There is a human phenomenon that proves the relativity of space-time, one that fuses action with awareness, one that makes you feel like a complete rockstar, but only after the fact. It’s called the flow state, and it’s the kind of thing that makes people commit their lives to something like cross country skiing, music or writing.
Characterized by getting lost in your work, the flow state has otherwise been referred to as the zone, hyperfocused, tunnel vision, and, if you’re a skier, having one. Experiencing flow state is enough to make you, say, dedicate your life to whatever brought it out in you, because being in flow is one of the most inspired things you can experience.
When you’re in flow, you are so focused you don’t realize you’re focusing. You move without thinking, make decisions without deliberation, and have no conceptions of past or future. In a race, entering flow means not remembering the course afterwards, not hearing those cheering around you, not registering whom you pass and definitely not feeling pain. It means finishing before you knew you started, feeling total autonomy and control, riding the course rather than fighting it.
Where decision-making takes up about a third of one’s experiential capacity, flow removes deliberation from action, allowing you to experience what you’re doing more deeply. You actually have an elevated understanding of your surroundings, but only the parts on which you focus. It’s tunnel vision, except instead of the light being at the end, you are the light.
As we enter championship weeks, a lot of racers are hoping that they can find their flow to end their seasons on a high note.
But therein lies the paradox of the flow. While it’s something you chase, an experience where you’ve felt more like yourself than ever, it’s also characterized by a complete divide between action and consciousness, doing and feeling, what you do and who you are. You can’t create flow, the more you chase it, the harder it is to find.
And yet, it all rests on perception. While you can’t create flow, it nevertheless completely depends on you. The recipe involves a series of goals and feedback, and can only be achieved when an agent has a high perception of challenge paired with a high perception of skill. You have to believe that what you’re doing is meaningful, and also that you are exceptional in your field. Flow doesn’t care whether or not those are objective truths, you can’t either.
If you can’t find flow, it must have to find you. But how can something so proactive come from being passive? It doesn’t. People who find flow are more of than not proactive, enthusiastic and optimistic. Their personalities make up the conditions necessary for flow, they’re also generally pretty happy.
And that’s the final element of flow: happiness. Autotelic being, intrinsic reward, fun. There have been times this season when I have been so far from flow I wasn’t sure it existed anymore. These were times of boredom and anxiety, heavy self-consciousness and a distinct lack of joy. ‘This is my job,’ I told myself, ‘I have to take it seriously.’ The problem was, I was taking myself seriously, which completely harshes the flow, breh.
In flow, the action is focused, serious, but the agent is removed, unconcerned. In anxiety, you see what you’re doing as an obligation, in flow, an opportunity. It’s the difference in thriving and surviving, in being disappointed and fulfilled.
For those stepping to the line this week in Lake Placid, Truckee, Norway and France, remember that last little part. For my part, despite the lows, this endeavor is certainly worth the highs. Let us continue to appreciate it, to have fun.
And if the flow finds us, we should probably go with it.