#12: Why Flow Is the Secret to Optimum Performance
with Nicola Vetter & Peter Axtell
February 21, 2023 | 24 Minutes
On "Inside-Out Career Design" this week, hosts Nicola Vetter & Peter Axtell speak about
The whole idea of Flow has so many dimensions and benefits. There are lots of reasons why it’s the secret to optimum performance. Being single focused on one task without interruption, having one goal to the exclusion of all others during a work session, doing something you’re interested in and that has meaning for you, working to the edge of your abilities, can’t help but increase mastery and therefore optimum performance. In addition, the more Flow, the better you feel. The better you feel, the better your work is. Studies show that states of Flow have been proven to correlate with life satisfaction, meaning, and purpose.
Some questions we discuss for you to reflect on
- What were the times in your life when you felt and performed your best?
- What are the things that have given you meaning in the past?
- What is a goal you want to accomplish – just ONE thing?
- How can you attach meaning to it? (E.g., look at your Motives and Desires, which we talk about in other episodes)
- What is something meaningful you could do right now?
- What would push you to the edge of your abilities?
- What could you do to get into a FLOW state?
- What is it for you that makes life worth living?
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Books, resources, and people mentioned in this episode
About the Inside-Out Career Design Podcast
This podcast is obsessed with answering a single question: Is it possible to create an authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling life you love while building a successful and rewarding career?
Join Nicola Vetter and Peter Axtell, co-founders of the WhatsNext.com Career Insights platform and creators of the groundbreaking MotivationFinder assessment, as they follow their obsession with answering this question by sharing their insights, discoveries, and life lessons and talking with career experts, leaders, spiritual guides, psychologists, data scientists, coaches -- anyone and everyone who might hold a strategy or answer to the age-old questions of “what’s next for me?” and “what should I do with my life?”
They seek to transform suffering into joy for millions of people stuck and confused in their lives and careers.
Get ready to be inspired, motivated, and above all, to connect deeply with who you are and what you are meant to do with the time you’ve been given.
Nicola Vetter 00:00
And he wanted to find out when people felt they were performing and feeling their best. Now this was a really beautiful aspiration because he wanted to find the key to human happiness.
Peter Axtell 00:17
Welcome to Inside-Out Career Design. In this show, we're obsessed with answering a single question. Is it possible to create an authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling life you love while building a successful and rewarding career? My name is Peter Axtell, and I'm here with Nicola Vetter. We're co-founders of the WhatsNext.com CareerInsights platform, and creators of the groundbreaking MotivationFinder assessment. Join us as we seek to transform suffering into joy for millions of people stuck and confused in their lives and careers. We'll share our insights, discoveries, and life lessons and talk with career experts, leaders, spiritual guides, psychologists, data scientists, coaches, anyone who might hold a strategy or answer to the age-old questions of: "What's next for me?" and "What should I do with my life?" Get ready to be inspired, motivated, and above all, to connect deeply with who you are, and what you're meant to do with the time you've been given.
Peter Axtell 01:21
Are you trying to figure out what to do with your life, to figure out what to do with the precious time you've been given on this earth? Or to figure out what only you as a remarkable and unique individual can bring into this world? If you are, please join us for one of our live and completely free online workshops, where we cover different topics to help you figure out what to do with your life and career without wasting precious time, taking wild guesses, or risking it all. To save your spot in our next live and free workshop go to WhatsNext.com/workshops. We can't wait to see you there. Again, that's WhatsNext.com/workshops.
Nicola Vetter 02:14
Hello and welcome to another episode of the Inside-Out Career Design podcast. I hope all is going well for you today. Peter and I are really excited about today's topic, because it's important for anyone who wants to create a life and career that's satisfying and fulfilling. And it's the concept of flow.
Peter Axtell 02:43
This is a deep subject so we can't cover everything there is to know about flow, but it is a place to start. What is flow? Flow has been described as the ultimate human experience of well-being and satisfaction. You're fully immersed in an activity that's rewarding in and of itself. It's also been described as the deepest form of human attention, because it describes when we feel and perform our best. So, I invite you to think about the times in your life when you have felt and performed your best. Think about that.
