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To Flow, Or Not To Flow?

Cal Newport is not a big fan of “flow”

Cal Newport, author of books such as “How to be a High School Superstar” (which has my 14 year old son all fired up about getting in to a good college), and “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” (which has helped me understand some of the missteps I’ve made in my own career), has written a series of blog posts with these titles:

  1. “Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player”
  2. “Beyond Flow”
  3. “The Satisfying Strain of Learning Hard Material: A Deliberate Practice Case Study”
  4. “The Father of Deliberate Practice Disowns Flow”

Cal, it seems, is not a fan of FLOW.

Well crap!

I went and named my blog “Work With Flow”, had a header graphic designed and everything. And I’ve been trying to convince all my readers that flow is good. And now I find out flow is bad??

Why didn’t Cal tell me sooner?

OK, let’s all take a deep breath.

Before we all abandon ship, let’s first explore the possibility that Cal and I are, in fact, using the term “flow” in different ways (hint: we are).

In this essay I will do 5 things:

  1. I’ll explain how Cal is using the term ‘flow’, and why he is not a fan of that kind of “flow”.
  2. I’ll explain how I have been using the term ‘flow’, and why I am a fan of this kind of “flow”.
  3. I’ll explain why Cal and I are in almost complete agreement about how to learn and work, even though, on the surface, I’m “pro-flow” and he’s “anti-flow”.
  4. I’ll explain how long-term growth depends on how well we cycle between a) taking on difficult challenges, and b) reducing the friction in our lives.
  5. I’ll give some suggestions for managing this upward growth spiral.

Why Cal Don’t Dig On “Flow”

Cal’s initial shot across the bow of the U.S.S. Flow, was his post “Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player”.

In that post Cal shares the lessons he learned from an accomplished pianist he calls “Jeremy” about getting better at one’s craft. Here are “Jeremy’s” 4 rules:

  1. Avoid “flow”. Do what does not come easy.
  2. To master a skill, master something harder.
  3. Systematically eliminate weakness.
  4. Create beauty, don’t avoid ugliness.

Jeremy seems to think that seeking “flow” is closely related to “doing what comes easy.”

He says that mediocre pianists will spend just as much time practicing as masters, but they practice in ways that feel good – playing through the whole piece and skipping quickly past the parts that give them trouble. The master pianist, on the other hand, makes a point of tackling the very most difficult parts of the piece, hammering on it over and over for most of the practice time.

So, on this reading, seeking a “flow” experience during practice leads to mediocrity, not mastery.

Cal’s second post in the series was “Beyond Flow”.

In that post he describes the quality of his experience while proving a mathematical theorem over a strenuous three day period.

He writes:

“My experience this morning was not flow. I was not lost in the experience. Nor did I feel ‘spontaneous joy’. On the contrary, I found myself waging battle with my attention, forcing it back again and again to the complexities I was trying to sort through. My mind was pitching every possible distraction as an alternative to working on that problem, and I don’t blame it — it was a draining effort that in evolutionary terms must seem a waste of perfectly good glucose. At the same time, however, the work wasn’t annoying or tedious. I ended the day exhausted but fulfilled.”

Should we seek spontaneous
joy when we work?

Here we get another hint about how Cal is using the term ‘flow’. “Flow” is supposed to lead to “spontaneous joy” and being “lost in the experience”.

So flow is something like “taking the easy road” and working with “joyful abandon”.

This rendering of ‘flow’ is understandable, if not full-bodied. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (the “father of flow”) does sometimes characterize flow in these ways.

And Cal’s view seems to be that, if you want to maximize your chances of achieving impressive things in life, you can’t spend your whole life seeking joyful bliss and easy work.

Cal has a valid point here.

Why I Dig On Flow

So what do I mean by flow? And why do I think it’s a good thing?

Clues to my meaning can be found in the advice I give in this blog.

I spend a lot of time helping people who are overwhelmed with a hundred unrelated thoughts to “clear their minds”.

I help people who are experiencing internal motivational friction to discover what their core needs are, and to design a life that’s in harmony with those needs.

I help people who are disorganized get organized.

I help people who don’t know what to work on next figure that out.

I help people who have forgotten “why” they are doing what they are doing to rediscover their reasons for their work.

