Previously, a flow state may have been seen as an ideal, unattainable condition similar to Nirvana or Enlightenment, accessible only by the greatest, most spiritual among us. Thanks to research in psychology, this is no longer true. A flow state can be accessed at any time by anyone. Michelle Wood, master self-mastery coach and CEO of Innervate, a personal innovation company, explained to me exactly what “flow” entails and how we and our colleagues can benefit from it.
In 2014 Amazon published The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler. The book was the result of a massive study Steven had undertaken on the performance of specific action and adventure sports like kite surfing, rock climbing, motorcycling and skiing.
Kotler found that over the past decade these sports have become quite extreme. People are doing things never thought possible. For example, 20 years ago the biggest wave ever surfed was about 6 metres high. Today surfers push into waves 30 metres tall. The same goes for snowboarding: in 1992 the biggest gap ever cleared was 12 metres; today it is 70 metres.
These athletes seem to have come across something extraordinary that makes them push their own limits and accomplish what was previously thought to be beyond human capability.
What has caused this type of performance? What is the magic ingredient that’s making it possible for these athletes to succeed beyond expectation? Steven Kotler attributes it to a state of flow, an idea previously proposed by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who describes this as a state in which “every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz”. And so Kotler had suddenly stumbled across 150 years of research on the idea of flow.
Inspired by this, Kotler proceeded to build on the research by introducing the Flow Genome Project, an event where the greatest leaders, philosophers, biologists, scientists, neuroscientists and people from various industries offer various perspectives and research in answer to questions, in this case such as “What is flow?”, “How do we find it?”, and “How can we access it?”
Flow state is quickly becoming the most desirable state on earth.
Jason Silva, a futurist, philosopher and keynote speaker, recently had this to say on flow: “Most people who identify when they get into a flow state and build their life around it are the happiest people in the world.”
Ultimately this is what it means to Michelle Wood to be in a state of flow: “When I was trying to figure out what flow is for me, I know it is my happy place. Not necessarily happiness. It’s a state of being where you really feel like things are effortless. Things just work and it’s fun.” This is somewhat different from the belief we grew up with that success is achievable only through hard, consistent work. “Instead,” Michelle says, “you do not have to try anymore. Things just come naturally when you are being who you truly are.”
Flow isn’t something that you do – it is being who you are . . .
In today’s society, where everything has speeded up and busyness has become the norm, we have to find a different way of being and of approaching ourselves. The industrial revolution created a more-more-more type of doing mentality centred on the accumulation of more knowledge and mass production. This was followed by the digital revolution and mass connection which suddenly made it possible for a person in Africa to be able to speak to someone in Japan. This has its good points, but unfortunately we are now so connected that we are constantly being overwhelmed by huge amounts of information coming at us 24/7. We need a different approach. We need a new way of being that will help us to navigate better; to cut through the clutter and get clear on the things that are truly important – faster.
And that is what the flow state offers. “Being in a state of flow,” says Michelle, “is like having your own inner GPS system. It makes you smarter while also creating a sense of presence. You notice the things that are really important and you get rid of the things that aren’t. For a lot of people it enhances their focus. It makes them faster, getting rid of the drudge quicker.” This is the biggest takeaway, according to Michelle. People can discern better and decide what is true for them, therefore they can make better decisions for themselves. There are a million ways of being successful. And obviously it does require a certain amount of hard work, but there is definitely a different way to go about making breakthroughs occur more easily. The breakthroughs that occur while a person is in a state of flow are almost like taking a shortcut instead of going the long way around!
There are many different ways to access flow. This Michelle had to discover firsthand while holding a senior position with Nike. She had been getting results and performing amazingly until suddenly a traumatic experience released that she had been repressing for 18 years. Although she had experienced flow throughout her life, suddenly things went terribly wrong and she had to experience the kind of struggle that many people face every day. Somehow she needed to turn things around. Michelle says what she found is that “the key to accessing your flow state is ultimately trusting yourself and following the breath.”
This very much comes down to how we relate to ourselves and our intuition.
“Accessing your intuition means accessing that guiding force that’s more powerful than your everyday ‘bread and butter’ functioning. And the breath helps with this because it gets you into what I like to call your centre,” Michelle says. “When you are busy in your mind, you notice all the clutter. But when you are centred, you are calmer, more present and you are able to receive clearer messages. This is why there is great power in the breath and breathing correctly. But most of all, the biggest gift you can give someone is teaching them to believe and trust in themselves again.”
Through a combination of self-mastery, coaching and breath work, Michelle aims to help individuals, teams and businesses get into their “centre” in order to achieve a flow state. She explains that in particular she works with the obstacles that often stand in our way and create resistance to flow. A typical obstacle she has come across while working with teams is conflict. Often we try avoid conflict and create a false sense of harmony, in doing this we actually stifle innovation and breakthroughs. Therefore, a large part of her work is working with teams to release their full potential by debunking beliefs that stand in their way.
Since last year Michelle, along with her associate coaches at Innervate, has teamed up with TEDxCape Town to help them get into flow. She started by first introducing the TEDx-team to an optimal structure or framework in which they can work for flow to take place. She explains: “There is therefore a practical structural element that we work with in a team. After that the focus is on how they approach themselves. This goes for each individual member. And as you create a state of flow in the individual, it creates a ripple effect that generates flow in the entire team. We are cutting away at the clutter that’s happening within the individual and therefore optimising their performance, and from there the entire team starts to perform. In actual fact, now they can work more coherently together and double their productivity.” By accessing each individual’s inner genius, the entire team’s genius is activated, and then magical things start to happen!
If you would like to know more, you can follow Michelle Wood on Twitter, Facebook or check out her website
[Main image credit: 123RF royalty free stock photos/Vaclav Volrab, video from YouTube: Hacking your flow state by Jason Silva]