I wrote this article as the final assignment for a course hosted by The Economist. Thus I was privileged to combine several obsessions at once! The Economist, strengths, and joy through flow. I hope you enjoy it!
At an ascendant moment in his career, the great golfer Tiger Woods described how it felt when he was playing well: “you feel tranquil, … calm; you feel at ease with yourself…for some reason, things just flow…no matter what you do, good or bad, it really doesn’t get to you.” Woods was unwittingly defining what neuroscientists and positive psychologists call the secret to happiness and exceptional performance: the physiological state of “flow.” Fortunately, flow isn’t reserved for world-class athletes. Flow’s benefits are available to anyone by diagnosing personal talents or “strengths,” then planning to use them in the most pleasing way.
When we use our talents, we are “in the flow,” performing fluently and completely absorbed, producing our best work. Time stops, a feeling of serene ecstasy takes over, and the work seems to create itself. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as high level of skill combined with a high level of challenge, with positive feedback from the activity.
This positive feedback results from physical changes in the body. Human brains in a flow state exhibit slower alpha and theta brain waves. The endocrine system flushes out stress hormones and replaces them with feel-good endorphins and dopamine. The breath is slower and deeper. No wonder Csikszentmihalyi concludes flow is “the secret to happiness.”
Image courtesy of FitMind
Flow’s high level of skill and challenge come from honing our talents, according to Martin Seligman, a leader in the field of positive psychology. Management gurus Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, characterise a talent as “something one can do consistently and nearly perfectly, a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour, productively applied.” Compare this to the feeling you get as a beginner at a skill, say the awkwardness of speaking a new language, or clumsy motor skills learning a new musical instrument. Time and patience may bring proficiency, but the joy of flow will be hard graft.
Buckingham and Clifton recommend focusing on talents and devoting the minimum energy needed to weaknesses. Tiger Woods’ career golf game statistics show he used this technique to devastating effect throughout his career. Woods was famous for his drives, or shots from over 100 yards from the hole. Drives accounted for two-thirds of his advantage over his opponents. He was no slouch at shorter shots either, and was admired by other golfers for his putting prowess. Woods’ nemesis was the sand trap. But he didn’t obsess with improving this (relative) shortcoming. Rather, he and his coach made a strategic decision to train on sand traps only to the extent they wouldn’t harm his game, spending more time polishing his natural gift at driving. This impressive example of prioritising strengths in one’s profession is something anyone can do, once they identify their talents.
Jamming in traffic
Human physiology explains how talents originate at the nerve cell. Imagine driving a car along a motorway on a routine commute home, listening to music, taking the usual turns and daydreaming. Eventually the journey is automatic. But one day, the driver slams on the brakes, stopped by construction work. A detour takes the driver through unfamiliar neighbourhoods, turning at unknown roundabouts and relying on signs for direction. The detour feels mildly stressful, as does the delayed arrival.
In this analogy, the driver is the brain, nerves are the motorways, the car is the electrical impulses traveling along the nervous system, and the turns and junctions are synapses. Synapses are connections between nerve cells and the more seamless these contacts are, the easier the journey of the impulse. The familiar trip represents how it feels when we use our strengths, and the detour the opposite; one the driver will not willingly repeat. As humans, we make choices like this each day. As a person favours the strongest synaptic connections, or their talents, they avoid using the weaker ones whenever possible. At the nerve level, weaker synaptic connections die.
Synapses determine adults’ success in learning new skills in three ways:
- Call on strong synaptic connections, or talents. Consider a gifted tennis player picking up squash or padel. The skills are so similar the new game is a doddle.
- Be like Tiger Woods; focus on what already comes naturally and keep the weaknesses under control. In neurological terms, we strengthen our talent connections but allow ones for the weaknesses to die.
- Build new synapses through repetition of an unfamiliar skill. Think of the typical annual performance review asking you to focus on your “development needs” or “skill gaps.” Unsurprisingly this feels demoralising, as this method requires physical effort at the cellular level. Forcing the body to expand blood vessels and create new proteins is possible, but tedious.
Keep a flow profile
To discover your talents and preferred way of achieving flow, try these diagnostics:
- The Clifton StrengthsFinder offers two paid options with 34 “themes” [talents], or the top five in the less-expensive version.
- The VIA Character Strengths is free but requires registration. Its final report delivers ten top “character strengths.”
- The Flow Genome Project places you into one of four Flow Profiles, or situations you find most satisfying to achieving flow.
Results in hand, reflect on what sparks joy, how to hoard more of that and what weaknesses need managing. Define possibilities to:
- Join or create alternative, more nourishing projects requiring your talents
- Decline draining projects or meetings (hint: you are optional on the invitation)
- Eliminate, refuse, or delegate draining tasks
- Make frustrating activities more fun
- Plan self-care and refreshment
A personal flow strategy means creating conditions for flow in a way most pleasing to you. Flow Academy clients’ biggest obstacle is carving out time to get into a state of uninterrupted concentration. A Flow Goer or Crowd Pleaser type may have more challenges with ring-fencing the time than a Hard Charger or Deep Thinker type. Making an appointment with yourself to achieve flow can feel rather like booking time with your partner for sex, but both are essential to a contented life.
Real-life status flow: Here is how it works in my life. I am an Achiever and Learner combined with two strategic talents on the StrengthsFinder. Love of Learning, Curiosity and Appreciation for Beauty and Excellence are top on the VIA survey. I am already honouring my strengths by working in the learning technology industry, using the Achiever and Curiosity strengths juggling several client projects at a time. Strategy discussions and creative workshops generate “flow,” but the operational, structured side of the job feels for me like playing whack-a-mole all day long.
I discovered I have unconsciously been using strengths to mitigate the demoralising details. Checking details off lists is in line with the Achiever and Appreciation for Excellence strengths. A project management tool displays rainbows and magical creatures randomly when completing tasks, boosting “micro joy” dopamine during the day. My wonderful management tips me for projects to bring out my strengths but I fortunately have the freedom to politely decline invitations to energy-drainers, or things not moving me forward.
I prebook tickets for concerts and museums on the weekends address the Appreciation for Beauty strength. By transforming details (firmly not a strength) to a source of fun, and deliberately replenishing on beauty, I am mostly able to stay in balance.
I am a Deep Thinker and need solitude to achieve flow. I reserve time in her work diary to focus on specific projects. I always set mobile ringers to silent; there are enough messaging apps “plinging” all day on the computer. Waking early affords me the quiet time I need for exercise, meditation, music, reading, and deep concentration.
The Tiger Woods of learning I shall never be, yet I try to savour beautiful moments. I often reflect that I am happy and grateful. Any of us can achieve a glory and brilliance valuable to ourselves and loved ones. With a few diagnostics and honest self-reflection, we can all invite “status flow” into our lives.