Jon Turk has a zest for flow like no other. Jon was an adventurer finalist for Canadian “National Magazine Awards” (2015 Frozen Iceman), voted top 10 adventure athletes in 2012 by National Geographic, and canoe and kayak: expedition of the year in 2012.
Jon has practiced performance flow for decades, and reminds us that there are a multitude of factors that go in to a flow experience, none more so being on the same wavelength as your group:
Jon: I am a back-country skier, and I routinely ski exposed avalanche terrain in the mountains of southern British Columbia. A few weeks ago, four of us were shredding fresh powder on familiar terrain. The riding was excellent, friendships warm, and spirits were high. All day, the snow had been stable, meaning that we experienced no avalanches or even indication of danger. On the last run, as the short winter day was waning, two of our party led us toward a higher, steeper, more exposed ridge line. As we climbed into this alpine zone, we reached an elevation where the mountain wind had compacted the surface of the snow into hard, rigid, consolidated, potentially deadly chunks.
This was no subtle change. As experienced alpinists, we all saw it, felt it, and knew the consequences of a bad decision. So why didn’t we turn back?
The ultimate, overriding, goal of back-country skiing is to come home safe. All too frequently, we tend to forget this goal and create other imaginary goals such as to climb higher, faster, longer, and to ski the steepest line. But compared to safety, these supposed goals are merely dangerous distractions generated by our think-too-much-know-it-all brains. The primary driver of a flow experience is to concentrate completely and utterly on the real and ultimate goal and to avoid sidetracks, distractions, ego, and “I wants.” Yet, within a group, distractions can easily arise, fester, and quickly multiply.
One person climbed into the dangerous wind-slab, eager to be the leader that brought the group onward toward the best line of the day. We all like to “ski the goods,” so that is always a distraction from the overriding goal of safety. But now, there was social pressure not to be the wimp, the cold blanket who said, “Hey, guys. I think we should turn back.” Two distractions steering us away from flow were internal and external. And the distractions fed on one another. I thought, “We don t need to do this,” but then I threw attention and awareness out the window, and allowed myself to concentrate on what mattered least, (A few extra turns and not to be criticized by the group) not focusing on what mattered most (Our lives). So against all reason, I followed the leader toward a dangerous situation. I felt hassled and grumpy. I questioned my own judgment, the judgment of others. “Why can t we just ski from here?” I mumbled, quietly, almost to myself.
Suddenly, my wife, Nina, stopped. I was in line behind her.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I’m not going up there.” she replied.
At first, I was internally annoyed at her. Those guys were going to ski the coolest line, and I wanted to be up there with them. But the physical pause initiated a mental pause which solidified a physical pause. Reason prevailed. We held back.
The lead skier started an avalanche and went catapulting down the mountainside in a moving white river. Amazingly, he didn’t get hurt. We were lucky.
There are always more distractions than flow paths. Entropy works like that. A near infinity of ways to do something wrong and only a limited number of ways to do something right. Group dynamics, within a family, at work, or during play are powerful. All the more reason to understand and practice flow.
The Flow Centre would like to take this opportunity to thank Jon for his time and energy and thank you for reading this post.
Fraser Pash gives us the low down of his recent performance and how he finds himself in a flow state:
Fraser: I sat there sipping on my drink wondering what the hell are we listening to? I’m up next and I still haven’t decided what I’m going to play. I’ve spent weeks practicing a song. Trying out different tunings and transpositions to get the best sound out of my guitar and my voice. But I’ve started to doubt; not myself, but my song choice. Everyone else who has gone up to the mic and chortled out some recent pop song has been mediocre at best.
It was at this point that I decided, f*ck it. I’m going to play my own song.
Maybe I’m more comfortable playing my own music, maybe I enjoy the higher risk of judgement from letting people hear it. I’ve never been able to pinpoint exactly what it is about playing my own music that triggers flow. But as I sang every note perfectly, ad-libbing to great effect, I felt happy. An almost endless happiness, totally in flow. That was of course until the song finished and I was left standing alone in a room of three hundred people.
Immediately afterwards, I answered some questions about the song. As my memory glanced back to the song I had been playing minutes earlier, I started to think about how it felt like it had been weeks ago, not minutes ago. I also realised that I cared a bit more about playing that night than I thought I had. The outcome is not really important, but the performance is.
Whilst there is little to no research done to consider the correlation between playing one own music and playing someone else’s, there is plenty done to reveal the relationship between flow and music as a whole. We mentioned a study done not too long ago discussing the correlation between length of time playing an instrument and the actual instrument played and flow. Finding that string players and those who have been playing for a longer time, particularly with extensive practice hours, are more likely to reach a state of flow. But it is research from the University of London that is of particular interest to this article.
Their findings revealed “flow was predicted by the amount of daily practice and trait emotional intelligence.” Now the first part of this should really be a given. The more we practice, the greater our myelin production, the better our muscle memory, the more skilled we become, the higher the ability-challenge level we can set for ourselves, and ultimately the greater intensity of flow we can feel. However, emotional intelligence still needs a lot more research before its relationship to flow is fully understood. The aforementioned study also notes a link between the style of music played and flow, with a positive correlation between the romantic styles of Chopin in particular and flow. Now this could be due to increased exposure to a certain composer or style, but equally it could be that the pianists in the study found flow whilst playing music they liked.
It is here that the research gap exists. If we assume that the music created by an individual is also liked by that individual. Does playing your own music have a positive impact on reaching a state of flow?
If we throw ourselves into a performance situation, suddenly we have a high risk, immediate feedback and a rich environment priming us for flow.
So why not try it? Today, instead of practicing someone else’s piece, write your own. Just play what comes out of you and gradually structure it into a composition. You might find you reach flow sooner than you think.
Thanks for this Article to Fraser and friend of The Flow Centre. We would also like to thank you for reading this post!
Humans are compared to computers all the time. We both seem to be made up of memory, bandwidth and communication devices all processing at varying speeds. Most notably, the human brain is often described as the most powerful computer in nature. So imagine the intrigue, when watching a lecture on flow, a question at the end came up: when we overclock computer components they degrade faster, is hacking into flow just overclocking our bodies? Short answer; no. But let dig a little deeper…
Normally when someone talks about overclocking their computer, they specifically mean the processor (CPU). (I won’t go into architectural detail of CPU, as we would be here for weeks, but it is fascinating stuff if you’re interested.) It carries out all the complex calculations and keeps all the other components running in time with each other. It is essentially the processing brain of the computer. So the CPU has a standard base clock speed that it runs at, but with some computer witchcraft, you can make it run at a faster speed e.g. 3.6Ghz to 4.4Ghz, improving and potentially hitting its peak performance.
You might be thinking that’s no big deal, if it can cope with the higher speed, just run it at that. But this is the issue, and where our flow comparison comes in. In order to run at that higher clock speed, the component is stressed beyond what is the standard level and so degrades faster than if it was processing at the lower speed. This is how basically all man-made objects perform, if you push it further, it degrades quicker.
So with all the similarities between humans and computers, does this mean that when we hack into flow, achieve a flow state more often than a normal person, peaking for longer periods, our body will decay faster due to the extra stress on its components ? The answer is that it won’t. Your body is not man-made, so to speak. When you train your body, it improves the quality of its components. Think of an athlete. By training, they improve the condition of their body, allowing them to reach a flow state during their performance. This doesn t mean they have a shorter life or lose the ability to walk sooner than anyone else. If anything it gives them a longer and better standard of life into a late age as they are constantly improving the body capacity.
However, one of the downsides of being human, and being very conscious beings, is that we cannot be in flow all of the time. So we are unlikely to ever really test this question to its entirety. So don’t be scared to overclock yourself through flow. You will find that you are simply unlocking the potential you have always had; growing in strength and resilience, allowing you to go further than you ever thought you could.
For those that don’t know Sarah Hendrickson, meet one of the most exciting female athletes around!
