Flow Toward Mastery

Get yourself engaged, slightly off balance, and completely focused on the moment

Last night I spent three hours in one of the most intense workouts a human being can experience. In the first hour, with several of my most senior black belts in judo, we carefully and exhaustively practiced a single judo throw until our minds were engaged in every detail and our bodies were able to perform them with precision. In the second hour, three of us who collectively represent over 80 years experience in judo, engaged in sixty minutes of sparring (called “randori” in judo) in two minute rounds (that’s 20 rounds for the mathematically challenged!). In the final hour there were four advanced black belts in the art of iaido (Japanese swordsmanship). We played a “game” in which we spar with wooden swords, with no other armor than a pair of safety glasses. We sparred with one opponent, we sparred with two opponents, and in some cases we fought against three!

A funny thing happened along the way. In spite of the fact that all of us are intensely competitive, when we passed the point at which our energy started to wane, each of us stopped fighting with strength and began to attempt techniques with a kind of abandon – not trying to “win” but simply to participate in an extremely high-level interaction in which one of the opponents gets thrown or touched with the sword.

Overwhelm the Analytical Mind

The whole process had a very specific purpose – to overwhelm the analytical minds of the participants and get them into a state called “flow.” This state arises from situations in which the complexity and energy level of the exercise is at or just slightly beyond the ability level of the players, keeping them engaged, slightly off balance (both mentally and physically), and completely focused on the moment. If you want a very thorough explanation of the concept of “flow,” check out the book with that title by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (no, I can’t pronounce it, either).

Achieving Flow

To achieve flow, there are a few things you have to have in place. Essentially,

• An activity you care about

• An ability to perform that activity at least at a fundamental level

• A willingness to engage in that activity for a sufficient period of time

• A way to increase the complexity, speed, or intensity of the activity

This probably sounds repetitive, but the way we try to achieve flow at the Japanese Martial Arts Center is to get students warmed up, get them to rehearse their fundamentals, and gradually increase the complexity, speed, or intensity of their practice. It’s a very reliable system because both the body and the mind are involved, and the dojo (“practice facility” in Japanese) is a predictable, safe place to explore dangerous or unfamiliar concepts. Our advanced students, especially our black belts, learn to engage in this routine until reaching a state of flow is almost automatic.

You get both fun and profit

There are two main reasons we seek to put ourselves into a situation where flow can occur: (1) the state is inherently enjoyable, and (2) more profound, rapid, and permanent learning takes place when in a state of flow than in any teaching situation we know of.

I really recommend you read the book FLOW that I mentioned above, but if you can’t, you should know that flow is inherently enjoyable because it is all-encompassing. When you’re focusing completely on an activity, you’re not worrying about what happened yesterday, you’re not worrying about what will happen tomorrow, and you’re not concerned about whether you have more or less money or social status than other people. You’re not seeking happiness in flow, you’re experiencing it, or at least you’re experiencing the complete lack of concern about it. Once you’ve experienced flow a few times, you’ll find yourself seeking it for its own sake.

Learn like a banshee

For the same reason that flow is so enjoyable – the fact that it’s all-encompassing – it is also an extraordinary state for learning. When your analytical mind cannot interfere with the process of experience, the information flows (so to speak) directly into you on a deep experiential level. You react to inputs without thinking, which means, I suggest, that you’re reacting with your nervous system and your sub-conscious mind. When the sub-conscious mind sees, hears, and reacts, it seems to retain a very deep impression of the interaction. You may not be able to explain what you did, but you still did it.

But because flow can only be experienced when the level of complexity or involvement in an activity is at or near your peak capacity, you have to increase the challenges of your peak state exercises as you get better. Here’s a restatement of that idea that helps to show what’s so cool about that:

(1) the state of flow is so rewarding, most of us will seek it for its own sake;

(2) experiencing the state of flow tends to create profound, rapid learning;

(3) the profound, rapid learning we get from acting in a state of flow adds greatly to our abilities;

(4) because achieving a state of flow requires that the challenges are at or near the limit of our abilities, we have to increase the challenges we build into our system for achieving it; and so

(5) we get engaged in an inherently rewarding activity that requires a continuous increase in complexity and ability.

Get Thee behind me, limits!

Of course there are limits to how fast you can progress. In athletic activities like judo, the speed and power of the techniques can create danger. In scientific endeavors, the requirements for proving your theories can outstrip the existing technology. In business, your market or your co-workers may not be ready to accept the revolutionary ideas you come up with when you’re in a state of flow. But every time you take the steps necessary to get yourself into this state, actually get into it, and spend time there completely absorbed in what you’re doing, you’ll get happier, better at something you love to do, and move yourself closer to mastery. That really kicks ass.

About Nicklaus

Nick has studied the martial arts and philosophies of Asia for 44 years, and has used their principles to start five successful businesses, including SEO Ann Arbor. He's an attorney, entrepreneur, consultant, and author of four books on martial arts, including Budo Mind and Body, which was featured in Black Belt Magazine. He advises a wide variety of businesses and individuals on marketing, motivation, mastery, success, and kicking your ass into gear.