Nicola Vetter 03:26
But first, let us dive into a little bit of history about the father of flow, and the author of the bestseller FLOW, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Even though the concept of flow itself goes far back to Aristotle and beyond. But Mihaly was the first to bring the idea into the mainstream in the 1970s. Now, let's go a step back to understand his world and where he comes from. He was born in 1934 to a family, his father was a diplomat. And when World War Two started, he couldn't play outside. He couldn't find safety anywhere. So, his family moved to a little tiny town in Italy, for safety. But it wasn't safe there. When he was eight years old, Nazi bombs dropped on this little city where he was living in Italy whenever they couldn't make it all the way to North Africa. Now in his book Stolen Focus, Johann Hari describes a scene that stuck in my mind. You know what I'm talking about?
Peter Axtell 05:02
Yeah, hang on this heavy. At 15 he decides that he wants to go rock climbing in the Alps. He saves his money. And he makes his way to Zurich. And he arrives in Zurich, and he's going to go to the Alps. But while he's waiting to go, he sees a sign about a psychology lecture. And for some reason, he says I'm gonna go to the psychology lecture. Who knows why.
Nicola Vetter 05:05
Take a breath. One day, Mihaly was running from the Nazi bombs. He was all alone. And the air raid shelter next to his house was full. So, he ran straight into the butcher's shop for shelter. And he ran all the way through the shop deeper and deeper inside. He ran towards where the meat was hanging on the hooks. You've all probably seen those meat hooks, except it wasn't normal meat. It was the bodies of the butchers that were hanging from the hooks. And that was a real traumatic experience for Mihaly. And based on that experience, he made the decision that grown-ups don't know how to live a good life. Well, understandable. His life was in ruins. His family has lost everything through the war, they were living in a refugee camp. But one day, his parents sent him to a scout camp where he went into the wilderness. And he discovered that he felt alive when doing something difficult, like rock climbing. Now, he quit school at 13, because he didn't believe in adult wisdom. Picture that they've destroyed nearly everything through the war. At age 15.
Peter Axtell 07:11
Yeah. But the lecture was being put on by none other than Carl Jung. Turns out that he didn't really relate to what Carl Jung was teaching but he gets this signal, he gets his spark, and he discovers that he could study scientifically how the human mind works. Because he was fascinated, I think, by his traumatic experiences and all the evil that he saw, he thought, isn't there something else? So, he decides, I'm going to be a psychologist. But for whatever reason, in Europe at that time, there was nothing available for him to become a psychologist. So, he saves his money, and he decides to go to the one place that makes sense, and that is America. He arrives in America. And he goes to Chicago, the University of Chicago, and he's all excited about becoming a psychologist. And then he discovers to his horror, that the prevailing psychological theory in the United States at that time was the theory of B.F. Skinner, who was famous all over the United States. You may remember that B.F. Skinner is the guy that called the Skinner box, where he put a pigeon in a box, and would feed them when the pigeon would exhibit a certain behavior. This theory of behavior became the prevailing theory because he could train a pigeon to play ping pong. If you can believe that, it's true. Mihaly is thinking, well, this is horrible, people are not just pigeons. And he decides that he wants to study human psychology that's positive and nourishing. He goes on to become a co-founder of the positive psychology movement, alongside Martin Seligman. Amazing.
Nicola Vetter 09:17
And one of the first things that he studied was artists. So, he thought to himself that he had seen destruction all over in his life and now, he wanted to study creation. So, he goes and watches artists and notices that time seems to stand still for them, that they were totally absorbed and totally focused on the task at hand. They seemed like being in a trance at times. And he wanted to find out when people felt they were performing and feeling their best. Now this was a really beautiful aspiration because he wanted to find the key to human happiness. And he did one of the largest studies on optimum performance that was ever conducted. He asked people all over the world when they felt and performed their best and how they described it.
