Don’t you just love it when things go smoothly? At such times, events, tasks, and conversations seem to happen naturally, and in a way that flows with perfect timing and seamless execution? We have all enjoyed these wonderful occasions. But we are also familiar (perhaps, more so) with the opposite experience, when obtaining progress seems to require supreme effort.
The concept of “flow”—this elusive and wonderful mode of operation—fascinates me, and I have always been drawn to questions surrounding the subject, such as:
• What is the state of flow, and how does it relate to human performance?
• Does flow happen accidentally or intentionally?
• How can we recapture or reproduce this state when it matters most?
I had an experience with “flow” of a different sort just last week, rafting through the Nenana River in Denali, Alaska. My wife and I took an excursion to the shadow of Denali Mountain (Mt. McKinley) in the Alaska Range, and employed a guide to steer us down class 3 and 4 rapids through the canyon of this glacially fed river. The water was a numbing 36 degrees, so we wore dry suits to protect us from total bone chill. The beauty and challenge had us completely engaged, and the ten mile, 2 ½ hour trip went by in a blink.
When you are fully engaged in a challenge, your concept of time and effort may become altered or “warped.” This phenomenon is one of the qualities of flow, according to the expert on the subject, Mihaly Czikszentmihal, author of Flow—The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He says, “instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”
Athletes may experience this state when engaged in competition. Creative types know full well the same sensation that arises from immersion in their work. And all of us have tapped into flow through meaningful conversations, rewarding work, fascinating educational encounters, or joyful, loving moments.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to access this state of mind, this deep happiness that shapes us so profoundly, on a regular basis? Well, you can! This immensely rewarding feeling, it seems, stems from our deliberate decisions to fully engage life and it’s challenging moments. Csikszentmihalyi writes, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” That’s what I call living Off Balance On Purpose.
Instead of focusing on “flow” as a noun (a desirable end game), view it as a verb (a way of being and engaging your world). We choose to flow by applying ourselves to tackle a challenge, solve a problem, or embrace an intense and important moment.
Similarly, “balance” is not a noun, a goal we can ultimately attain. When you pursue it as such, you immediately limit yourself and your response to your world. While grappling for balance, you have to impose rules and rigidly define what “balance” is. This proves to be difficult, if not impossible, as the concept is constantly changing to reflect the longing for what could be but isn’t. The grass will always be greener, and life could always be more fulfilling—somehow.
When you shift your viewpoint to see “balance” as a verb, limitations become limitless possibilities. You are engaged in the art of balancing multiple aspects of life, applying your skills, talents, choices, actions, and creative solutions to integrate what is happening all around you. There is no “end game,” as the masterwork of your creation (your life) is in constant flow. But by engaging the challenge and responding in a vibrant way, you become the guide who shapes the journey.
1. Increase your level of engagement in your world. Pursue a more meaningful challenge and you just may find yourself swept up by a sense of flow that brings you joy and heightened rewards.
2. Stop searching for “balance” and become a better balancer. Learn the skills that will enable you to guide yourself through challenging moments.
3. Choose the route you wish to follow—a route that is both “difficult and worthwhile.”
4. Manage your internal reality. When you cultivate a sense of order in your thinking, you also experience order in your life.
When the waves pound you, feel the exhilaration, dig in your paddles, and become a part of the flow.
Keep Leaning Forward,