Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the University of Chicago researcher and father of Flow studies, realized that when learners drop into Flow states, they concentrate more deeply, pick up information more quickly, and progress towards Mastery sooner.
Like Laird Hamilton getting towed in to waves far too big to paddle into, we can use Flow to keep ahead of the curve of change–learning fast enough not to get pounded.
So what’s the secret–how does Flow help us get better sooner?
To understand that, we need to define a few terms:
First off, in terms of human development, we need to think very specifically about two different categories of experience–States and Stages. Flow, by its very definition, is a state. That means it has a beginning and an end. It is an experience, often fleeting, that picks us up for a moment, then sets us back down, more or less where we left off.
Being awake is a state. So is going to sleep or dreaming.
Since it doesn’t happen routinely like napping, Flow is considered a special kind of state–a non-ordinary state of consciousness (NOSC), and even more specifically, a peak state. That means it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does–it’s a keeper, a deep fulfillment of possibilty and potential–one for the scrap books.
A stage, on the other hand, is a more durable and stable experience–it’s the foundational way we make sense of the world, and we can develop over time through increasingly complex stages that reflect our growing skills and abilities. The “terrible twos” is a stage. So is adolescence.
After puberty though, all subsequent human development is optional.
If I’m really dedicated to the pursuit of the mediocre, I can remain fixed at the stage of complexity I left college with–never reading anything thicker than a magazine, and never shifting the way I view the world from how it looked through a foggy pair of beer goggles.
But the little known reality is just because subsequent, higher stages of adult development are optional, it doesn’t mean they are imaginary. In fact, movement from conventional ways of engaging the world to post-conventional ways is predictable, measurable and suprisingly easy to achieve--and offers massive benefits to our abilties to anticipate and respond to complex change.
That’s at the heart of why we’re suggesting that Flow states play such a central role in achieving Abunance. We’re going to need to learn to learn faster.
To stick with our practical example, I might be an unremarkable intermediate surfer (my stage of development) who one day, in the water with my best mates, manages a rare moment of grace (a Flow-like state) where everything goes right.
I pull into a glassy barrel, the wavepeeling over my head, I zoom down the line, bursting back out into the light, carve up the face, catch air off the lip, land on my board and ride out into the whitewater, laughing and amazed.
That fleeting Flow state felt fantastic–so good in fact, that I can’t stop thinking about it–after beers that night, and replayed a thousand times on the drive back from the coast.
Drawn in by that intoxicating glimpse of my Future Possible pro-surfer self, I spend more time than ever daydreaming about surfing, watching my favorite surf movies, replaying my own hero moment again and again, and getting out for sunset paddles every night I can after work.
It takes me almost a year of this kind of incremental practice for me to even glimpse another peak experience of Flow on my board–but by the time it does, I have now trained my game–gradually raising my stage of surfing ability, to better be able to experience the Flow state when it all momentarily comes together.
This cycle repeats, and provided I stick with my incremental practice during my plateaus, I stand a decent chance of continuing to evolve–getting reeled in by my Future Possible.
As Pultizer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder writes:
A High Tower
On a Wide Plain
Climb up Just One Floor
You’ll see a Thousand Miles More
That extra elevation a peak experience affords can reward us with views we might never otherwise glimpse. We can detect patterns, identify obstacles, and anticipate solutions that beneath the clouds, lay obscured.
The only trouble comes with the Frequency and Duration of those catalytic little Flow states. If they happen only once in a Blue Moon, there’s a good chance I’ll lose interest over time, slack off on my deliberate practice and settle back into the comfortable rut of my current stage.
If they happen too briefly, I barely have the chance to realize what’s going on before it stops, and never figure out how to do more of it again. It’s like bungee-jumping–exhilarating and fun, but over so fast it’s hard to learn much.
So the real key to hacking Abundance is to find ways to repeat and extend Flow state experiences, using the information (what it takes to get barreled in a wave) and inspiration (super fun–must do again) to fuel deliberate practice.
That’s where we create a virutous cycle between our state experiences and our stage of development. By taking the peaks of our experiences, and intentionally plowing them back into the valleys of our least developed skills, we smooth out our overall profile, and raise the foundation upon which we stand.
But, (and there’s always a “but” when discussing anything that whiffs of the ecstatic or transcendent) it’s crucial that seeking and cultivating Flow states doesn’t become a hamster wheel end-game of its own. Taken to the extreme, we seekers of Flow become Bliss Junkies–moving heaven and earth to grab one more taste of the technicolor Goods, and lying around listlessly on the monochrome days between.
After all, if it’s so clear and effortless during a Flow state and so much seems to get done so fast, why bother with the uphill struggles of the day to day?
It becomes a vicious cycle where we constantly one-up ourselves to make our peaks Bigger, Better, Longer and Stronger so that, if only for a moment (or an evening, or one infamously deranged week in the Nevada desert) we feel like Superman.
The problem is, when the firehose of inspiration is turned off and our Flow state fades away, we go from a Full Bucket to a leaky kitchen colander in moments. By Monday morning, we’re back to our old self, and our old stage. Thestate we momentarily inhabited becomes either an object of fond nostalgia or bitter disappointment depending on how hard we land, and how optimistic we are about chances of a successful relaunch.
Instead of that well-traveled dead end (thanks Aquarians!) we can become much more deliberate about how we seek Flow states and what we do with them once we find them. We can, in effect, go from leaky colanders, to water-tight chalices–using the Flow we do experience to patch the holes in our game, and become increasingly efficient with what’s left over.
By increasing the predictable frequency of our Flow states, we can spend less time wandering around waiting for lightning to strike, and more time bottling it.
By extending the duration of time we spend immersed in Flow, we can heed one philosopher’s admonition to not “give in to Astonishment!” and instead engage in self-aware learning while we’re there.
These longer flight times help establish what neuro-marketer Matrin Lindstrom calls “somatic triggers” where we create a lived experience of what it feels like to think, feel, move, and interrelate from a state of hyperperformance. Then, when the dust has settled and we’ve returned more or less to earth, we can rely on those somatic waypoints like training wheels for Ubermensch.
“You got to go There,” Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “to know There!”
We can leverage our altered states and turn them into altered traits.
Or as Harvard scholar Huston Smith once so perfectly put it,
“turn our passing illuminations into abiding Light.”