Sarah Hendrickson is an American ski jumper who won the first ever women World Cup season in 2012. She is a 22-time World Cup medalist and 13-time Continental Cup medalist. It goes without saying, but we were delighted to catch up with here and even more delighted to have her on board The Flow Centre.
Her career highlights include:
22-time World Cup Medalist (13 Gold, 6 Silver, 3 Bronze)
13-time Continental Cup Medalist (4 Gold, 4 Silver, 5 Bronze)
In 2014, Olympic Winter Games, 21st
In 2013, World Cup, Second Place Overall
In 2013, World Championships Gold Medalist
In 2012, World Cup Overall Champion
In 2011, U.S. Normal Hill Champion
In 2011, World Championships Normal Hill 16th place
In 2009, World Championships Normal Hill 29th place
Cameron: Have you ever experienced flow?
Sarah: I think that time at the world championships. I remember being at the top and just so nervous. I was like “I can’t feel my feet right now! I don t know how I’m going to do this!” and then I got to the bottom after my second jump, and obviously had won, and it was like something else took over my body, because there was so much pressure and everything. I don’t know how I performed to that level with that much pressure, my mind just took over and muscle memory and everything. It was like “Okay, you know what to do subconsciously, and just focus.” It’s kind of hard to explain.
Cameron: Yeah, especially when you remember it. You get all those feelings and tingly sensations, and then you’re like “But, how did it happen?”
Cameron: So, describe some of the characteristics that you might have felt during it? You said everything felt amazing. Can you go into a little bit more about how that felt, or what you feel you experienced?
Sarah: I guess effortless is the right word. Your body is doing all these things, but it is all subconscious, you don’t have to think about it right there. It’s hard to explain, I guess effortless and flawless, almost numb. But that’s the first experience I think of when you describe flow, the world championships in Italy in 2013.
We have two jumps and I was winning after the first jump, then we jump in reverse order, so I was going last on the second jump. The girl before me was within a small margin of me; she jumped and I could hear the crowd cheering. I was just trying to block everything out and focus on myself. I remember thinking “My feet are numb!” I was kind of freaking out, thinking “How am I going to pull this off?” then I was just like “Well, nothing to lose now. Just shake it out.” That’s when the hours of training comes in, the muscle memory, your mind just goes into reserve mode, just don’t focus on the pressure, don’t focus on the small details; everything will run its course.
Cameron:What did you do to help you focus and get into that state?
Sarah: I blocked out the outside world. When I’m jumping, I’ve been jumping for 13 years now, I just focus on one or two really simple things. It doesn’t mean anything to the outside world because they’re technical terms for ski jumping, but I relax my arms, balance and timing. Timing is so important in ski jumping, timing and rhythm. So, I just pick those two things that I had been focusing on and just hone in on that, everything else will just come. I didn’t need to focus on the other stuff because I was in that mind set, the muscle memory or whatever would just take over.
Cameron: When you focus on it, do you repeat the words, like relax your arms? Or, do you almost use the words to brainwash yourself? How do you focus on it?
Sarah: Yeah, exactly! Part of me is hearing the announcers and people calling scores or whatever of the girls in front of me. So, I try to speak to myself as loudly as I can in my head so that I don’t hear the outside. I’ll even try and shake my head so that I don’t hear. I just don’t want to hear that, you can’t think about jumping a certain distance, that’s not how it happens. You have to focus on the miniscule things, that going to make you jump further. Repetition and even whispering words out loud sometime, or just yelling in my head.
Cameron: What else do you think helps you get into that zone? Is there preparation that you might do leading up to it the morning of, the evening of? Or anything else that you do as you’re walking up the steps, preparing, or when you’re sitting down, or just before you take off?
Sarah: Yeah, repetition actually, and not just in words. I have the same warm-up routine that I do a certain time before a jump. How I put my equipment on and stuff. I’m kind of OCD, so those things are necessities. I know exactly what time I need to put on my stuff, when I’m waiting at the top, 10 jumpers before my tie my boots a little tighter the step out and start putting my skis on. Repetition is really, really important for me, just doing the same thing over and over, and I do it the same for training. You need to compete like you train and train like you compete. Have that same physical repetition and the mental preparation the same every single day.
Cameron: Do you have any other big flow experiences? Maybe one that tops the world championship?
Sarah: It’s a bit different, because I didn’t have a good result, but I guess doing the Olympics. I had some serious surgery about five and a half months before Sochi. I managed to get through rehab, but I just wasn’t as prepared as I wanted to be, but my coaches felt like I deserved to be there.
The training days leading up, my knee was in so much pain and I knew I wasn’t mentally strong enough and prepared to be there, then on competition day I got unlucky with the wind. But, my practice jump that morning, we always get one practice jump, my coach just looked at me and was like “Oh my God that was a million times better!” He was like “You showed up for game day! Regardless of the pain you’re in and everything you’ve been through these past six months, you just put it all aside, and your body knew exactly what to do, and you had an awesome jump!”
I was just in that kind of mindset. I just pushed the pain away, pushed every doubt and piece of junk that I’d gone through out of me and just had a normal jump. And my coaches saw it. The coaches from the other nations saw it too, it was kind of crazy. It was like even though it had been a while my body still knew what to do.
Cameron: What helped you jump that morning?
Sarah: I don t know! I just thought “Don t have any regrets. You’ve trained so hard to be here. Maybe you’re not at your strongest but you’ve worked so hard, now let’s prove it.” I had to change my warm-up and everything, my knee was so bad I couldn’t even run. But I figured I’ve got three more jumps today, then I’m done. After today I can just rest and reassess everything. I had another surgery after that, but it didn’t matter at that point, I was just like “Show them what you ve got!” I’m ultra-competitive obviously, which makes it easier to get into that mindset.
You have to find a balance between focused and almost not too serious, though. If you try to hard when you’re super competitive in ski jumping it just doesn’t work. We all say that technically, it a very simple sport, but it’s against everything that your body wants to do, so when you get too focused, there’s no flow to it. It’s too choppy; it’s not smooth and it’s out of rhythm. So when you stay relaxed and just focus on a couple of things, everything is much smoother, you develop the power better and it all just comes together much better than trying to force it.
Cameron: So what do you do to help yourself stay relaxed?
Sarah: Well, I’m friends with a lot of the girls from the other nations, so we’ll all be talking at the top of the hill, kind of joking around before getting ready to go. Like if it’s been a bad day and I’m kind of down on myself I think “I’m not going to pull off the best jump right now, but look at the view! Think how hard you worked to get here, you’re so fortunate to be here.” I just kind of step back and make the most of the situation, because competing is really stressful. This is the best job in the world, but it stressful.
Sometimes that’s easy to get down on, then I think “Why do I put so much pressure on myself?”I try to step away from all that negativity and just appreciate where I am. You can’t have a good day every day and the people that really matter, the ones closest to me, they know that I’ve worked really hard to get here and are just like “Alright, shrug it off, you can’t be on top every single day.”
The Flow Centre would like to take this opportunity to thank Sarah Hendrickson and the Wasserman Group for their time and energy. We would also like to thank you for taking the time to read this post!
Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California have discovered that our minds are lying to us. There is a limit to how fast our brain can digest information. To make things easier on itself, it predicts what will happen next.
Think of a plane flying overhead, it’s not going to suddenly start flying backwards, so our brains predict the path of the plane and that’s how we are able to see what is going on in the present. But what happens when something does change in an instant? That’s where the flash lag effect comes in (to test this out try a simple Google search). The research in this area has revealed a delay of, on average, 80 milliseconds between something happening and the mind being able to process it. Meaning that we spend our life living in what has actually just happened, not what is actually happening. Let’s take a second or two to pause we are never actually present in real time! Really?!
Thinking of planes again, this time at night when the lights on it are flashing, the flash of light often appears to be behind the plane. That’s because your mind has predicted, correctly, where the plane will be, but the sudden flash of light was an unknown. The 80 millisecond delay in processing means that you see the light flashing behind the plane, where it was 80 milliseconds ago.