Peter Axtell 10:28
You know how he got the data?
Nicola Vetter 10:32
Peter Axtell 10:33
He got the data by giving people pagers. Nobody remembers pagers anymore, but he gave people pagers, and they asked people how they were feeling their best, 1000s and 1000s of people. And that's how we got the data was, it from pagers.
Nicola Vetter 10:47
I think doctors still use pagers in hospitals probably. Well, besides the topic. But when he asked them how they felt, they described it as being in an altered state, in the present moment, in extreme focus on the task at hand, where work decisions and pretty much everything just flows. And somebody described the feeling as "flowy." And that's when Mihaly got that idea to call this concept FLOW.
Peter Axtell 11:25
Wonderful. So, why care about flow? There's a zillion reasons, in my view, why anybody would want to care about flow. We are living in a completely distracted world. We are living in an overwhelmed world with social media. Being able to focus intensely in this day and age is a competitive advantage. The other thing that's amazing about flow is it is an antidote to distraction and overwhelm. I'm reading a book about Beethoven right now and he is a perfect example. I was fascinated reading about his story in the book, Beethoven - Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swofford. When Beethoven was five years old, he was sitting on a little piano bench with his fingers barely able to reach the keys. And his father is screaming at him, and yelling at him, and his father actually beat him. But for some reason, he persists. He's five years old, it doesn't kill his desire. Fast forward at 22 Beethoven goes to Vienna, because that is the place where all the music was happening, and he is ambitious, and he's got to be a killer piano player and composer. Well, the thing about Beethoven this guy was a completely maladjusted human being. He would have relationships, and then he would damage it because he couldn't control his temper. So, he's in Vienna, and he's suffering lifelong physical illness, he's got stomach problems, he has diarrhea, vomiting, and he still persists. So, one time he's in a party with his friends and they're having a conversation and then he goes into this kind of trance, in the middle of the party. He just kind of drifts away and the people are looking at him, oh, Ludwig is drifting away again. And he would just disconnect from all the people in the social situation. And they would say, well, Ludwig's gone, and he just disappears. Because he was thinking about... Mentally, yeah. He was thinking about his latest composition, and that, I'm positive, he was in a flow state. At 25 Beethoven discovers he is going deaf. It was probably caused by drinking cheap wine made with lead sugar, which is very common at the time. That's what they think, caused him to go deaf. In addition to that, he has tinnitus, which is ringing in his ears 24 hours a day. He is now terrified that his competitors and his enemies are going to go and find out. So where does he go? He goes, where he always goes, he goes to the piano, to his sketchbooks, by himself, no distractions, total concentration on what is meaningful...music. He goes into flow. What saves Beethoven, in my view, is that he could get himself into a flow state and fulfill his calling. He ended up dying and 56 totally deaf. But he composed one of the greatest works towards the end of his life having lived with hearing impairment for 30 years. His autopsy showed there was no cognitive impairment at the end of his life. I believe that flow states kept him persisting in his quest towards his calling.
Nicola Vetter 13:40
Mentally. So, how do we get there? How do we get into flow? There are three core elements, we want to make it practical today, there are many more, but let's stick to those three. Step one, pick one goal and exclude all others. The mind just needs something to do, something to go towards. And then completely concentrate on that one thing, the task at hand so that you can be in the present moment, like the artists, remember? It's an enjoyable and deeply engaging feeling. And then merge with this one thing you're doing. It's like you are the thing that you are doing, like you are one with that thing. Multitasking, by the way, is a total flow killer. So don't even try. I mean, it isn't possible anyhow. But that's something that we spoke about, in the last episode, How to Conquer Overwhelm. So just go back there to check it out. You may have a sense of time, that's altered. Hours just pass by like minutes when you are in this state, in this flow state.
