Flow State: The Secret to Limitless Human Potential
“The foremost reason that happiness is so hard to achieve is that the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow.”
That’s actually one of the most powerful truths I have ever encountered.
We are drawn naturally to comfort. It seems that, for humans, comfort is the quintessential state.
But the universe has a strange sense of humor. It feels like it played on us a cosmic joke where the most desirable state can also be the most destructive.
Comfort feels good, but comfort is also transient.
Perennial immersion in one’s comfort zone is against the very nature of our existence.
Every time we make ourselves comfortable, we also find ourselves facing new obstacles and challenges.
In other words, comfort is not efficacious.
So we embarked on an arduous quest where we had to overcome the limitations of our cerebral and physical make-up and confront any struggle that comes our way.
And that’s how we discovered flow.
Flow is something unnatural. It’s not a state that you can generate on demand.
It requires focus, discipline, and an astute ability to shut down the cacophonous mumbling of your ego.
Nonetheless, it constitutes a strong remedy against everything that limits our potential and an endeavor from our side to showcase the essence of what we are really made of.
Enter Flow State
I remember the first time I entered flow quite vividly.
I was in a nightclub trying to maneuver myself through the complex mechanics of our social playgrounds.
I usually felt stifled in such environments.
But not that night.
That night I started with simple interactions and, once I felt enamored with the environment, I started exhibiting bolder and bolder moves.
I felt like there was no resistance in my ability to showcase social prowess and that I could interact with anyone, anywhere.
My mind was clear, there was no inner judgment, and every interaction evolved naturally.
At the end of the night, I felt serene. I felt full. I felt elated.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is so powerful that it can actually lead to ecstasy.
The word ecstasy in classical Greek literature refers to the removal of the mind or body from its normal place of function.
With flow, you feel as if you don’t even exist.
Existence is temporarily suspended.
The Mechanics of Flow
Brain imaging shows that when in flow states we actually switch off the part of the brain that gives us our ‘sense of self’ and the part that regulates our brain function.
This part is called the dorsolateral frontal cortex. It is the part of our brain that allows us to analyze and question our own behavior, which can be highly useful.
Unfortunately, it also slows everything down because it means that all our decisions have to go through it, and it can act as a “creative barrier.”
By switching off this part, we allow all our attention to go to the part we want to use without censorship or micromanagement.
This results in quick reactions and uninterrupted productivity.
Elements of Flow State
Technically speaking, flow is the sweet spot between anxiety and boredom.
Too much anxiety can be crippling. Too much boredom can be demoralizing.
Flow acts as the catalyst for finding a balance between the two and reaching the optimal state of man.
Think of flow as the conversion of your inner potentials into pure kinetic energy, like water flowing seamlessly through a canal.
Breaking down the elements of flow can be confusing. I will attempt to do so nonetheless.
The first and most important characteristic of flow is having an achievable objective.
This provides focus of energy as well as movement of flow around and over obstacles.
Without an objective, flow would be dispersed.
An objective shouldn’t be something complicated. You just need to know your aim and have that aim clearly identified in your head.
It’s important to note that having an objective is different than being outcome-dependent.
An objective gives you intent. It doesn’t feed your obsessions.
Being outcome-dependent usually inhibits flow because it strengthens the moaning of the ego.
Creativity cannot thrive in that space because it constantly encounters ego barriers that question its existence.
A clear objective is just the compass that allows creativity to discover the path where it can prosper.
This gives your actions the necessary gravity required in order to discover alternate paths whenever you struggle with resistance.
An objective is tantamount to a purpose. A purpose-driven person will always muster willpower whenever resistance tries to jeopardize his or her actions.
An Autotelic Intention
The word autotelic describes actions and intentions that are self-fulfilling rather than means to an end.
While having an objective is important, the drive to reach that objective is also important.
This drive cannot be impulsive.
It needs to feed on an energy source that is self-generating.
A drive to perform a set of actions simply for the enjoyment of doing them encapsulates the essence of autotelic.
In an autotelic state, you become maximally engaged in the process of producing the best outcome that you can, rather than simply going through the motion hoping for some outcome.
Engagement leads to depth and Richard Feynman used to say that “Everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”
We are usually obsessed with rewards and the completion of stages within the games that we decide to play.
We forget that the process itself oftentimes is more rewarding than the price we desire.
An autotelic intention is capable of generating positive emotion which can be manifested into internal drive.
This self-rewarding process isn’t just central for the flow mechanism but it also reveals its miraculous nature.
Self-Efficacy – Knowing the General Path
As you gain experience in doing something, your audacity intensifies and gives rise to self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy reflects confidence in your ability to exert control over your own motivation, behavior, and environment.
It is the ability to generate a mind map that connects all the constituents of your intended strategy.
The mind map comes from both experience and the intensity of your concentration on the task at hand.
You know that the more you focus on something, the more power you have to make it happen regardless the obstacles you encounter.
This self-efficacy gives cadence to your actions.
You master a sense of timing and momentum.
Your path is charted out in your mind and you discover that places that seemed so alien and arcane now seem more familiar than ever.
High Spatial Awareness – Feedback Sensors
Flowing also requires that we are attuned to reality and to the prioritization of information.
During flow state, we are working faster than time itself, and we are able to process information in an intelligent way.
People in flow seem to always be able to distinguish the most relevant information of the moment and to create opportunities from it.
This high attunement to external events evolves into higher and higher spatial awareness that permeates the fabric of our operational systems.
It is the development of the fingerspitzengefühl, or the finger-tip feel of our environment.
We learn to trust our intuition more than our judgment in order to feel certain energies instead of trying to analyze every action.
Like a hand reaching out to touch the future, we are one step ahead than usually and the vacuum of time becomes the playground of now.
Willing To Be Shot Down – Egolessness
In new environments, the brain creates a persona, for you to present to the world.
However, during flow state, your ego is temporarily suspended. Your objective and the emotions you summon seem to outweigh the importance of persona and ego.
You feel anti-fragile and your vision broadens beyond the narrow scope of your usual interpretation of the world.
In flow, your brain is in discovery mode.
You are living for the sublime instead of looking for ways to fit into conventions and justify limiting beliefs.
With this discovery comes a special knowledge of the danger around you.
A willingness to be shot down means that your brain can no longer interpret rejection or fear as dangers to avoid.
The ego is suppressed to make way for the self to express itself fully.
In this mindset, you actually accept rejection and fear as ordinary tenets of life and incorporate them into your overall flow state.
The key to making this process more seamless is to face the most challenging aspects of your objective head-on.
Be willing to get rejected. Be willing to battle with resistance. Be willing to create something simple that will evolve into something more complicated.
In this model, your brain adapts and is no longer intimidated by your limiting perceptions.
The moment your ego is suspended, your brain will translate any feeling of anxiety to a need for more audacity and creativity.
The actual reason we discuss flow is that it can really make you happier.
Happiness is not easy to define, but some of its constituents are ecstasy and the ability to disengage from self-destructive thoughts and behavioral patterns.
Flow is a state that has been part of the human tapestry since the time we were just trying to satisfy our more primordial needs.
Today, it affects every step of our attempt to achieve self-transcendence.
I would go as far as to say that the theme of flow is an attempt from the modern human to regain his or her soul and overcome the contemporary malaise of spiritual stagnation.
Reaching flow state on a consistent basis can be challenging. That’s why I created the “30 Challenges-30 Days-Zero Excuses” project. I have collected the most interesting daily habits, inspired by renowned individuals, that aim to help you reinvent the way you approach life and focus on adopting practices that can help you embrace a flow-oriented mindset. You can check it out here.
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Below you can also find the video version of this essay:
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