The intriguing thing for us, as flow seekers, is what if we can reduce that 80 millisecond delay? This article from Salk specifically says that the time delay is an average and it’s likely that someone like a fighter pilot has a shorter delay – and so lives less in the past and more in the now. This comes as no surprise that a fighter pilot is likely to be in a state of flow most of the time when pulling off incredible manoeuvers, whilst flying at mach 3. However, how can we reduce this delay in our everyday experiences and performances?
“Practice dear Watson, practice”(Sherlock Holmes)
Our visual awareness seems to change in flow, as we become highly aware of all the small detail that gives us the much needed feedback we require for perfect decision making. We know that we get a feeling of time standing still during flow, does this state actually reduce the lag of our experience? In our interview with Nick Troutman (Kayaker), he talks about a run where he starts turning the wrong way down a waterfall and had to correct himself mid-air. If he made this adjustment any later than he did, or not at all, the result could have been catastrophic for him. Nick is able to make these important changes with millisecond precision as a result of being in flow by his own admission.
Although we don’t know exactly what the millisecond delay may be during flow, we know that the experience is a lot closer to a 0 millisecond delay than our everyday experiences. In flow we become aware of everything instantly, process information instantly and are able to react to what happens immediately is this living in the present?
“Elementary dear Watson, elementary!”
For years people have called a flow state being in ‘the zone,’ although this is not entirely accurate (I sense a different article coming), would a more accurate term be being in ‘the now?’
When we went in search of the ultimate base jumper and skydiver, we expected to find someone extraordinary – someone who was used to pushing the limits and had the ability to freeze time. When we finally hooked up with Chris Douggs (Douggs) he was everything we had been looking for and more. Douggs’ wealth of experience is nothing short of outstanding.
Douggs has felt flow frequently, in multiple arenas, and when he is not pretending to be Superman he is a motivational speaker, TV presenter, commentator, author, film maker, and stunt man. Douggs is one of the world’s most experienced BASE jumpers, respected both inside and outside the sport. He is a World Champion, World Record holder, and completed well over 3200 BASE jumps and 7000 skydives across more than 42 countries.
His list of achievements and highlights include:
2014 World Wingsuit League, China
– 2013 World Record for most base jumpers jumping indoors
– 2013 First ever BASE jumps in Kuwait from Al Hamra Tower
– 2013 1st place in World Extreme Base Championships, Spain
– 2013 1st place in Accuracy Competitions in both Turkey & China
-2012 World first night human slingshot, Dubai
– 2011 World BASE Championships, 2nd place
-2008 UK ProBase British Open : Overall Champion
– 2003/04 BASE jumping World Champion: 1st place Aerobatics, 1st place Team, 1st place overall
– Many expeditions throughout remote parts of the world including, Baffin Island, China, Norway, New Zealand & 37 other countries
-1998-2003 6 time Australian National Skydiving Champion in 4 way and 8 way RW
– 2001- 2003 Australian team member for World Championships – 2002 World Record: 300 way skydive – 12 Gold medals in various state events – and much more.
As you can imagine, our interview with Douggs was very insightful, and he enlightens us on how he finds flow in base jumping and skydiving:
Chris: In skydiving and base jumping it, I’ve called it ‘the zone,’ but I’ve never heard the actual technical term for flow before.
Cameron: Yeah, yeah. It called different things. Jazz musicians call it ‘being in the pocket’. Different people have different names for it, but everyone knows it when you talk about it. You know, it’s that moment where we’re completely engulfed and everything’s just at one, we’re highly connected and time seems to pause, but then you come out of it and time forwards winds, and you’re like “Oh my God, what just happened?”
Chris: I’ve written a number of articles about the feeling. There’s no past, no future, there just this present. I call it the now.
It’s an incredible feeling. And once you submit to it, when you’re shaking on the edge or whatever, and then you commit and submit and take those three deep breaths then everything goes still and quiet, and then that beautiful silence that first second is just incredible…and then off we go, and then that’s when you hit it.
Cameron: How did you get into base jumping and skydiving?
Chris: Base jumping has been the best thing ever for me because it allowed me to take everything I’ve learnt in jumping and take it to ordinary life, which has resulted in endless possibilities; there no negatives, only positives. There’s only the cup always half full now. I think that’s the right one. [laughs] Do you know what I mean? Like, I was lucky I got into base jumping super early and found it, and it just blew me away. I mean, on my first skydive I still blacked out for over five seconds, you know, so my brain wasn’t able to process that information at all.
But then I was intrigued by that, went straight back up and did another one. I’ve never been able to get that sensation again, except for the closest I ever got was when we did a human slingshot a couple of years ago in Dubai, and there’s a video online about it, but we were shooting out so fast that I think we were doing zero to 200 in about a second, about 6-7 Gs, I was able to process the information, but I was almost on my limit of processing it, it was interesting. It’s the only time I got that sensation (complete shut off) back since my first skydive.
I think it’s called sensory overload. It’s where your brain is just receiving too much information and it shuts down. But yeah, you never get it back really, so it’s interesting. I’ve always been intrigued from day one about it all.
Cameron: How do you feel when you experience flow?
Chris: Just when you see I’m in a really good state of flow I generally smile [laughs] because I’m actually really relaxed. So, that jump, (where I was smiling) it took us five jumps that day to get to that point.
(When in flow) You can just see more, so I see things off in the distance, the cameraman sitting there, and I saw 15 seconds flying past at about 200 Ks/hour, and I smiled at him as I went past super casually. So, that everything sort of is almost happy. [laughs] Like, in this calm trance-like state, but like The Matrix, you know, like “Sh**, it’s actually moving fast” but you’ve just made it all stand still. That when I really enjoy it, because everyone like “Oh wow, you must get this big adrenaline rush when you do this!” and I’m like “I don t actually.”[laughs] I get really, really calm and really tranquil.
I was just doing some stuff out of my comfort zone this last week, and sh** moving fast still, but when we get comfortable then everything just slows down and it’s just poetic almost; it beautiful.
You almost feel invincible, that’s a good word for it. You’re just on another level to everyone and everything around you. I mean, that animal instinct, that’s what animals get. They’re always in flow [laughs].
Another way to explain it is, when we jump off a waterfall and jump in snow, you hit that microsecond of a point where everything stops, and if you’re in flow, which I generally am, you’d stop for a lot longer than a microsecond. You’re falling at the same speed as the water droplets, or the same speed as the snow, and whilst it’s only a microsecond you can make it last for seconds, and then it speeds up really quick! It’s exactly like the movies basically.
I mean, that’s what The Matrix did, The Matrix put flow into cinema, in my opinion. I always use The Matrix as my way to try and explain it best to the layman, because it shows it clearly on cinema how it all works.
Cameron: What are the barriers to achieving the flow state?
Chris: In traffic (driving)…I can miss, I can swirve and miss and do whatever, I just process that information really, really f**king quickly. One that really stands out, my cousin a very good motorbike rider, and we did this trail riding super fast, super thin and I couldn’t find flow. It was the first time when I was like “Mother f**ker! I can t keep up with my cousin!”
When he’s riding a bike he’s in flow for sure, but I couldn’t get there because I’m not good enough on a bike. That was the first time I really understood that I wasn’t invincible, and I can’t always find flow. Do you know what I mean? Because you walk around just feeling not better than everyone else, just like, you f**king own it all the time, you know, and that what makes a champion as well; you’ve got to be able to own it. Confidence and arrogance is a fine line, but you’ve got to walk that line all the time, you know. More arrogant when you’re younger, more confident when you’re older [laughs].
Cameron: What preparation helps you get into flow?
Chris: For me, training and visualisation for sure. I mean, I jump all the time, and I’m doing extreme sports all the time. When I’m speed flying, I’m absolutely in flow, but not while I’m on skis, because I’m a sh** skier; as soon as I take off I can’t do anything. But training for sure. And I think over time being in mountainous environment and an ocean environment so much your body adapts. Do you know a guy called Dean Potter?
