In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.

The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.

Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Note to athletes, Flow is not a function of power output, of watts or watts/kg, it is not a function of your FTP, nor of pace times, splits, top speed, average speed or any other quantitative measure.  Flow is not measured by finish lines, by podiums, by position or place.

Flow is a state, a feeling, it is a moment of abandonment which is immeasurable and any attempt at measuring it only tries to cheapen it as if its a tradeable commodity.

Flow is such a desirable state of being, such an exquisite array of simultaneous sensations that the world tries to bottle it and sell it, conning those who fail to understand that Flow is not for sale… because its available to all freely (it just has to be pursued purposefully).

The “To Flow or Not To Flow” Pinwheel

– a remodeled version of Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow diagram –

The pinwheel is a spectrum meaning that there are only two directions of travel and there is only one metric to the quality of travel.

The metric is skill level, the two directions are either traveling through life…

  • with ease… as a result of spending your time acquiring, developing, refining and executing skills you experience consistent episodes of Flow: periods of sheer exquisiteness, where the time invested in training pays off as you are prepared to encounter challenge after challenge in life meeting each with competency, efficiency, and effectiveness resulting in a life filled with peace, joy, self belief, confidence, and also victory after victory,

or you can travel…

  • with dis-ease… traveling through life inadequately prepared, insufficiently skilled to handle the challenges that are guaranteed to come one after another, causing you to react to each one by either fighting, fleeing, or freezing… a life which rollercoasters from peaks of anxiety or anger to valleys of depression or regret with waves of chaos between as you desperately strive to micro-manage your life to the nth degree hoping that if you only can obtain control over enough details… you would eventually finally achieve a state of harmony… at least for a brief moment.

The pinwheel applies to life, and it equally applies to sport.

You can approach sport with ease or with dis-ease… you can train in a never ending ladder of skill acquisition, development, and refinement in anticipation of the challenges that sport will bring, or don’t and rely on a strategy of hoping that skills can be replaced with… desire, with ambition, with drive, with sheer determination, guts, ‘courage’ or will power.

Those who believe that the latter is sufficient to succeed work themselves up – they ramp – into an arousal spike of such magnitude that sometimes the podium is possible… inconsistently, but possible nonetheless. With the taste of their adrenaline fueled ‘success’, they drive themselves higher and higher in pursuit of more, eventually driving themselves so high that they blow up, burn up, or blow out… incapacitating themselves, terminating their career, sometimes terminating themselves. These are the thrill-seekers, bucket-listers, the ‘one and done’, the one time winners who come out of nowhere only to disappear back to nowhere, the one time winners incapable of ramping sufficiently to ever win again, the winners (if they can be called that) who never achieve consistency – there is always a variable they miss in the moments that matter – hence, they never become consistent peak performers.

3x Ironman World Champion Craig Alexander believes…

Link to “What Does It Take” post

Then there are those who understand that success arrives as a result of Flow and who therefore pursue Flow, and not success directly. They seek peace, and work to create a state of peace so that they open themselves to learning.  They seek to learn because they know that it is only with knowledge, with wisdom and insight that they can train mindful execution of techniques, skills, tactics and strategies of ever greater complexity. They seek to develop self discipline allowing them to gain control over themselves, empowering them to respond effectively and efficiently when challenges arise, in competition and in life. They do not seek to control anyone or anything else, for they know that is a fruitless and endless endeavor.

As a result of consistent progress in their skill set they improve, and it is the improvement in execution on demand that encourages them to engage in competitions to test their ability to Flow. The result of Flowing in the face of challenge yields success, but ‘success’ is never the goal they start on.

Seek to Flow, and success will find you… in time

Seek ‘success’, and it will elude you… across all of time