Peter Axtell 16:45
So, step two, is find meaning in the task. I was thinking about this, what if you have to do something that you don't particularly find meaningful? Well, one of the things that you can do is to use your top motives and desires, which we'll talk about later. And use one of your top motives and desires to give meaning to a task at hand. Another thing you can do is to think about something greater than yourself. So, our partner Chris told me a story years ago, about how he was an IT guy, and he was helping a woman who was struggling with a very easy problem.
Nicola Vetter 16:48
Peter Axtell 16:50
A very easy problem for him. And very difficult for her. She was in a state. And I remember him telling me, well, yeah, this thing was so easy. I just went and solved the problem for her. And I said to him, Chris, do you understand that very likely, when this woman went home that night, because you had solved that problem, that she went home, probably happy, she went home and was probably nice to her kids and her husband, because you just helped what was easy to you was very hard for her. So the knock on effect of that was you probably really helped her to have a great day. And he had never thought about that before. So, you can search for the things in your life that give it meaning. And that's one thing that you can do. You can also go on a quest to think about what are the things in my life that have given me meaning in the past, search for those and invite more of those to come into your life to get into flow states.
Nicola Vetter 18:30
And step three, work to the edge of your abilities. They shouldn't be too easy, but also not too hard. My earliest experience of a flow state, I'd say was at age 14, I went to my first ever psychological seminar, my father sent me there. It was late fall, a sunny day, and in a group, I was hiking with other kids up a mountain. And all of a sudden, we did encounter snow. That means the hike got harder. It got harder. Until it got too hard...in my mind. And I plopped down. I just wanted to give up and my internal voice said, I just can't take one more step, I'm done. Well, that done wasn't due to physical exhaustion because I was in pretty good shape. I was dancing a lot. So it wasn't that. It really was in my mind. And then a short time passed. And suddenly I had this energy boost and my motivation returned. So, what happened? That short break allowed me to regroup, and I saw the other kids moving up the mountain. So finally, I made it up to the top. But I didn't reflect that I was at the top, I was actually energized by the journey itself, particularly this last part, after I took a little rest. And by that time I reached the top, I could have gone further for hours and hours, crazy. So, I realized later that I slipped out of the flow channel. And then I got back into it, which resulted in a state of flow. And that's why I was able to, I could have gone on and on walking in the snow. So, my sense of self and self-consciousness, totally disappeared. And my inner critic, that voice of doubt, was all of the sudden silent. There's a lesson here. Always take a break when you get overwhelmed. We recommend even taking a physical break, because most of the time when you get overwhelmed these days is sitting in front of your computer. So do the opposite. Get up and just take a walk, take a little break. And you will keep your mind off of the task at hand. And break larger tasks into smaller ones.
Peter Axtell 21:53
Good advice. I want to touch on one other concept here. And that is the concept of mastery. Mastery is one of the three basic human needs which are autonomy, mastery, and relatedness. We're just going to focus on mastery right now. Flow experiences lead to mastery of a skill, mindset, and emotional intelligence. Flow builds optimum performance because you are mastering something and getting better. So, let's talk about the payoff of getting into flow. You have deep fulfillment and happiness. It's the antidote to overwhelm and distraction. It's a competitive edge.
Nicola Vetter 22:45
And to make this practical for you, ask yourself: What is a goal I want to accomplish? Just one thing. How can I attach meaning to it? Little hint again, look at your Motives and Desires, which we will be covering in a future episode. Or just what is something meaningful I could do right now? What would push me to the edge of my abilities? Remember? Not too easy, but also not too hard. What could I do to get into flow states? What is it for me that makes life worth living? And remember, the more flow experiences you can create, the better you will feel.
Peter Axtell 23:44
Thanks so much for joining us here today. For show notes go to whatsnext.com/12 where we share links and other relevant information.
Nicola Vetter 23:58
And if you like what you've heard, share it with someone you care about. And subscribe, rate, and review our Inside-Out Career Design podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, so you'll never miss an episode. Thanks so much for joining us here today. We'll see you next week for another episode. Same time, same place.