Chris: He’s a very advanced climber. He’s a good friend of mine now, and is a mountain man, you know, because he can adapt, he’s done so much time in the mountains that it’s second nature for him. He doesn’t use ropes pretty much ever. He can just climb mountains because he put himself in that situation. Same as the watermen, your Laird Hamiltons and stuff like that. If I put myself in a situation long enough then the more I adapt. I do seminars on aerobatics in base, and use what I’ve learnt from doing hardcore aerobatics. From 450 feet doing four or five flips or whatever, starting from single flips, learning and then pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, and getting to a point where for us we have to, I have to accept my own limitations way earlier than I would like because I don’t want to die, so I don’t run at 100% ever really.
But, what I’ve learnt was that coming back from say doing four-five flips on a jump to doing one flip on a jump opens the world up way more. So, you sort of need to push yourself that harder and see with blinkers on, to then pull back and be able to see the world with open eyes. That’s really interesting, and it’s very hard to tell a 20-year old kid to do that because they just want to go crazy. But after coming full circle I don’t generally do all the big flips anymore, I just do the slow rotating ones. I’d be upside down, waving at people in a restaurant off a building or something, because I’m in the flow. But being able to do heaps of flips first has helped me reach that perspective. So, now my brain expects me to do all that stuff, and then when I lay it back a bit then the brain like “Oh yeah, this is much cooler!” [laughs] So, I teach people to not fly with blinkers on with everything they’re doing, to work themselves up to it and not rush into it. Then when you pull back you’re good. But on the other spectrum of that, I’ve lost a friend last year from pushing, pushing, pushing; their 100% performance became a normal percent. My normal performance is 30-50 percent now, just because I’ve lost so many friends and I’m having such a great life. But these guys are pushing so hard, their normal becomes 100%. And you almost need 100% sometimes, because we’re not perfect humans, so when these guys need an extra spike they didn’t have it and died from it.
So, I try and teach that a lot as well, because yeah, running at 100% all the time, that’s not good for our sport. It’s not surfing where you can sort of get away with it, or skating where you’ll break your ankle or something we generally die. So, whilst our sport is actually one of the safest extreme sports out there, when it goes wrong we die, it’s very simple. It’s not a broken ankle or things like that, so it’s a real tricky one for helping others with that.
Cameron: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s powerful what makes the skydiving such an amazing sport for flow, when you think about it. You know, the consequences are so high when you’re pushing it that you’re almost forced into a state of flow. Your senses engage, the mind has to shut off because it just can’t compute everything that’s going on and make those decisions that you need to make, and you’re forced into it. What do you do just before you jump off? You mentioned earlier, you said you take a couple of deep breaths and you kind of sit there.
Chris: Yeah. Like, off a cliff. Planes are different because it’s so noisy and you’ve got to go at the same time, but from a cliff I’ll gear up. These days I’ll just, well, obviously I’ve got a lot of jumps, so it definitely has evolved. I’m always scared, that’s one key; I’m always making sure I stay scared. That’s one of the key aspects to getting into flow I reckon as well, don’t be overconfident with everything. Then I’ll gear up and I’ll prep myself on everything. So, the weather, my skill level, my gut feeling that day, the object that I’m jumping off. Sometimes I’ll walk away as well, and sometimes I won’t jump stuff that my students jump. You know, I have my own little my own path.
But then once I’m geared up I’ll double-check, triple-check everything, make sure I’m cool, and then that way when I go to the edge the only thing I’m scared of is being scared. That’s a key for me as well, because then your mind doesn’t have to think about anything else, it can channel in and focus. And then when it’s time to go, generally I’ll be freaking out, but you’ve got to turn that negative fear into a positive fear. That’s when I’ll take three (deep breaths) because you’re going to do it anyway [laughs], so you might as well do it correctly. You know, if it gets too much I’d walk away and stuff, but I understand my body and my consciousness.
So yeah, when it is time to go I’ll basically calm down, take three deep breaths, and on the third breath or fourth breath or whatever I’ll generally just head off. And that way just before you go you’re completely calm, very tranquil, and about to throw yourself into the unknown. But, I mean, if it’s the unknown then that’s another ball game; I do know the outcome could be bad, but it’s a calculated risk, so it’s a very small chance as such, but it could definitely still happen on any jump I’m no more special than anyone else. But once you put yourself in that position and you go then it’s on, and then you’re just hyperaware of everything.
I’ll always put myself in uncomfortable positions. Like, just recently I was doing this seminar in front of 120 legends of the sport, and then putting myself up to do a song actually at the talent night in front of the same people. [laughs] They saw me physically shaking with the lyrics, you know, and I still put myself there even though it was f**king terrifying.
But, you know, I like doing that. The song was a good one because I was so nervous and my voice was so sh**ful, and then by the end I’ve got the whole crowd clapping and singing with me because I’d entered flow basically in a different environment and just went into rockstar mode without the talent by the way. By the end I was good, and then afterwards I’m like f**king freaking out again, but I’d hit that for about a minute of that song, I hit the flow basically. The same thing happens with the talks as well, I start out nervous. Dean Potter actually helped me, I try to do as much motivational speaking as I can now to overcome one of my biggest fears, and he said “Just learn the first two sentences.” [laughs] “Just memorise the first two sentences. You ve got to start, and the rest will just pick up in your state of flow basically.”
We would like to thank Douggs for his time and insight. We look forward to following and helping Douggs in his future expeditions. Thank you also, for taking the time to read this post.
Dropping down 70ft waterfalls whilst pinned into a kayak is not for the fainthearted. However, for Nick Troutman, this is what he lives for! Most people would hit the panic alarm, but Nick is so used to getting into flow, he even does emergency adjustments as he is dropping vertically.
Nick Troutman is a world champion and five-time national champion kayaker, filmmaker, and philanthropist. He is highly respected in the river-sport community, and in addition to his competitive achievements, has established several first descents while on expeditions in Mexico, Newfoundland, Ottawa, Zambia, Quebec, and the Niagara Gorge. His commitment to the river and exceptional kayaking skills are what drove us to track him down and ask him to join The Flow Centre.
To share some of his key insights we have created this blog so you can get to understand this unbelievable athlete.
Nick: We are driving around, checking out a whole bunch of different rivers and stuff.
Cameron: Nice! How long are you there for?
Nick: We’re on the road probably for the next 8 to 10 months, I guess probably 8 months until like October, November. So, driving around in different states and countries and stuff like that.
Cameron: Yeah tough life! (laughs)
Nick: Then back to Tennessee. Yeah, it’s not too bad. (chuckle)
Cameron: Have you experienced the flow state before when kayaking?
Nick: Yeah, definitely, you’ve studied it a lot and are very knowledgeable on the whole thing, but what you’re describing I definitely have experienced that, and it’s like “Oh yeah.”
Then there’s the times where…it seems like an out-of-body experience, or that you’re no longer in control; where you’re like “Whoa, how did that happen?!”
I guess the cool part would be to figure out how to get into it more often, because whenever I’m in the flow state I feel like I’m just way better.
Cameron: When was it that you experienced this flow state? What were you feeling?
Nick: It’s happened several times, but one of them that has been very memorable for me. Actually, it’s in the video I think, in the highlight reel, where I’m running a waterfall, I’m in the green kayak and I slow it down in the video. Running that waterfall, we were there with a photographer and we kind of had to wait at the lip for like a couple of hours for him to get set up. And so the whole time of trying to just sit there calmly and be like “Okay, I’m not even going to think about the waterfall. I scouted it, I know the line and I’m going to nail the line.” Then I had to really focus on, like zoning out and thinking about something totally different for the next couple of hours, because the longer I scout the waterfall and look at the waterfall, the more I felt like I was ‘getting demons in my head,’ and think of different possible outcomes specifically remembering the bad outcomes. Then I think, “Well, if I’m already imagining bad outcomes then I don’t want to run the waterfall anymore.” So I try to only think of the good outcomes.