I start from the observation that many people have already taken on difficult challenges, perhaps too many difficult challenges all at once. And these people are now overwhelmed, stressed out, and are flailing around not knowing if they’re working on the most important things.

These people are in turmoil, and this kind of turmoil keeps people from being able to work effectively.

They have a thousand points of friction in their lives, and that friction is preventing them from getting much done.

I’ve found that, if a person in this situation can get organized, clear their mind, and have confidence that they’re working on their most important project(s), they will simultaneously reduce their stress and get more done.

And in this process I help them restore a sense of “flow” to their work.

For me, friction is a flow “killer”. And unnecessary friction is an unnecessary flow killer.

When I say I want to help people “work with flow”, I’m offering to help them remove unnecessary friction.

Things work better when we
remove unnecessary friction

I am not much concerned with “spontaneous joy” or “being lost in the experience”. These are ephemeral, contingent experiences that show up sometimes, and don’t at others. They are often not predictable. And I agree with Cal that it’s not always good to seek these states out as we work.

In short, moving towards flow, in my sense, is about removing unnecessary friction in our work.

Cal and Jim Both Dig On Growth

In the third post in Cal’s anti-flow series, he talks about preparing lectures for his graduate level “Theory of Computation” course at Georgetown:

1. “The process of creating [the lectures] is very hard. On average, it takes me between 2.5 to 3 hours to prepare a lecture. This preparation requires that I work with absolutely zero distractions as the material is too difficult to be internalized if my attention is divided in any way. Furthermore, the work is not particularly pleasant. Learning things that are this hard does not put you in a flow state. It instead puts you in a state of strain, similar to what is experienced by a musician learning a new technique.”

2. “I have gotten better at this process. The lecture I prepared today was the twenty-first such lecture I have prepared this semester. The earliest lectures were a struggle in the sense that my mind rebelled at the strain required and lobbied aggressively for distraction. This morning, by contrast, I was able to slip into this hard work with little friction, tolerate the strain for three consecutive hours, then come out on the other side feeling a sense of satisfaction.”

So Cal says he is not in flow while creating lectures.

But he says he is “getting better” at the process. He is now able to “slip into this hard work with little friction.” [my emphasis]

I agree with Cal’s approach here.

Furthermore, I think that, if we remove the word “flow” from the discussion, and explain what we think about growth and achievement in flow-free terms, we are in nearly complete agreement about the nature of growth and achievement in general.

I’ll let Cal speak for himself, but I think we are both in agreement on the following:

  1. Spontaneous joy and being “lost” in our experience is not the primary goal. Growth and creative achievement are our primary goals.
  2. Growth requires accepting difficult challenges.
  3. At first the challenges produce anxiety.
  4. As we develop the skills we need to meet the challenges, we reduce our anxiety, and the process becomes easier.
  5. Once we get so good at something that it becomes easy, we should seek out new challenges, or choose a new weaknesses to correct (if we care about growth).
  6. Anxiety that’s not inherent to the challenge, such as anxiety that comes from being disorganized, overwhelmed, unfocused, and from lacking a clear sense of purpose is unnecessary. We should fix those things if we can (and we can).

The Relationship Between Flow and Growth

So I’ve analyzed the difference between Cal’s advice and mine as a case of equivocation. Cal’s notion of flow is something like “easy joyous rapture”, and mine is something like “lack of unnecessary friction”.

And I’ve suggested that, if we eliminate the term ‘flow’ from the discussion, and use other terms in its place, we mostly agree about the nature of growth and achievement.

But let’s say we both get back closer to the core idea in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s thought, and see if there’s another way to understand the putative disagreement.

This diagram is Jesse Schell’s elaboration on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow diagram.

For Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a magical zone between anxiety and boredom.

The vertical axis represents the size of the challenges we are facing.

The horizontal axis represents the power of our skills in relation to those challenges.

When our challenges exceed our skills (in the upper left part of the diagram), we feel anxiety.

When our skills exceed our challenge (in the lower right part of the diagram), we feel boredom.

When our skills and challenges are closely matched (the diagonal zone from lower left to upper right), we are in a sweet spot where we feel neither too much anxiety nor too much boredom.

Csikszentmihalyi calls this diagonal channel the “flow channel”.

