Tag Archives: flow

Optimal Living: Insights From Flow Theory

What does it mean to live optimally? Is there any difference between self actualization and self-transcendence? Do peak performances and peak experiences differ? The last question was asked yesterday by Scott Barry Kaufman on twitter and it got me thinking.

The thoughts triggered were too large to fit in a few tweets, so here is the longer blog post; thanks Scott for the inspiration.

To start off, lets recall what flow is ; its typically associated with deep engrossment and peak performance during a task. When thinking about tasks two dimensions are relevant: how difficult is the task and what are the skills of the person executing the task.

When task is of high difficulty, and skills are low, it may lead to experience of anxiety in the person; when task is of low difficulty and skills are high, it may lead to relaxation/ boredom. Only when task difficulty is slightly greater or matched than skills does the possibility of flow emerges. With adequate in time feedback and no distractions, one can get into a state of flow. Another point to remember is that the idea is to keep increasing task difficulty and keep adding to you skills – thus high task difficulty and high skills are associated with flow; while low task difficulty and low skills lead to apathy.

Flow diagram courtesy Wikipedia

It is safe to assume that micro moments of flow where task difficulty/challenge is slightly greater than skills, helps in building up your skills over time leading to increased probability of peak performances in the limit. Thus peak performances are related to flow and are evident in some task related activities.

Now, one of the framework I have been using is to divide our focus of inquiry among TASK, SELF, OTHERS and LIFE. Basically in some contexts you are totally TASK focused, and your primary goal may be achieving success, in some you are SELF focused and your primary goal may be achieving eudiamonic happiness; in yet others your focus may be (significant) OTHERS and your primary goal finding meaning via connection while in yet other contexts, you be focused on LIFE as a whole and your primary goal being a moral person. Now you don’t have to believe in this framework, but I used this to derive some insights below:

First off, analogous to TASK having two dimensions related to performance, I think its useful to think about two dimensions of SELF related to expression of SELF. First is self-discrepancy operationalised as distance between ideal and actual self. The higher the discrepancy the more the ideal, sought after self differs from actual self. The other dimension of interest is self-acceptance. This is operationalised as how much at peace we are with our actual self.

Now consider someone with high self discrepancy and low self acceptance. They are likely to feel sadness; on the other hand someone with high self acceptance but low self discrepancy will be complacent as far as growing and expressing ones true self is concerned, because there is no/ little internal pressure to change. Growth happens when self discrepancy is slightly greater than self acceptance; you are comfortable with who you are but also aiming to change and become better. Analogous to flow, one maybe led into these micro moments of growth that I call flowering. Over time as you keep raising the bar for ideal self and keep accepting who you are: your strengths as well as limitations – you re likely to experience peak expressions of your self and likely to become self -actualized.

I wish I was not lazy and could make a diagram/ figure to explain this better, but if you are feeling stuck make a 2D graph for SELF with self discrepancy on y axis and self acceptance on x axis, analogous to the flow diagram.

Next up, consider the context where we are dealing with (significant ) OTHERS . Consider two dimensions that may underpin that dynamics : our mutual demandingness from/ towards others and our mutual caringness/ concern from/towards the others. Consider for example a parenting relationship: if demandingness is high, but caring is low one feels anger / irritability; if however demandingness is low, but caring is high one start taking things for granted, gets lax/ stagnant. For a mutually beneficial relationship, the demandingness has to be just slightly above the caring/ nurturing that enables one to meet the demands. When that happens one experiences moments of love/ intimacy and the relationship grows and connection is felt. Over time as mutual demands increase and mutual care increases, one feels peak experiences characterized by love and connectedness and moves towards self transcendence.

Finally, consider LIFE. The two dimensions of relevance here are life responsibilities and life supports. When life responsibilities are high and life supports (like social support, adequate income etc ) are less, one is likely to feel guilt and maybe disgust at the life one is living: life will feel a burden. On the other hand if life supports are high , but life responsibilities are low, one is likely to feel dissipated and lead a life of decadence. However, when life responsibilities are just matched or greater than ones supports , one is likely to be in a zone where life is felt a gift to be enjoyed and a privilege. These micro moments of living up to your responsibilities, may lead to peak living.

So that is my basic premise: Peak Performance (in a task) can be distinguished from Peak Experiences (in our relationships with others ), which can further be distinguished from Peak Expressions (of self) and Peak Living. Hope these lead to some insights and Scott/ someone else actually tries to elaborate/ verify the model .

A disclaimer while I am familiar with Mihaly’s original work on Flow/ peak performances my knowledge of Malsow/peak experiences is via secondary sources and readings only.

The Making of a Genius: Required Ingredients

What goes into the making of a genius? More mundanely, what factors are required for success in any field? Your answer will differ based on what factors you consider to be the most important for success.