But anyway, it was kind of this weird experience to zone out at the lip of the waterfall and just think of other stuff. When I did run the waterfall, it’s almost hard for me to recall, because it’s like I paddled in, and then I knew the line that I wanted to do, I got close to the left but then my boat spun a little bit and I had to do this correction stroke and pull it back while I was dropping down vertical like, a lot of different boat control happening all at once. And I don’t necessarily remember doing any of it, I just did it. There was never like an “Oh, sh**! I’m not where I want to be, I need to correct this,“or “Oh, it would be better if I did this.” It was just like I wasn’t thinking, I just did it all and it was perfect!
Then afterwards I remember being like “Oh, what just happened? How did I do that?” Like, I did a lot of things in a very short period of time and I don’t remember trying to do any of them, I just did it all. It was just one of those experiences that I guess I felt like I wasn t thinking, I was just reacting, but reacting so quickly.
That was one of the ones that was super memorable for me, but that happens quite often to a certain extent, where you just kind of react I guess and you’re not necessarily like “Oh, I’m going to put here and pull myself that way, or I’m going to do this and that.” You just kind of do it. I don’t know if that has to do with just several years of paddling, or if it’s some other thing in the brain. There’s a lot of things that happen that always made me wonder, like “Oh, I wonder how you do that?” or “I wonder what’s actually happening?” Because sometimes it feels like my brain just shuts off and I’m better when it does.
It was a very unique experience where just everything felt all connected and I could do whatever I wanted, it was almost like if I imagined it would work. Everything was happening quicker and better and easier, and I don’t know, a unique experience for sure. That’s probably the strongest time that I can really remember, but it happens quite often doing anything that I consider technical whitewater, where I’m nervous about a drop or a rapid or something like that, I frequently find that I’m in the zone and more in-tuned. Whether it’s fear that that kicks in, or adrenaline, but sometimes the harder the whitewater the more I zone out and just react a little bit.
I keep saying reacting, and I don’t know if that’s the right term or not, but I guess it’s just the word that I use because I’m not necessarily thinking like “Oh, I want to drive my boat farther this way or that way, or boof the hole or whatever.” I kind of just do it all, almost as if I’m on autopilot and a much better paddler is paddling my boat.
Cameron: So what about your freestyle experiences?
Nick: Yeah, I was going to say that in freestyle it’s a bit different. I don’t know if it’s a different experience or what, or maybe just a different level of the same kind of experience, but there’s definitely times where I can think of where I just had the best rides I could have possibly had. I was training hard for those events and practicing a lot and was in good physical shape but at the same time it’s a little different because I drop into the wave and have got 60 seconds or 45 seconds, depending on the competition and it was just like bam-bam-bam, like I would just do one move right after another. I wasn’t wasting time, I wasn’t doing anything, but I was very aware of where I was on the wave exactly, just super in-tune with my boat, my edge control, the current, the flows of the wave itself, and it felt like I was almost invincible, the same kind of thing where whatever I wanted to do I could do and I did it. Being that you’re under a time limit for the competition, the more tricks you do and the harder the tricks, the more points you get, so I was able to do essentially everything that I wanted to do.
Cameron: So what routines or preparation did you have prior to the competition that helped you get into flow?
Nick: Going into the competition I had a set routine that I wanted to do, but I hadn’t necessarily ever completed it in the time frame before or even in practice. But it was just like I could drop in and do whatever I wanted, and if I was in the wrong spot of the wave or something like that then I could just re-manoeuvre myself and I could get back into the right spot and continue going way quicker than normal. I guess a lot of it is just you’re not wasting time thinking, you’re just doing, which is pretty cool.
Both of them I was doing a lot of mental practice, just essentially doing the routine in my head. But a lot of it as well was just really trying to stay positive. In both situations there was a lot of pressure and a lot of people. You’re sitting in agony with the other people that are in the finals, and there’s just this severe amount of stress in the air. For me, at the time, it was like I had this bubble around me, and I would just be so happy and try to calm everybody else down. I’d be like “Hey guys, no need to stress! This is so much fun!” and just really being super positive about the whole experience, and I think that same positivity then, when I would drop into the feature, there was no stress about flushing or missing a trick or anything like that, and I just had this feeling like I know I’m going to win the World Championships.
Maybe that’s why I was also so positive at the time, or maybe that feeling came because of the positive outlook beforehand. But yeah, it’s a very unique experience for sure. It’s a little bit like feeling invincible.
Cameron: Can you explain the disparity between flow and winning?
Nick: The first World Championships I ever did, I had a lot of really good rounds where I was winning the whole time, and then in the finals the wave changed for the very last ride. I had this routine in my head that I was trying to do and I had never completed it, and then in my final ride of the event I completed it and I was just thinking like “Oh, I’m untouchable nobody could touch that!” But, because the wave changed and it was a little foamier, some of the judges didn’t like some of the tricks, and so I ended up in third. I guess it’s a different thing (flow) to your results. Sometimes your results don’t show, but the flow state still is there. I could still tap into that same mindset, even though the results weren’t the exact same.
Cameron: Why do you endure high risks and how do you continue to love the sport despite being scared?
Nick: It almost forces you to go into fight, flight, freeze, or flow mode. Like I was explaining before, once you peel out of an eddy and you’re essentially approaching a rapid, there’s no turning back, you’re in the lion’s den. You have to come out victorious, or something horrible is going to happen. When people ask why I love kayaking, I would explain that it’s the love of nature, which is definitely a part of it, but a big part of it is the forced decision-making. You’re forced into these situations to make extremely quick decisions. Kayaking on the river is very different than a half-pipe, a half-pipe you’ve got something solid where you’re going to go down and you’re going to come back up.
You can run the same rapid 100 times, and because water, the way it flows through a river and stuff like that, it’s never constant. The only constant is that it’s constantly changing. So, even though you can pick a line and you’re like “Okay, this is the line I’m going to take.” the current might push you a different way, or something might just happen. The fight, flight, freeze, or flow situations; it’s like you’re forcing yourself into these situations to be put into, to choose one of the four I guess.
We would like to thank Nick for his time and insight. We look forwards to following and helping Nick win Gold in the next championships. We would also like to thank you for taking the time to read this post!
This year World Surf League Margaret River Drug Aware Pro 2015 was a truly special event. Not only did I get to spend some time in the Competitors VIP Tent talking with the current best surfers in the world, but I also got to see some insane surfing in some of the best conditions this leg of the tour has seen in years. Some highlights of the event can be seen here.
I met up with Tom Carroll at the event to chat about flow and understand how it has been instrumental to his life and surfing. For those that don’t know Tom Carroll he has been voted as one of the top 10 greatest surfers of all time and been crowned World Champion twice. Even today, at the age of 53, he continues to push limits, searching the globe to ride the world’s biggest swells for his TV series ‘Storm Surfers’. In fact, when I met up with him, he had just taken a huge beating, injuring his hip, at the intimidating Boat Ramps surf break – a break not for the feint hearted, especially on a day like today with massive swell.
After speaking to Nat Young and Josh Kerr about flow, whose responses echoed the sentiment ‘flow – I’m always in flow, it’s what a I live for’, the legend himself talked about how he sees flow and how he plugs-in.
Cameron: How did you feel when you’re in it (Flow) and what was your top experiences like?
Tom: Well, I had my first really clear flow movement experience when I was 13 years of age. Obviously I’ve done a lot of surfing, to that point, I’ve been already surfing since seven years of age. I was on a board that I absolutely loved, that really fitted into my body at that time. I was surfing a right-hand point-break which I hadn’t experienced before, but it was a very comfortable place to surf, or something that I loved surfing a long wave where I got to do a lot of maneuvres on the wave. It was probably for the first time I’d actually rode a wave where I could do that many maneuvres on, so I was pretty excited. You know, just excited to be out there, loved the board, so I was in a very nice environment. And then, towards the end of the session I will never forget, taking a wave a little bit longer and further down the beach and getting drifted down the beach to a whole new wave. There was no one surfing on it, I was by myself so I got into the flow moment, which I recognised as a moment in time where nothing could go wrong. All my timing was absolutely perfectly in harmony with the wave, perfectly in harmony with my body movements and my timing and my understanding of what was happening at that time. I couldn’t fall off the board even if I tried. That was a really clear moment, and I can feel it now, I can sense it in my body at this point I’m 53 now so it a long time ago! So yeah, you re looking at 40 years ago I can sort of get that real clear emotional response in my body to that.
