mastery to establish a starting level of skill and discipline;  the more mastery of skill there is the more easily one can access flow state while performing. Yet, after a while, it is my experience and observation that mastery process and flow feed each other in a positive spiral. 

Master musicians have performances where flow is the very state they seek and intend to perform in. Chess masters have matches to induce flow. Computer programmers, rock climbers, and dancers… all have been studied and they all have events or activities where they enter flow and their work on skill mastery is made even more powerful. Skill enables the flow they enjoy so they are even more motivated to go back into the difficult mastery process. 

This was totally the impression I got from Josh Waitzkin’s story told in his book The Art Of Learning. He was a chess prodigy who discovered early on this flow in his practice and then learned to intentionally cultivate it to a powerful effect in chess and later in martial arts.

As I stated in that previous essay on Difficult And Enjoyable Practice, if one is dedicated to a mastery process and has found the most difficult practice unpleasant, Ericsson’s research did not indicate that this was a necessary condition for mastery, only that it was a common experience for those on the mastery path. It is correlated, not causal. Though it might be a commonly described experience, this does not mean it was a necessary experience for mastery.


Make Difficult Work More Enjoyable

What I propose is that when one understands the principles of flow and how to set the stage for it, she may then find ways to make difficult practice more pleasant – more flow-like. Mastery work is not done only at the exclusion of flow – one can work at extremely difficult tasks, at the very edge of one’s ability, and be in flow. However, it doesn’t come naturally to most people. One has to develop a skill for initiating flow when tackling really difficult tasks. 

It is clear from examples of both experts, Csikszentmihalyi and Ericsson, that the masters tap into something that keeps them going and going for decades. There may be some portions of work for the swimmer, for the martial artist, for the chess master or the musician that require unpleasant work. But this is not because of the nature of the work, but because of the condition of the person’s brain.  I think it is reasonable to anticipate that some masters are more skillful at setting themselves up for flow in their practice than others are – and hence some report more pleasant experiences even when practice is extremely difficult. 

What I think would be interesting to examine in Ericsson’s studies is not all those who described the unpleasantness of their difficult practice, but those who did not. What could those outliers teach us? I think that is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did for us in his studies.

In the next few posts we will take a look at the principles of flow given in Csikszentmihalyi’s book The Evolving Self and see how we can improve our skillfulness at applying them to our difficult practices.


To read the other parts of this series:


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