Originally Published 1/26/16
“Imagination allows us to conceive of delightful future possibilities, pick the most amazing one, and pull the present forward to meet it.” - Jason Silva
Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to read many inspiring and informative books. In particular, there were two books that had significant relevance to this journey I am on with TRG. These were: “The Rise of Superman” by Steven Kottler, and “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle.
I was first turned onto “The Rise of Superman” by my grandfather who thought it would be a helpful read in light of my professional golf career. My training and fitness coach – Cody Burkhart – assigned the second book, “The Talent Code”, to be paired with the prior book in order to be synergized and summarized into an actionable template.
I would highly recommend that you read at least one of these books, if not both. They provide a lot of insight into how you can create and develop talent, and how to consistently produce the “hyper-focus” you achieve when you are “in the zone”. If you simply can’t make time to read either book, then at least take a few minutes to read this humble attempt at distilling two written works into one concise plan of attack.
So, here it is…
F L O W
What is it?
In its simplest form -- Hyper-focus
“Being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. 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.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the man who first coined the term “flow”)
How do you produce this?
Kotler provides 3 basic properties seen in the flow state –
1) Profound mental clarity
2) Emotional detachment
3) A hint of its automatic nature – how one right decision always leads to the next right decision, and so on
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi used his research to define flow and then distill down the Ten Core Components That Distinguish “Flow”:
1) Clear Goals – expectations and rules are discernable and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities.
2) Concentration – a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.
3) A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness – the merging of action and awareness
4) Distorted sense of time – one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
5) Direct and immediate feedback – successes and failures are apparent, so behavior can be adjusted as needed.
6) Balance between ability level and challenge – the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult.
7) A sense of personal control over the situation.
8) The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so action is effortless.
9) A lack of awareness of bodily needs.
10) Absorption – a narrowing of awareness down to the activity itself.
Kotler adds an additional element to these components, an element that can set flow apart - “the creative, problem-solving nature of the state.” Kotler calls it “the voice”, which we understand as the “voice of intuition”. When we are in a hyperfocused state, we have a heightened awareness of our senses and can intuitively understand the right course of action.
Arne Dietrich (neuroscientist and athlete) helped further our understanding with the mental process of flow by discovering that “parts of the PFC (prefrontal cortex) aren’t becoming hyperactive [during flow]; parts of it are temporarily deactivating. It’s an efficiency exchange. We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.”
Charles Limb, a neuroscientist from John Hopkins, points out that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain best known for self-monitoring and impulse control. The self-monitoring is the voice of doubt and disbelief (aka our inner critic). When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex goes quite, our second-guessing is cut off at the source. The result is liberation – meaning we act without hesitation. This allows creativity to become a free-flowing process, and in turn,, makes risk-taking less frightening.
Along with the “quieting of doubt” we experience, there is also the sense of a loss of time. This comes from the energy transfer we make when energy normally used for temporal processing is reallocated for attention and awareness – allowing us to receive and process more data faster than the rate we normally function at. Since our sense of how long the present moment lasts is directly related to information processing: the more stuff we are processing, the longer the moment will appear to last. The longer the moment lasts, the greater information, both quantitatively and qualitatively, we will have at our disposal. When we have better data, we will have a greater possibility of sudden insights and more creative solutions. A pretty potent chain of events if you ask me!
Now that we have a better understanding of the “Flow” state, the million-dollar question is – how do you produce it consistently? In order to answer this question fully, I want to shift our focus to the second book I mentioned – The Talent Cody by Daniel Coyle.
In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle makes the case that “skill – is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals.” He goes on to point out “the more time and energy you put into the right kind of practice (‘deep practice’, as he calls it), the longer you stay in the zone, firing the right signals through your circuits – the more skill you get.”
Coyle recognized a correlation that existed within certain areas of the world – there are legitimate “hot-spots” for talent that seem to always produce the best athletes/performers. He discovered that the reason behind this trend was the development of skill faster through using “deep practice” (focused and intense work of struggling, failing, and struggling again) to accelerate and solidify the myelin (neural circuits), which is used to perform carry out the movements needed in each sport or activity.
So then the question is, how do you cultivate “deep practice”? Coyle provided a roadmap by giving his “3 Rules of Deep Practice”:
Chunk it up
Absorb the whole thing, the picture of the entire skill you are working on the simple precise movements and the core technique.
Break it down into chunks
Slow it down – going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating higher precision; and it helps develop a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints.