It was a really lovely feeling, and I just wanted to stay out there and keep in that space, but obviously you’ve got to come in, you know, it’s getting dark. It could’ve lasted, I can’t remember exactly the length of that time, but that’s because of the nature of surfing. I’m paddling out, looking for waves, feeling what’s the best wave to take, feeling the drop, feeling the move on the wave, and feeling totally in sync with how the wave was moving, the board and how I was moving on the wave. I probably came in and out of the experience through that hour or two, but it was long, elongated, suspended a suspended feeling of flow.
Cameron: Yeah. Describe when you were actually in it and on the wave, what were the highest points?
Tom: Yeah, yeah. I’d noticed clearly that I couldn’t fall off, that I was totally in sync. I could move wherever I wanted to, I knew with a sixth sense that I was able to push it, I was able to push my board to its limit and I could push myself to my limit at that time. There was no separation between me, the board and the wave, it was all connected and it was all kind of one thing, not separated at all; I was linked up.
The second really clear instance of flow was in competition, a moment at the Pipe Masters in 1991, I had two days of getting into the flow moment during competition. I’d had a big year of competitive experience that year, I was fine-tuned emotionally, physically, and you’d have to say spiritually at the same time. My wife was having our first child and she was full of little Jenna. She’s 23 now by the way and also a ballerina, so she felt the flow [laughs].
In that time at the Pipe Masters I had several moments where I was just doing and not being, or I guess I was being and not doing, I don’t know how to separate that. I was in flow in the moments where my body, the wave, the board nothing was in the way. Everything was in sync, everything was in clear focus and I wasn’t thinking things through, I was just doing it and being it. There was a move that was recorded you know, they call it the snap heard around the world, there was that move that was done in the preliminary round, in the first day of competition, and then I ended up going on to win that event the next day. In the final I scored a 10-point ride, I got a very, very late drop where I couldn’t think about it I was just doing it and I was able to sort myself, sort my body movement, sort everything out without needing to think about it.
It was all second nature, it was all sixth sense, and most definitely for me that day I was at the top of my game. So, yeah. They were two really clear examples, but there probably has been hundreds of moments where I’ve felt the flow, and even to the point where I felt it the other day [laughs] here at Margaret River just practicing surfing, just for fun!
Cameron: Obviously the critical elements of surfing, the big wave and the consequences of it hurting when it goes wrong help us to kind of push into that pocket and out of our brain and into that moment where we find flow. Is there anything else that you feel is a big help to kind of plugging into that? Is there anything that you do, maybe not consciously, or maybe preparation that leads up to it the morning of, or just before you’re about to paddle, or when you’re looking at the waves before you head out?
Tom: I think connecting with the breath is probably the biggest thing for me. Connecting with my breath at the deepest level, like right down into the hips, and really push my breath. Being aware of my breath and doing a number of breaths very, very consciously brings me further into my body, and that’s where I need to be. Quite often my scattered and very short attention span takes me out of my body, so coming back into my body is grounding. One particular exercise I used to do whilst competing was a chant, that where I used to say the four Ps which was power, precision, performance, perfect.
Cameron: A mantra.
Tom: A mantra yeah! Whilst I was paddling, each paddle I’d say “power, precision, performance, perfect” so my mind would remain focused on what was coming up next for me on the wave. On the wave everything sorted out because I’ve got to respond, I can’t think, the wave always draws me to the present. I don’t have time because mother nature ain’t going to wait for me. [laughs] She’s not going to wait, so what I’ve got to do is respond to her so that everything is sorted out for me once I’m standing up on the wave, as long as I’m out of the way. I’d learnt that working with a mantra helped a lot in bringing myself to the moment and keeping myself focused and not attending to distractions like drifting off on to what the other competitor’s doing, what the scores were, I mean, I need to know what the scores were, but that’s secondary to my performance really.
I’m the only one on the wave, I’m the only one on my board, and I need to be connected to that. I don’t sort of seek constantly and consciously to always be in the flow, I wouldn’t say that’s my main aim, I would say that I do look for it for competitive excellence, but it’s not something that I always, always go for. I do allow myself space to be, you know, just to be allowing my brain to move and be elastic, because I think that’s absolutely crucial for flow.
Cameron: How do you think flow can help other people?
Tom: I think it helps anyone just to be present in what they’re doing, it’s pretty much another kind of meditative state that we get to where our body and mind and attention is really placed upon the most important thing- the right now. We seek to pay attention and be a lot more present in our basic everyday task, whether it’d be doing the washing-up [laughs], whether it’d be opening the car door, being more present in our relationships, being more present in our life in general. I think it’ll help us become more able to make clearer decisions and actually help ourselves and others at the same time. It has such a multiple sort of faceted kind of plus to our lives when we get more present. This has been my experience and it helped me a lot.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank Tom Carroll for his time and words on flow and look forward to hearing his experiences and wisdom on flow in the future. Thanks to you also for reading this post, we hope you enjoyed it!
Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, recently gave an important TED talk (which can be viewed below). In his overview of what humans require in order to attain more life satisfaction, Seligman outlined how flow is a major part of the Holy Grail.
The talk starts by explaining the successes of traditional psychology. Psychology was originally born out of the disease-led model and existed to find solutions to mental illnesses that were rife in society. It has succeeded to date by successfully treating fourteen disorders and curing two. More importantly it has provided a scientific approach towards understanding mental illness.
We have been able to measure previously fuzzy concepts such as depression, alcoholism and schizophrenia, and learned about the various causalities. We have also been able to invent and test treatments, and have successfully been able to make miserable people, less miserable, as Seligman puts it.
However, one of the main failures has been the focus on making the average person happier or improving normal lives. This traditional approach to psychology has not found out how to nurture talent or which positive interventions are more successful than others.
Positive psychology has taken giant strides in the last decade towards rectifying this issue. Interestingly it has found that the happiest people are not those that have more money, a religious affinity or a more comfortable life. But there is one significant correlational result; “the happiest people are those that are social. Each of them is in a romantic relationship and each has a rich repertoire of friends,” says Seligman.
Happiness is also a vague concept that has been used and abused over the years, and is often very misleading. As a result, happiness has been defined into three types of lives:
Firstly is the pleasurable life, which is attained by creating pleasure and as many positive emotions as possible. This is the type of life Hollywood sells, as do the many marketing campaigns that so readily litter our environments. Although these positive emotions are pleasurable they are very habitual; meaning that “it’s all like French vanilla ice cream, the first taste is a 100%; by the time you’re down to the sixth taste, it’s gone” as Seligman puts it. He goes on to say that the pleasurable life is not very malleable and heritable.
The second life is a good life. Now listen up, because this is where flow comes in. This life is about engagement, total absorption in what we are doing. It is void of positive emotion, as time stops and we become connected with the task at hand. To attain this lifestyle we must identify our signature strengths and re-craft our life to use these strengths in our work, love and play. Interestingly, people who experience these flow moments that make up the good life are not consumed by positive emotion that the many marketing campaigns will desire us to search for.
Lastly is the meaningful life where we use our strengths for something bigger than ourselves. These altruistic actions leave a lasting level of happiness way past the actual event.
Seligman goes on to say that to understand life satisfaction we have studied these three types of lives: “And we’ve done this in fifteen replications involving thousands of people – to what extent does the pursuit of pleasure, the pursuit of positive emotion, the pleasant life, the pursuit of engagement, stops time for you? How does the pursuit of meaning contribute to life satisfaction?…. Our results surprised us, but they were backward of what we thought. It turns out the pursuit of pleasure has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. The pursuit of meaning is the strongest. The pursuit of engagement is also very strong. Where pleasure matters is if you have both engagement and you have meaning, then pleasure is the whipped cream and the cherry. Which is to say, the ‘full life,’ the sum is greater than the parts, if you’ve got all three. Conversely, if you have none of the three, the ’empty life,’ the sum is less than the parts.” He goes on to say that life satisfaction is more significantly found through finding flow and meaning in what we are doing.
