i was watching a matt d’avella video the other day. initially i thought matt was a cheesy life hack youtuber, or one of those egotistical douche bags who think their morning routine is something that people should make note of, but as i’ve warmed up to his style i began to really appreciate him. his content isn’t conceited, it’s genuinely helpful and informative. and most importantly, it’s honest. he doesn’t present a false image of himself as a perfect role model. it’s authentic and relatable.
the video i watched was titled “The Secret to Superhuman Performance” which caught my interest immediately. now granted i know this sounds like a sketchy website advertisement at the bottom of a buzzfeed quiz, but after wasting my life away in the dully inactive action of watching youtube, i needed to use the very thing that was stunting my creative growth to get myself out this productivity rut; effectively use the problem as the solution. the video covered the idea of flow, a word itself i was surely aware of but a concept i wasn’t necessarily familiar with. the word flow in the context of human activity pertains to the phenomenon of entering a state of controlled focus and steady operation.
one of the key advocates for the implementation of the flow state concept in regards to human performance is Steven Kotler, a renowned journalist, best-selling author, and one of the world’s leading experts in “Ultimate Human Performance”. he describes flow as an “optimal state of consciousness”, characterized by moments of focused attention and fluid action. i think just about anyone can relate to the satisfaction of breaking writer’s block and pouring their thoughts out onto a page; or even on a strictly physical level, the euphoria of entering into runner’s high. everyone understands that feeling, yet it wasn’t until just recently that i acknowledged that feeling as a legitimate phenomenon.
it is fairly hard to understand what exactly flow is, or even be aware of it at all in the first place, but it seems to be essential to the endurance of life. flow itself doesn’t seem like a foreign concept, but the process of entering flow seems largely untouched on a mainstream level. if flow is considered the “optimal state of consciousness” then it would make sense that we take necessary measures to chase this flow state at every chance we get.
as just about every writer in the world knows, staring at a blank page is not as much exciting as it is terrifying. and if you’re like me writer’s block feels like the default mode. simply put, it takes momentum to get the ball rolling. that’s where flow comes in.
there are essentially 5 flow triggers, as outlined by Steven Kotler; risk, novelty, complexity, unpredictability, and pattern recognition. all of these triggers are coincidentally also triggers of dopamine, which as luck would have it is considered a “focussing drug”. interestingly enough and much like pretty much everything else in this world, flow is individual. it is not the same for everyone else. whereas simply changing your environment to drive creativity is consistently effective for most people, others need to take more drastic measures. Kotler turns to extreme sports as a prime example. he claims that the rapid advancements made in record breaking human achievements is a direct result of the implementation of a flow state. he argues that when extreme athletes go for that big jump or surf that big wave, they are entering flow.
obviously risk seems to be the key factor here, but there is so much more that goes into it than that. these individuals are somehow able to enter into a state of such focussed attention that allows them to succeed beyond what anyone thought was previously possible simply as a result of seemingly all 5 core triggers of flow. risk in the obvious danger of what is being done, novelty in that it’s never been done before, complexity in that it requires ability and skill, unpredictability in the uncertainty of success, and even pattern recognition through the required practice and visualization leading up to it.
i for one am no stranger to the effects of dopamine in connection to adrenaline. i’ve been known to encounter, or more accurately chase risk and uncertainty in my adventurous endeavors, and with the concept of flow in mind i can see clearly that it’s been there all along. flow is essentially a medium of fulfillment. Kotler talks vividly of the dramatic correlation between those that score off the charts for overall well-being meaning and happiness and those who implement flow into their lives.
i’ve found that if i do not engage in those moments of rebellion against the elements. if i don’t feel close to death, i don’t feel as alive. i spend most of my time in my room dreaming about these experiences, frustrated by the itch i can’t scratch. and in the strangest way possible, it seems i need to go do stuff as outlandish as climbing cranes to feel fulfilled. to just about everyone around me, endangering myself like that carries absolutely no logic; it just seems plain stupid, but sometimes to me it feels like the only thing that makes sense.
when you look at the research, when you become aware of the power of a flow state, and acknowledge the necessary triggers it’s no surprise that this drives happiness. it’s no surprise that flow feels like bliss. i for one cannot articulate the euphoria i experience when jumping from a cliff. but in a way, this simple little moment is just about the purest example of entering flow. the rush of all nearly 5 triggers firing at once gives life the strangest sensation of purpose and meaning.
but more often then not when i encounter flow i am not on the edge of a cliff or hanging from a crane; those environments are surely conducive to the process, but they are clearly not as relatable. the most practical use of flow and the area in which i am chasing it the most, is in my creative ventures. every time i sit down to write one of these little think-pieces i am in an attempt to enter flow.
flow feels like magic. yet at the same time seems so incredibly natural. when you are in a flow state (and especially if you are not familiar with the research) you are likely not even aware that you are in one. there’s no clear distinction between what is or isn’t the flow state, and there’s no one answer on how to get there, but being conscious of it’s value is half the job.
defining a flow state in a concrete manner for all people to take from is a futile pursuit. to the most logical person it may seem like a simple productivity hack. and to the most spiritual it’ll resemble something of the divine. i’d argue flow is a factor in more than just productivity and human activity, but also a factor in the overall appreciation of life. and i’d even go as far to say that that alone is more important than any measure of progress and achievement.