We all have heard about it, we most likely at one point in our lives have lived it, and that is the Flow state. What is funny, is that growing up in team sports, I never really heard much about such a phenomenon. But in the fringe, or outdoor sports world, it seems that some hippy rock climber always has a story about dropping into some type of “Flow state,” where the world just drops away, and there is nothing but the rock, and an unconscious, conscious form, clinging to this crazy piece of molten material, spinning and hurtling through the universe. They describe it with a bunch of dramatic head shaking, and almost orgasmic like gesticulations…Then finish it off with, “Bro, it is just so hard to explain, bro.” If not climbers, then surfers, or skiers, or any other extreme adventure sport participant, and each one telling a similar story, just in a different setting, with a different landscape. All describing the mythical feeling of experiencing Flow.
Words are hard to find in pinning down the feeling of Flow, and I imagine that is why it has been fairly elusive in documenting over the years. It does not show up on paper, except hidden within better performance metrics, and it is not something that you can buy in a late night infomercial for 3 easy payments of $9.99.
Flow is defined “As an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and where we perform our best.” It is the state created by evolution to enable peak performance. It is why when the impossible becomes possible, Flow always plays a starring role. The neurobiology of Flow is the mechanism behind the impossible. But what does that actually mean? Does describing it as an optimal state of consciousness do any good? Not really. Because, what does that even mean? It does not get us very far. A better way to think about Flow, is to think of it as the moments of rapt attention and total absorption, when you get so focused on the task at hand, that everything else disappears. Awareness and action come together, your sense of self vanishes, and the passing of time happens strangely. You are in the zone, you are in a Flow state. Performance soars.
On the physical side, muscular endurance, strength and reaction times all significantly increase, at the same time our sense of exhaustion, pain and exertion all seem to decrease. But the bigger positive impacts are cognitive. Productivity, creativity, innovation, learning and awareness…the list goes on and on. All senses seemed heightened, quicker, faster, and indecisiveness does not exist.
From an evolutionary lens, we have been shaped to survive, but evolution itself is driven forward by the availability of resources. A lack of resources has always been the most pressing threat to our survival. So for that reason it is also the biggest driver for evolution, and there are only two possible responses for this threat. You can fight over dwindling resources, or you can go out and explore, get creative, innovative and cooperate with the environment and or neighboring tribes, and make new resources.
This is what explains the skills that Flow amplifies. This wide variety turns out to be everything you need to fight, flee, explore and innovate. And because sport, work, or things that seem impossible are things that all involve extreme innovation, Flow is like water to a man wandering the desert with no oasis in sight.
Why does this matter? It matters because we only get one shot at this life as far as we can tell, and we spend ⅓ of it asleep. So it matters what we do with the other ⅔. When we are young we have our whole lives ahead of us. Seemingly infinite possibility. But as we get older, we give way from what we might be, to what we have been. This is bad. We continually underperform in all metrics, we habitually are inferior to our full self. The reason we do not live up to our potential, is that we are not in the habit of living up to our potential.
Flow does not exist in a vacuum. Think of it as an amplifier. It respects the send. We all contain the possibility of the extraordinary. But it is an emergent property, it only arises when we push ourselves to the edge of our abilities. Rider, climber, surfer, laborer, business owner, parent, friend, hunter, lover, etc…Always striving for better, not settling for average.
Outside of our comfort zone, whatever that is for you. That is where Flow exists. It exists on the edge of your abilities, not excessively exceeding them, but right on the verge of chaos. It is built on a foundation of learning, creativity and motivation. Without the proper base, it can be reckless. If you have never ridden a dirt bike, then signing up for a Hare Scramble or Hard Enduro is not where you will find Flow, but you may find it riding around the neighborhood, or jumping the curb for the first time. We are all constantly changing, and the places that we need to be too grow change with us. Pushing the boundaries of what is uncomfortable, mixed with a deep desire to learn and improve will typically put you in a great position to find a state of Flow. The more time you can spend in this elusive state, the faster you will learn, the better you will perform and most importantly, the time spent there is like no other place on earth.
If this topic is something that interests you, I would highly recommend the book written by Steven Kotler “The Art of Impossible”.
Get out. Practice, live, love, train, explore and be enthusiastically curious.