So to attempt to summarise a 20-minute talk into a sentence and relate it to us flow seekers out there: Keep going. Keep searching for flow in everything we do and along the way find our own meaning to what we are doing. If we can experience flow for a meaningful purpose, then we are on the road to the Holy Grail of happiness.
Andrew is a performance coach currently working in New Zealand at the U21 Football World Cup. He kindly agreed to an interview with The Flow Centre so we could pick his brains about how he helps top athletes to plug into flow and peak performance.
Cameron: What does flow mean to you?
Andrew: Flow is a skill itself. It is a state that we can train for and experience in our everyday lives. When we think about flow as a unique mental state, that is not combined with notions of luck or some illusive magic space that finds us at random, we can then empower ourselves to find flow frequently in our lives. If you want to find flow in your performance, practise it in training, but we also need to practice under pressure.
Cameron: Your words echo one of The Flow Centre’s core messages; if we want to experience flow, then we need to train for it. What was the philosophy of your company Brain Builder?
Andrew: Living above the line everyday, day in and day out. We need to adopt a ruthless mindset to succeed and leave nothing to the ‘too hard basket.’ It is a phrase that we can use to instantly assess how we are doing at any given situation are we above the line. We must replicate the performance environment in our training and life as a whole. Performing at a high level is not a magic switch that we turn on and off, preparation is key, you have to guarantee you are doing the best you can in everything you do. We have to be above the line on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, not just on game day.
Cameron: What is one of the primary issues for athletes?
Andrew: Performing under pressure. Pressure is a concept and it is different for everyone, when you put your whole self into the performance, and approach pressure with our competitive fire never give up attitude the pressure reduces. It’s very hard to make it as a professional so if we are not willing to make our bed in the morning how can we expect to make it in professional sport?
Cameron: Do you think finding flow is available to access for everybody?
Andrew: If you put yourself above the line you will be amazed how many flow opportunities become available. It is absurd to think flow is reserved for the elite few, I see students enter flow everyday. Flow is not a magic tablet, it takes practice but we can experience it multiple times a day.
Andrew: Play and fun are the key to maintaining intrinsic motivation. You can’t find flow in something you don’t enjoy.
Cameron: How can we practically experience flow more frequently in our lives?
Andrew: Control our breathing. If we can take a moment to invest ten seconds to control our breathing and really focus on that, we can control our thoughts a lot better. My second piece of advice is to detach from the situation. Understand whether the pressure is situational pressure or pressure from within. Once we understand the situation better we can gain clarity and control.
Cameron: What is the difference between good/ the best performers and great performers?
Andrew: In a one word answer: mindset. For me, this means an unshakeable self-belief. No matter how the odds are stacked up against us the greats have a never give up attitude. The greats always find a way because they have an unshakeable self-belief. Willingness to put yourself out of the comfort zone and not be afraid of failure builds layers of self-belief.
We would like to thank Andrew for his time and thoughts on flow and peak performance. If you would like to find out more about Andrew, then please get in contact and we will connect the dots, or you can find him on Twitter: @mcbride_andy
Thank you also for reading this post, stay tuned as we interview more extraordinary people on how they find and utilise flow in their area of expertise.
The beauty of learning a new skill exists in bringing it all together. There is an almost tangible threshold after which you can suddenly feel your mind expanding and integrating your new skill in a profound way. This is part of the path to mastery and a definite access point to flow.
The process described here is known as chunking . Without being too tangential or abstract about this concept, let me give you an example: To learn a new skill you start with the basic motor patterns. You slowly execute and rehearse these patterns of behaviour day by day until you get proficient at it. That action gets locked in the subconscious as motor memory.
This pattern gets chunked in your brain and accessed as a block of information which is a whole rather than split into its sub-components. When learning to play guitar for example, initially we consciously place each finger on the correct fret in order to play a chord. Slowly as we rehearse placing our fingers in the correct location, it becomes automatic – part of our motor memory. When first learning chord A, we would place all our fingers in the correct position, then strum the chord. It takes a whole lot of brainpower to accomplish this, until slowly it becomes integrated into our subconscious and chunked in to our brain so that whenever we see it coming up on a piece of music our fingers automatically arrange themselves in the correct pattern.
What is fascinating about chunking is that initially complex tasks actually get packaged in a form that is much easier for the brain to handle. The result is less energy expenditure for higher-level tasks. Chunks can exist in multiple hierarchies. The next chunk for guitar playing could be playing a chord pattern that becomes automatic after rehearsing it a number of times. For example, musicians play chords A, D, E, A in order without having to think about the minutiae of the chord changes.
The ultimate experience and gateway to flow occurs when we transcend the motor components of our skills and get into higher-level thinking. We are able to think of the strategy, enjoy the moment and get a greater view of our surroundings if we are on stage we are not thinking about how to play the chords or the song structure.
Instead the experience becomes about engaging with the crowd, feeling the music and communicating with the other band members. Jazz music is a perfect example of this as musicians subconsciously communicate with the band members allowing the improvised patterns to find their own flow. Transitioning from one solo into another becomes an effortless task. Good jazz groups seem highly connected as if they are playing as one. In jazz this is known as being in the pocket . Scientifically, we call this flow. The greater the challenge and intensity of this experience the deeper the flow experience for these musicians.
In kitesurfing, this happened to me when I finally mastered the kite and board combo to the point where I no longer had to think about it in detail. I was then able to take a meta-viewpoint on the situation. Suddenly I was able to enjoy the wind in my face, the view of the ocean and take charge of the direction of travel. It became a whole new experience. Once you stop having to Think and you are able to just Do, it is possible to let go and naturally flow will occur.
The bottom line is that there are many layers to learning and mastering a skill. It starts with the basic parts and slowly things integrate into chunks of information, to the point where you are finally able to transcend the skill itself and enjoy the activity on a whole new level. Flow comes naturally to those who forget about the How because the conscious thinking part of your brain switches off as you take your skill to the next stage. Keep persisting through the challenging stages when learning a new skill as the real fruits of your labour lie further down the path to mastery.
After watching a fantastic film called ‘Whiplash’ I feel almost obliged to inflame a topic that is wide open for debate in many modern day performance arenas. How do we push people beyond their limits?
The film brilliantly depicts the relationship between an ambitious student jazz musician and an abusive, yet highly respected instructor. The student, Teller, is seeking to be more than just a great drummer, but ‘one of the greats’. His teacher, Simmons, equally is only looking to shape and mould the next musical genius. Simmons methods of coaching are outrageous and would send most psychologists into red alert, as his abusive conduct produces heart-broken and dysfunctional teenagers.
His position as Head of Music for the most prestigious school in the country is undoubtedly the reason these students remain in his class despite being physically, mentally and emotional abused in the hope that one day they will graduate as a name to remember. Teller’s remarkable talent is questionably furthered by Simmons who pushes him to his limits and in the process opens up much food for thought and topics for debate surrounding performance.
His methods of gutting their confidence, and putting their heads under the guillotine every time they play installs a fear induced motivation that ironically leaves the musicians driven to train harder and faster than they have before. Simmons uses his power to great effect and yields nothing but exceptional results, yet causes the musicians a life of discontent, isolation, and madness. Simmons power-plays back Teller into a corner where he is either forced to perform or crack. Teller like most of us does both over time but at the end his anguish and determination ignites a mind-blowing peak performance just when he needs it most.
The story is fitting with much of the training that we associate happening decades ago and is still publicly rife in places like China, as they arguably abuse young athletes until they reach a level of perfection. The obvious commentary is that these methods are not only inhumane but also unsustainable – the performers are the ones who have to live inside their twisted minds and bodies long after the lights go out.
