Federer playing tennis. Sinatra singing. Eddie Izzard doing stand-up. Witnessing someone who is highly skilled in full flow is incredibly engaging and compelling. That state of flow that enables someone to deliver seemingly effortless results is an amazing skill.
And there are occasions where it’s so important to get results. That’s what makes the Wimbledon final or the penalty shoot-out in the World Cup nail biting to watch. Who wouldn’t want to get perfect results?
The only problem is that, very often, the more someone focuses on delivering perfect results, the harder it is for them to achieve the very state of flow that achieves the results.
How does that work?
It comes down to the same principle you use to learn to drive.
When someone starts learning to drive, they have to actively think about every single detail; changing gear, applying the brake, remembering to check their mirrors etc. Because they literally have to think of every single movement their body makes, it feels like a lot of hard work, as they don’t yet have a high level of skill.
Over time, the process of driving starts to happen more and more naturally and easily, enabling them to drive safely whilst listening to the radio or having a conversation with someone else in the car.
They experience a greater sense of flow because they no longer have to think about each single movement their body makes to drive. The whole process of driving is happening unconsciously.
After a while, most drivers have the experience of arriving home having driven safely, but with no recollection of how they got there as they’ve been driving completely on automatic pilot.
If you were to ask them how they got home even a few minutes later, they probably won’t remember how they did it because everything was happening naturally and unconsciously in a state of flow.
Anyone demonstrating a high level of skill will know the state of mind and body similar to driving home on automatic pilot – a state of flow where you’re using your increasing skills naturally and easily without even really thinking about it. It’s usually this state that enables someone to produce their best results.
When it comes to really important, high-pressure occasions, it’s natural for someone to want to get results and this is why many people intuitively aim to do everything perfectly on the big day itself.
The problem with this is that, if someone starts to focus on doing everything perfectly, they invariably start thinking about each individual part of the process again, the way they might have done when they began developing that skill.
By focusing on trying to control every detail, it not only makes everything seem much harder, it also actually interrupts the state of flow that enables them to get the very results that are so important.
Think about what happens when someone has an important phone call to make. They want everything to go perfectly, so they literally start to rehearse every word they’re going to say, which usually results in them tripping up over words they would ordinarily say naturally and easily.
Similarly, if you see a child at the early stages of learning to read, they pronounce one syllable at a time.
As they read one syllable at a time, there is no flow to their speech.
Years later, when you’re really enjoying a good book, totally immersed in the story and avidly turning the pages you’re somehow skimming the pages and intuitively understanding and processing what’s there.
Likewise, when you’re talking about a subject you’re really passionate about the words flow naturally and easily.
Experienced musicians usually get much better results during a performance when they’re totally immersed in enjoying expressing the music than they do if they’re trying to play everything perfectly.
Obviously, the way someone achieves a state of flow will vary depending on which skills they’re using.
I often ask someone, “As you’re already using your increasing skills naturally and easily and everything is flowing the way you want, what are you doing differently to make this happen?”
When Ryan Giggs took over as Interim Manager of Manchester United in April 2014 he was asked at a press conference what advice he would give the players to help them raise their performance, to which he replied:
“I’ll tell the players just enjoy yourself, express yourself. I want players to play with passion, speed and tempo and be brave with imagination – all the things expected of a Manchester United player. To work hard, but most of all enjoy it. I know as a player if I’m enjoying the game I can express myself a lot more and that’s what I’ll be doing with the team.”
On 7th July 2013 Andy Murray became Wimbledon Champion. What did he say after he won?
In the interview he gave on the court immediately after the match, he was asked how much he remembered about the last point he played literally minutes before, to which he replied “I’ve no idea what happened. I don’t even know how long that last game was. I can’t even remember.”
© Mike Cunningham 2014