The state of Flow is a seemingly mysterious state of mind — a lovely place that appears only by invitation from an elusive muse. When there, we are at one with the ideas in front of us, the work, and the play while the inner critic is quiet, and the world can wait.
We are engaged.
Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, presents an interesting graph:
The short of it is that when our skills meet the level of challenge in front of us, we are able to enter a channel of flow. If our skills are low, and the challenge is relatively high, we can become anxious. If our skills are strong, but the challenge is relatively low, we tend to be bored.
It’s when the porridge is just right that we can find flow.
Finding flow is then a matter of entering that zone of challenge that meets us where we are.
Another approach is wonderfully encapsulated by jazz pianist, Kenny Werner:
“Nothing in music is hard, just unfamiliar.”
In taking such an approach, be that for music or anything else for that matter, we can more readily approach that flow channel simply by asking, what steps could I take to make this more familiar? Or if it is already familiar, what can I do to gently push into the unfamiliar?
By bringing ourselves into a state of challenge that works, we can grow and develop at a pace that honors ourselves and our relationship to the work and play that sits before us.
In this way, flow is not only a state of mind. It is also a path of mastery. Finding a flowing connection between ourselves and some craft we engage with, brings a skill, a strength, or knowledge into bloom.
There is even a unifying nature to flow and mastery, one in which the seemingly complicated nature of all the scales, intervals, finger movements, and the like come together into a single phrase:
“To the young mind everything is individual, stands by itself. By and by it finds how to join two things and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so, tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground whereby contrary and remote things cohere and flower out from one stem.” – Emerson, The American Scholar 1837
Adjusting the levers, pulling the strings, and bringing one’s self into that window of challenge are all the work of practice. And, while the word “practice” may seem daunting, it readily begins in doing only a little of something everyday.
And so, mastery is not a line we cross. It is a path or flow that can begin as early as today.
By visiting some craft, and asking,
- Where can I find the familiar?
- Where does that meet the unfamiliar?
And taking at least one step forward daily, we are on a path of mastery.