An artist was once asked in an interview, “when did you start drawing?” He responded: “That’s not really the right question, the real question is, when did you stop drawing?” We all drew pictures as children and expressed ourselves creatively in one way or another. At some point however, many of us stopped. But why?
This sketch is a great analogy to our ability to access flow. Believe it or not, kids are in a small state of flow when they are drawing. They are in the moment, immersed in the task at hand, completely uninhibited and fully expressive of who they are at that particular moment. So when asked, “when did you start accessing flow?”, the real question is, “when did you stop?”
As we grow up and are influenced and shaped by our differing life stories, there is often a common thread. Many people loose the ability to let go and just be in the moment – in flow. What causes this? Underlying most of the obvious answers are a series of mental constructs that end up acting as barriers to flow.
The same reasons that caused you to stop drawing are quite possibly the same barriers stopping you from accessing flow. Perhaps at some point you thought you weren’t good at it. Something or someone projected that being good at something is important. Perhaps it became evident that you could not make a living off drawing. The reasons for your enjoyment might have become tied up in a multitude of factors other than the enjoyment itself. It is different for everyone, but at some stage we create a mental construct (belief/value/mindset) that prevents us from playing for the sake of playing – we tell ourselves to get on with the ‘real world’.
When we were drawing as kids we were not seeking outcomes, results, or comparing ourselves to others, We were not seeking validation, trying to impress, trying to be good, labelling the action, or assigning value to our work. We drew or played for the sake of playing because we enjoyed the process. This enjoyment of the process and outcome independence is vital in flow.
Being in flow doesn’t magically make you an expert in your arena. Yes we can learn faster in flow, but it’s the rehearsal and work that goes into your practice that ultimately determines our skill level. Being in flow does however, provide the platform for the ultimate expression of your skill or task. The state of mind of the child drawing, where nothing but the experience of the moment matters, is the same for an athlete about to break a world record. The difference is their life experience up until that point, and the practice and training that has gone into their work. Should this child keep exploring drawing in this free, uninhibited way, there is no reason why they couldn’t produce amazing works of art in the future. But what usually happens? External factors get in the way. The child is often forced to question what they do and frame it in the context of what society values: socially defined outcomes, validation, skill, and monetisation.
So what does this mean for your own flow? Try to identify your own mental barriers. Do you still draw? Why not? Answering these questions could give you an indication of some of the barriers that exist for you. Think of the reasons that you are doing something. If you surf, it’s likely you do it for the love of the sport and not much else. It’s just so enjoyable that you just do it for the sake of doing it. It’s this attitude that can help you get into flow. You can do this when giving a presentation at work, or studying for an exam. You just have to remove all the other reasons you might be doing it, which are acting as mental barriers, and focus on the one. Find a reason to enjoy it. There’s always at least one.