So, what is flow and how do you get it?
Csikszentmihalyi identifies the following fairly universal experiences while in a flow state:
- Working toward a clear goal with a well-defined process – The task, big or small, must be as defined as possible and the steps needed to get there must be laid out in detail or at least highly-delineable along the way. Getting there does not have to be easy, but you need to be able to see, even in the distance, where you are going.
- Cultivating deep-concentration – the nature of the job must require an intense sense of concentration. Examples would be a fast-moving game like ping-pong or a gymnastic routine. In a work setting, leading a high-stakes, face-to-face negotiation, drafting a document, writing a blog post (ha ha ha), creating a detailed artistic rendering or coding of a computer game, animation or program would qualify.
- Lack of a sense of self-consciousness – you become so engaged in the nature of the work that are no longer aware of yourself, but, rather feel a sense of total absorption in the task. It’s like that old sports adage, “be the ball.”
- Altered sense of time– time seems to either stand still or literally fly by in the blink of an eye.
- Ongoing, direct feedback – either through people or the testable nature of the task, you need regular enough feedback to be able to constantly adapt, correct course and make progress toward your goal. For example, when writing a computer program, you can constantly compile, test and de-bug the ensure you are on the right track.
- Task is highly-challenging, but doable – the task must be hard enough to finish that it requires a significant investment of your attention, resources and energy that lead to the sense of absorption. But, it also has to easy enough to allow you to believe that a solution is, in fact, possible, or else you’d just give in.
- Control over the means – you must have the ability to harness the resources to get the job done.
- The activity is meaningful or intrinsically rewarding, by the very nature of doing it – while the end result might entitle you to a big outside reward, like a bonus, raise or high sale-price, the essential nature of the activity is so rewarding that you would do it at the same level, even without he extra motivation of some kind of external prize. For example, most great artists don’t paint for a paycheck, they paint because the very process of painting is so woven into who they are that not painting would be akin to not breathing.
Do all of these elements need to be present? No. But, the more the better, the deeper the flow and greater the sense of effortlessness.
Deliberate practice – the connection between flow and greatness.
It’s so easy to look around at people who reach the pinnacle of any career or activity and say, “oh she succeeded on a level I never could, because she’s got a gift, it’s just in her genes.” Saying this makes us feel better about the massive gap that lies between those uber-achievers…and us. But, increasingly, research is proving the gift-theory wrong.
In fact, a growing body of experts now argue there is no such thing as a natural gift, leaving something else to explain extreme success.
In late 2006, British researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda revealed, in a massive study, “The evidence we have surveyed … does not support the [conclusion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.”
That study showed, across a wide array of endeavors, most people learn quickly at first, but then peak out and eventually stop learning, even though they continue to engage in the activity. But, an exceptionally small percentage of people never peak. They continue learning and improving for years of decades. And, it’s those people who become the biggest successes, who reach true greatness in any field.
Surprisingly, though, it’s not some natural gift that lets them continue to excel long after others have peaked.
What makes people great is practice, but not any old practice.
Rule number one—to get great at anything, you need to work hard, very hard. But, the way you go about that work or practice is the difference between good and top-of-the-heap great.
Let look at golf, for example. If I go out and play a round and hit three buckets of balls every day, that’s a lot of work, a serious commitment to practice. But…it’s not good enough to become the best in the game. There something missing. And, the experts call it “deliberate” practice.
According to prominent greatness researcher, Professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, it takes a serious commitment to intense work and lots of hours and adds in a relentless drive to improve with every repetition of every element of every task.
That means, for a baseball player, hitting every pitch with a specific intention, responding to each swing and correcting with each repetition. So rather than having a goal of just hitting 100 balls, each swing would be aimed at a specific point in the field and the batter would not move on until that point was hit 20-times in a row.
If this sounds a bit brutal, for most people, it is. And, it is completely unsustainable for very long. Which is a shame, because the research also reveals something a bit disconcerting about how long you have to engage in this deliberate practice to become truly great.
The 10-Year Rule.
Even if you have the drive to develop a deliberate, daily practice, for hours a day, seven days a week, it will take a good 10-years before you can expect to become a rock-star in your chosen pursuit.
In fact, in a 2006 article in Money Magazine, John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University revealed, “The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average.” The more complex the activity, the longer it takes to become great. Which is why most of us become pretty darn good at a lot of things, but never become truly great at much of anything.
10-year rule detractors point to people like Tiger Woods, who won his first Masters at the age of 21, but forget that Tiger was on late night television with Johnny Carson hitting golf balls when he was just 3-years old. So, by the time he hit his late teens, he’d already had more than 15-years of deliberate practice.
Which brings us, finally to the critical link between effortlessness or flow and extreme success. How does this all come together to create Effortless Success?