Flow is what we feel when we take on challenges that are well matched to our skills. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are “easy” relative to our skills. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi says that to feel fully engaged, we must stretch ourselves a bit beyond our current comfort level – but not so much that we feel helpless or completely disoriented.

Jesse Schell’s diagram appears in his excellent book “The Art Of Game Design”. Schell’s contribution to the above diagram is to draw the directed graph over the top of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow channel.

[ASIDE: I would recommend that book to every creative type, even if they don’t design games, because, while it’s specifically addressed to game developers, it’s really a book about designing user experience, or audience experience – whenever, wherever, and however we need to do that.]

Shell’s directed graph allows us to talk about the relationship between flow and growth.

A4 is a better place to be than A1. At A4 we are working on bigger challenges than at A1, and we have more skills to meet those challenges.

And notice that there are two ways to get from A1 to A4.

First, you can move from A1 to A2, and then to A4. On this path, you develop new skills without much challenge. And once you start to feel competent with those new skills, and you start to get bored with the way you are using those skills, you can take on a challenge that will use those skills and get your mind back in the game.

This might be the approach of a math student who keeps working on easy problem sets until he gets so good at them that he’s bored, and then decides to tackle a harder problem set.

Second, you can move from A1 to A3, and then to A4. On this path you take on a challenge before you have the skills to meet the challenge. This creates anxiety, and the anxiety drives you to develop the skills you need to meet the challenge.

This might be the approach of a math student who jumps right to the most difficult problem set and fills in her skills as she works on those problems.

We can call the first path “boredom-driven growth” (which is actually boredom-driven challenge acceptance).

And we can call the second path “anxiety-driven growth” (which is actually anxiety-driven skill acquisition.)

In these terms, I take Cal to be floating the hypothesis that anxiety-driven growth will help you grow faster than boredom-driven growth.

And, though I’m unaware of definitive studies on the matter, I find the hypothesis eminently plausible.

When my son and I first played Skyrim, he would just jump into battle and figure stuff out, while I would cautiously develop skills until I felt I could easily handle a given battle. His character died more often than mine did. But he also got better faster.

One way to look at the issue is this:

  • Cal’s burden is to take people who are sitting at A1 and encourage them to move to A3.
  • My burden is to take people who are already at A3, and help them to move to A4.

Cal IS trying to drive people away from flow, and toward anxiety (to a point).

And I AM trying to help them move from anxiety back toward flow (to a point).

But our advice is not in conflict. We are both working with people who are taking the high road – people who choose anxiety-driven growth over boredom-driven growth.

Anxiety-driven growth is a matter of moving from flow to anxiety, and then from anxiety back toward flow – so the process can start all over again.

Cal emphasizes the first step, while I emphasize the second.


Now, all kinds of interesting questions come to mind at this point. For instance, what are the effects of “meta-learning” on this process? Does it increase the size of the steps you can take in each direction? Should we always strive for anxiety-driven growth? Or should we sometimes strive for boredom-driven growth? Are there times to relax and recuperate after a big growth event?

But we can leave questions like that for another day.

Let me just leave you for now with some thoughts about how to manage your growth cycles.

  1. First, get rid of the unnecessary friction in your life that comes from having an overwhelmed mind by using the clear mind procedure as often as you need to until you start “running clear”.
  2. Consider whether you have other sources of unnecessary friction in your life, and get strategies in place for dealing with those unnecessary “flow killers” as well.
  3. Once you feel clear and resourceful again, take on new challenges. Stretch yourself beyond your comfort level — to the point where you feel some anxiety about being able to complete your project, or to complete it on time.
  4. As you work on your difficult challenge, figure out what skills you need to develop in order to tackle the challenge effectively.
  5. Spend time developing those skills (using deliberate practice if applicable).
  6. Take enough time between challenges to recuperate.
  7. Rinse and repeat.
  8. While you’re going through successive iterations of the growth process, keep an eye on meta-strategies for managing your anxiety and for learning new skills faster.

Following these steps should put you on a path to an ever-growing skill set, and to great achievement. Anxiety is a double-edged sword. If you choose when to feel anxiety, and limit it to shorter sprints, then it can be a force for good. If you experience chronic anxiety because your life is a disorganized mess, then anxiety is a force for evil in your life.

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