Photo of the obverse of a Fields Medal made by...

Photo of the obverse of a Fields Medal made by Stefan Zachow for the International Mathematical Union (IMU), showing a bas relief of Archimedes (as identified by the Greek text) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one can deny the large role that intelligence and talent play in the making of a genius, or to achieve moderate levels of success compared to peers. We can probably club these two factors together as ability, that is more or less inborn, and is not very easy to increase or amenable to interventions.

Let me be a be it more specific. I consider ability to be made of two components: specific talent in a particular domain, say singing talent or mathematical talent; and fluid intelligence, or the ability to solve problems in real time using cognitive resources like working memory and typically measured by IQ. While talent is domain specific, fluid intelligence is domain general, but both will be required to be successful in a domain. Intelligence (fluid) will enable one to learn at an exceptional rate and also to learn form ones mistakes and improve.

Both talent and intelligence have been shown to explain up to 50 % of variance, in say, academic performance. Thus they are definitely required to achieve extraordinary success/ genius.

However, another stream of research informs us that putting in 10,000 hours or more of deliberate practice is what does the magic. As per research by Andres Ericsson and colleagues to achieve and expertise in any domain you need 10,000 hours or more of focused, deliberate practice. Here two things are important to note:  you are not putting in brute force efforts blindly, but following a process of deliberate practice (picking up a weakness, working on it constantly to improve soliciting feedback etc) and the second is that you do put in more than 10,000 hours of such efforts to attain some expertise and then again 10,000 hours more to achieve genius level expertise.

Thus, one can subsume these factors under the common label effort: comprising of a daily ritual of deliberate practice or Riyaaz or smart efforts; and a long term fruits of putting in 10,000 or 20,000 hrs of such efforts in the form of expertise or domain specific crystallized intelligence.

Both indulging in deliberate practice daily and building expertise by putting in the required hours are correlated with genius level expert performance or success.  In more mundane terms, if you really want to make contributions to mathematics such that they deserve a Fields Medal, you need to systematically work on which areas of Maths need improving and actually spend hours daily honing your maths skills for a few years before hoping to get one.

and of course as Angela Duckworth says, talent * effort = skill and skill* effort = performance, so effort counts twice and is an important determinant of success.

But this brings us to the question is effort same as grit, another factor that has been shown to predict success/ achievement/ genius?

While to the naive mind they may appear same; to me effort is willingness and ability to work smart and work hard; while grit is more about being passionate about a particular super-ordinate goal and getting back on track and showing persistence in the face of setbacks/ adversity.

And of course another personality factor or character strength that is similarly predictive of success is self-control. Self-control is the ability to resist temptations and forego pleasure-in-the-now for gains-in-the-future. It reliably predicts success in many domains and is domain general trait.  Grit however is more domain specific. Also while Self-control works on a shorter time scale, Girt works on a longer time scale.

Both can be subsumed under goal-commitment: a in the moment domain general self control factor and a long term domain specific grit factor.

And this brings us to the final set of factors which are equally important for success: enjoying and being engrossed in what you are doing and being curious/exploratory about the things you don’t know/ haven’t experienced yet. These are emotional-motivational processes that ensure that you actually do put in the efforts required to meet the goal commitments and to actualize your ability.

Recent research has shown that a hungry mind is very important for predicting academic success. This hungry mind is conceptualized as intellectual curiosity. Curiosity as initially defined by Todd Kashadan et al was comprised of Exploration (or Curiosity as they define now per se) and Absorption. Later Todd et al have disowned absorption as a part of curiosity, and they are right to do so, but given the high correlations between  absorption and exploration, I think they were on to something. Important for us is to remember that curiosity or the appetitive strivings for novelty, complexity,uncertainty and ambiguity; and Absorption or flow or full engagement in specific activities, taken together are again strong predictors of success/ achievement.

Thus, we have a fourth big factor predicting and causing success, viz Engagement: one sub-factor of which is a domain/ task specific flow or absorption and the other a domain general or task independent curiosity or love of learning or intrinsic motivation.

With that we can probably summarize the ingredients required to make a genius:

  1. Ability, both talent and intelligence
  2. Effort, both daily deliberate practice and 10,000 hours of expertise
  3. Goal commitment, both self control and grit
  4. Engagement, flow as well as curiosity

As an aside, this fits my ABCD model: Engagement or flow/curiosity are Affective in nature; Effort is Behavioral; Ability (intelligence) I consider as Cognitive and goal-commitment as Dynamic/motivational.

So, what are you going to do different to achieve extraordinary performance after having learned this? Will you work on your curiosity, put in more hours of deliberate practice , ensure you are feeling flow and absorption or work or your self-control muscle. There are many paths to greatness, and you can choose to focus on one or more to take you where you need to be!