On Flow

Barbara Gail Montero, former ballet dancer and now associate professor of philosophy at CUNY, argued against flow in this piece from May 2017. Well, not against flow per se but against the romantic notion that entering a state of flow allows one to perform at their best by getting out of the way and letting flow take over.

The concept of flow, however, appears to have been misinterpreted by many leading to the need for such a rebuttal.

As quoted on The Pursuit of Happiness Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi found that when people enter a state of flow during this "optimal experience" they feel "strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities."

When you look at the language employed - effortless control, peak of their abilities - it is easy to see how this can be interpreted incorrectly. There is, however, one key word in the above: feel. People in a state of flow feel in control and at the peak of their abilities, they feel things are easy and effortless. That is the point of all this.

Flow concerns itself with how the activity is experienced and not with its excellence. Instead, deliberate practice is required for us to give our best performance. We will not necessarily get the best from ourselves when we enter a state of flow but we will enjoy the activity more, we will be happier as a result.

I see the two as working in tandem: dedicated practice gets us to a point where we are more likely to experience the flow state, by reaching a certain level we open ourselves up to the possibility of it occurring, but then we must take the result of that state and reapply the concentrated effort to improve it.

It is not a zero sum game, not one or the other but, obviously, this doesn't apply in all circumstances or with all activities, in a ballet performance you can't, as Montero says, "stop the music, ask the audience for their forgiveness and try again". Still, there are occasions and activities where we can reap the benefits of this two pronged approach.

It is like the separation between writing and editing, and here's where we loop back to yesterday's post. Flow lets us get words on the page, a baseline that seems to have come from nowhere. We must then examine and revise the result to make it the best it can be.

With my previous post on flow I got caught up in the romanticised vision to a degree but stated

"... flow is not an accident. Flow is the result of that practice. Flow is the result of all that hard work, even though, when it happens, it feels effortless and otherworldly."

This "autopilot" means we are not obsessing over every detail (again not applicable to ballet where everything must be meticulous yet seem effortless), not holding ourselves back, just letting things happen and almost absolving ourselves of responsibility. That's why it feels so easy, so controlled, and why it feels we are at the peak of our abilities even if the performance is technically lacking. We imagine that this is what expertise feels like.

The flow state itself may not create the optimum performance but, depending on the circumstances, it may put us in a position to do so as long as we are willing to put in the hard work once the state has passed.

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