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Making Mistakes Matters Pt. 3

The impact of flow, on the cusp of success and failure

This is the third of four articles on why we need to change our attitude towards failure, celebrating the launch of our new book Enabling Genius: a mindset for success in the 21st century.  The first article covered the global impact of the scientific method, the second the organisational benefits of embracing failure.  This article focuses on the personal and organisational benefits of flow.

On a personal level, when we are pushed beyond our capability, we feel failure.  However if we embrace this and learn from it, we can enter a wonderful state called flow.  This is on the cusp of success and failure, where we fully meet our current potential.  This is a key to enabling our own personal genius.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a positive psychologist and originator of the term flow. He described flow as: “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.  The ego falls away.  Time flies.  Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.  Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”.  His research and those of many others now points to people performing more effectively and being more fulfilled if they are often in this state.

Enabling flow is a skill and to achieve it, we have to be constantly stretched.  Flow is only achieved when we are on the edge of capabilities, where we just succeed.  With this comes a flow of endorphins, and a feeling of euphoria.  The saying ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ now has a scientific basis.  When people are in flow, studies have shown they do not notice the passage of time.  We all know the opposite feeling when we are bored, when the task is too easy, and time ticks by slowly.  However, we can’t be in flow all of the time.  By definition, if we are stretching ourselves, we will sometimes fail.  The key is not to be disheartened, but to learn from this failure, so that next time this new adaptation increases our capability above our previous level and we are back in flow.

There are conditions defined that are required to be in flow: 1. We know what to do, the goal is clear. 2. We have the potential to reach the goal. 3. We have feedback telling us how well we are doing and this is immediate. 4. There is a perceived high level of challenge to the task. 5. There is a perceived high level of skill required and finally, 6. We are freed from distractions.

So flow is a state know should all desire and enables our genius.  It should be a mantra for life.  When we notice our flow levels decreasing, we are not being stretched and are probably bored.  I would also hazard a guess that ensuring high levels of flow staves off the decline in brain function associated with dementia, something that might help one of our major health challenges in the 21st century.