This approach leaves behind many broken minds and bodies that given alternative training may have blossomed into something quite unique and amazing. However, Simmons argues the point in the film, that anything else will simply not produce the next genius that will be remembered for generations. This strategy of work harder, faster, until you drop, at a lesser extent is undoubtedly a typical go to response for most coaches, even today. I see it on tennis courts, in fitness instructors, and corporations reminiscing a hangover from World War II that never went away. Although coaches have adopted the social norms and limits that counteract these extreme teachings the underpinning philosophy still bubbles underneath the surface – I see fear installed in many students and workers all around me.
As performers or coaches it forces us to answer the question: How do we go about pushing our limits and of those around us? Do we use fear as a motivator, which always seems to get short-term results but continuously fails to generate lasting desire. Telling ourselves to pull our socks up and do better for the fear of looking like a fool or being somehow belittled is no doubt one of our go-to strategies. One that many of us have been brought up with and use on a day-to-day basis. If we are to not use this strategy, and change a lifetime of conditioning, then what do we use?
With flow as our central ethos there is another method, one that produces self-generated motivation, fulfilled performers and doesn’t reduce the bar of excellence that is needed to be ‘one of the greats’. When our focus is 100% committed on being the best version of ourselves, do we expect anything less than hard work, determination and resilience? Absolutely not. If we do then I would question whether we are seeking flow or an excuse to go easy on ourselves.
Being in an intense state of flow requires our mind and body to be completely congruent. That means every fabric of our body being aligned to achieve the same goal. In this space there is no room for conflict, fear or separation, instead we are completely immersed and at one with the task at hand. To attain this state repeatedly, it would seem logical we need to have our minds and body congruently primed in our training and life as a whole. If otherwise, these conflicts no matter how small will act like splinters, which will undoubtedly lead to cracks in the system and when the pressure mounts most likely cause us to crumble.
We can reach flow through fear or hatred by erupting to a point where we snap and either find our true magnificence or a road to destruction. This snapping point tips us into a place where we transcend out of our body and into the zone that is ironically free from fear and anger. The fear can increase our arousal to a point where we are forced to plug into the moment and let go or be crippled by it and fight, fly or freeze. Although this strategy is possible, dare I say, still commonplace, an alternative more sustainable, fun, and contagious option is readily available flow.
Arguably, one of the most attractive features of working as an entrepreneur is the freedom that comes with it. The ability to choose your own schedule, work as much or as little as you like, and make your own decisions can result in amazing output or lead to disaster depending on the individual approach. One of the most important elements in how this freedom is used appears to be productivity.
In the entrepreneurial world, efficient time management and the ability to delegate or collaborate is well documented to yield great effects. There are countless productivity hacks, and tools to help you organise every second of your day. Yet there is an important element missing in all of this. What do you do in the actual moment you are supposed to be productive? It all planned out, the calendar is set up, the to-do list notifies you what needs to be done. But in the moment of execution, are you being as productive as you could be? Is your actual output in the moment at it full potential? In addition, as an entrepreneur we constantly face curve balls almost daily, which make our previously well organised plans redundant what happens then? And how can we make the most of our time in these situations?
How we perform during these periods is critical. Thankfully, for all entrepreneurs listening there is a way for us to maximise our potential for success through the improved productivity that comes with flow. Flow, is a concept that can provide some of the answers. Hungarian professor of Psychology Mihali Csikszentmihalyi initially described the notion of flow in his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, where he describes it as a state of complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation, a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Since his initial description and exploration in the 1970 , flow has been utilised in elite sports and in the offices of top executives alike due to the profound effects it has on performance. A 10-year McKinsey and Co. study on flow and productivity found top executives 500 % more productive when in flow. Let just take a moment ..that is five times more productive. Meaning if we worked all day in flow on Monday we could take the rest of the week off. Any takers?
Being in a flow state or ÔÇ£in the zoneÔÇØ allows for deep concentration and ultimate immersion in the task at hand. This allows for complete attention on a subject and maximises productivity and output in a given time frame. This is important for the entrepreneur or CEO who must not only manage what they do with their time, but also maximise the benefit of the actual time allocated to various tasks.
Time management is about prioritisation and what you do when. But flow is about the how you do what you do. Using flow in your day-to-day means devoting 100% of yourself to the task at hand. Flow is about doing one thing, doing it undistracted, and doing it well.
Productivity is not only vital for the individual but for teams, and entire organisations. In Forbes magazine, James Slavet of Venture Firm Greylock Partners suggests a new metric to measure a great start-up team. He calls it the Flow State Percentage , which is the proportion of the day employees are in flow as a measure of performance. He argues that every team comprises of jobs that require a lot of brain power and that our current work scenarios are not providing the optimal platform to maximise efficiency and output. Ideally 30-50% of a productive day should be spent interrupted. Things such as emails, phones, meetings, colleagues all snap us out of flow when we are really starting to get things done. Studies show that getting back into flow once interrupted takes 15-20 minutes, if possible at all. James Slavet challenges us to measure this in our teams. How much time is spent interrupted and in flow in a day? Divide this by the number of work hours and this is your flow state percentage.
So, how do we minimise distractions when you are in productivity mode? John Reed, the former CEO of Citigroup kept his office door closed from 7am to 10am every day, refusing to take any calls or visits until he opened his door. Follow Reeds lead and get creative. Set up your working environment for yourself and your team to achieve maximum output and flow. Look to find flow on a daily basis or get a flow coach. The difference between finding flow frequently or not whilst working, not only is the difference that makes the difference to success, but also makes the job a whole lot more fun.
An important factor to enabling flow is being at ease in your environment. You need to be comfortable and relaxed. Though practice, it is possible to gradually get comfortable with the uncomfortable, allowing you to transcend fear and access flow when it counts the most.
Consider your comfort zone as a series of well demarcated circles around you like a target with you in the centre. As you push your boundaries ever so slightly, and step over the outer lines of the circles, you expand the circles diameter as a representation of growing the realm of what you are comfortable with. Pushing comfort zones brings things you once thought to be uncomfortable into your accepted reality. They allow us to stretch our boundaries and give rise to a new capacity that we have previously only dreamed of.
Let take surfing as an example. Many people start by surfing smaller waves in a safe environment. As they become comfortable with these waves they might drop into something a little bit bigger. As they keep testing the limits of what is comfortable, they integrate the experience of the larger waves into their normality. Before long they are surfing head high waves that they once looked upon with awe. It possible to keep surfing bigger and bigger waves, as they too get integrated in to what is considered normal. These continuing sequence of consistently pushing the bar and taking the challenge to the next level is the reason why adventure sports has been such a focus point for peak performance in this last decade. Each time they upgrade and widen the circle there is an element of fear to be overcome. It’s a fear of the unknown; a variety of manifested feelings derived from a multitude of what if scenarios.
These fears are no more real than an oasis in the desert. When we apply the flow elements and maintain an honest reality of the situation we see the desert for what it is; we see the situation without the fear it once ignited. When we keep it real and acknowledge that any uncomfortableness is simply a resistance to learning, or for some accepting that we are already more capable than we would like to think, we free our minds of the anxiety and fearful thoughts that would normally have us turning back. When we become comfortable with being uncomfortable, our perspective changes and we stop thinking and start doing. It is in this mental space that we find the release valve during this struggle and plug in to flow. As long as our skills have been adequately trained, this uncomfortableness is actually the perfect prequel to finding flow.
By regularly pushing the outer circles of our comfort zones, this feeling of unfamiliarity is something we get used to. If we are to strive for excellence, it is only a matter of time before we become uncomfortable, at which point it is essential we become at ease in this environment and enable flow to occur.
So, in practical terms, regularly do things that are out of your comfort zone. Learn to become comfortable with the uncomfortable, and learn to access flow when it counts the most.
An artist was once asked in an interview, ÔÇ£when did you start drawing?ÔÇØ He responded: ÔÇ£That’s not really the right question, the real question is, when did you stop drawing?ÔÇØ 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, ÔÇ£when did you start accessing flow?ÔÇØ, the real question is, ÔÇ£when did you stop?ÔÇØ
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 likely you do it for the love of the sport and not much else. It just so enjoyable that you just do it for the sake of doing it. It 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 always at least one.