FLOW STATE - Offpiste Humor
Column and head-scratching photos by Steve Giordano, mostly
The best advice I ever got from a personal coach for an exercise program was to start out slowly and then kick back. This technique never won me any foot races, but I always passed a lot of runners just before the finish line. They had started out fast but couldn't maintain the pace. As slow as I was, there were always people to pick off whose strides were bigger than their feet, so to speak.
Starting out slowly and then kicking back is a great stress-buster that could apply to a lot of activities. It takes the edge off any performance anxieties that may be lurking around and leaves you free to enjoy what you're doing. With that attitude, expectations stay in the realm of the possible, the achievable, and the flow of the moment fills your awareness.
Take tugboat races for example. No, really. I'm not kidding. Years ago, Seattle's Maritime Festival featured three heats of tugboat races. I got to ride in the second heat on the little tug that could.
Actually it was the big tug that could, but the engine was little, 700 horsepower compared to shorter tugs with 7,000 horsepower engines. Those tiny tugs could practically do pirouettes during their spirited showoff ballets on the Elliott Bay waters.
Ours, the Arthur Foss, was probably the original Foss tug
built more than a hundred years ago. She's off duty now, serving out her
time as a National Historic Landmark. She's maintained by
volunteers who once a year had an incredibly good time starting
out slow and then kicking back. That year she passed two other
You could say the race had a good flow to it. Once up to speed, a sort of steady state was maintained and everyone on board was free to enjoy the flow.
Flow as a human state of mind is the subject of a book called ``Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience.'' The author is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and I'm guessing he was motivated to study flow by the sound of his own name.
Csikszentmihalyi says the enjoyable, fulfilling state of personal flow happens when ``attention can be freely invested to achieve a person's goals, because there is no disorder to straighten out.''
He explains that the steady state happens during activities that require psychic energy, activities that are both goal-directed and bound by rules. That can apply to a game of chess or go, to dancing the night away, to any kind of race, or even to something so mundane as mowing the lawn in an orderly pattern.
The flow state is a merger of action and awareness. When the goals are clear and the feedback is immediate, things flow right along.
Musicians get into it. In fact, you could say the flow state is a requirement of their art. These musicians are all in their own personal states of flow.
Steve Allen, the original Tonight Show host, was a jazz pianist who knew about flow. He once said that people flow through their day or their art, doing thousands of things, making thousands of decisions and having thousands of thoughts, without, so to speak, thinking about them.
The flow of the activity is interrupted when someone asks,
``Why are you doing that?"
If you have trouble kick-starting yourself into a busy day, if disorder is your natural state of mind in the morning, here's something that might work. I heard it at a stress-reduction workshop: Make a list of your tasks. But don't write today's list. Write yesterday's list, or last week's. There is no better feeling of accomplishment than to have the jobs finished as soon as the list is done. The rest of your day should flow pretty evenly, even if your name isn't Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Speaking of Csikszentmihalyi, he and his concept of flow are discussed in this TED talk on play. A pioneer in research on play, Dr. Stuart Brown says humor, games, roughhousing, flirtation and fantasy are more than just fun. Plenty of play in childhood makes for happy, smart adults -- and keeping it up can make us smarter at any age.
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