Repeat it – nothing is more effective in building skill than executing the action and honing the circuit
Research shows that most world-class experts practice between 3 and 5 hours a day.
It’s all about practicing at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing the circuits.
Learn to feel it
Deep practice is not simply about struggling, it’s about seeking out a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions:
Pick a target
Reach for it
Evaluate gap between target and reach
Return to step one
Words to describe productive practice:
Attention, Connect, Build, Whole, Alert, Focus, Mistake, Repeat, Tiring, Edge, Awake
I connect deeply with the phrase “divine dissatisfaction”, as would most athletes or competitors. There really shouldn't be a moment you are ever fully satisfied with your performance. It is a near impossibility to perfect anything in this life. In fact, I truly believe that we can never ultimately “perfect” anything because we are a fallen race (see Genesis 3). Ever since Adam and Eve, the human condition is one of sin and depravity. Just think about raising children. Do you have to teach a child how to disobey? No way! That is silly. Every child is born knowing how to disobey and sin because that is part of our fallen nature. What you do have to teach and instill in themis the importance of obedience, and that is quite a task.
At any rate, I digress.
To sum it up illustratively: deep practice is vividly depicted by a baby trying to learn how to walk. As Coyle put it - “baby steps are the royal road to skill.”
Now that we have seen what deep practice looks like, let’s look back to what we learned from the first book and see what concepts we can synergize between the two authors.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, the three most important internal triggers for creating “flow” are:
When the brain is charged with a clear goal, the focus narrows, eliminating the unimportant outlying factors, leaving the present moment as all that is left.
“In the now, there’s no past or future and a lot less room for self – which are the three intruders most likely to yank us to the then.
In examining times when people “choked”, you can observe the gravity of the goal/situation pulling the participant out of the now, when in reality, the now was all that they needed to win.
As Kotler puts it: “If creating more flow is our aim, then the emphasis falls on ‘clear’ and not ‘goals.’ Clarity gives us certainty.”
Immediate Feedback – pretty self-explanatory, but we can improve the feedback by putting systems in place so that our attention isn’t able to wander as much.
The Challenge/Skill Ratio
Our attention is most engaged, with the here and now, when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of what we are trying to accomplish and our ability to perform that task.
If the challenge is too great – fear floods the system and destroys our chances.
If the challenge is too easy – we stop paying attention.
Kotler summarizes it by saying: “Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel – the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough to make us snap.”
Ultimately, I believe the largest limiting factor, in regards to flow, is our imagination. Kotler uses the example of Roger Bannister (the first man to run a sub-four minute mile) to illustrate how powerful a limitation this can be. Once Bannister accomplished what seemed like an impossible feat, another runner beat his time just two months later, and then two others pushed the number even lower within the next five years. All this goes to show that once the impossible becomes possible, it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.
Kotler sums it up like this: “we accept this new reality and shift our paradigm further and this engages imagination. We start imagining the impossible as possible. What does impossible feel like, sound like, look like. And then we start to be able to see ourselves doing the impossible – that’s the secret. There is an extremely tight link between our visual system and our physiology: once we can actually see ourselves doing the impossible, our chances of pulling it off increase significantly.”
What does all this mean? Essentially, you can say visualization is a “flow hack” – shortening the struggle to achieve a flow state. Beyond even that, it solidifies goals and objectives, amplifying flow even more by keeping the external factors from gaining too much influence.
S U M M A T I O N
The road map to developing skill faster and then performing at a higher level in competition is this:
1) Be committed to consistently using “deep practice” in order to develop skill the fastest and to the fullest of your capabilities. (Using the 3 Rules of Deep Practice – 1. Chunk it up; 2. Repeat it; 3. Learn to feel it.)
2) Within your “deep practice”, use the 3 Internal Triggers given for creating “flow” in order to build the habit of entering a hyper-focused state consistently and in the right moments.
3) Pursue complete clarity in the goals you wish to accomplish, and then develop the habit of visualizing yourself accomplishing those goals to such clarity that it feels like reality.
I want to end this discourse with a quote that speaks to the biggest struggle I’ve had in this process – visualization. Upon reflecting, this is where my biggest weakness currently lies. I have not been able to clearly visualize and imagine myself being successful to the extent that I need. While I know I am capable, I haven’t fully envisioned myself accomplishing this pursuit and dream. I think that practical realism is my default mindset (very pragmatic), when what I really need is the opposite. Recognition of this is the first step, the next is action. 2016 will be a year of pursuing that action.