Effortless Success – How to turn work into play and succeed on a massive scale

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Have you ever lost time doing anything? You know what I’m talking about. Those moments when you become so absorbed in what you’re doing that an hour becomes a minute and a day becomes and hour. You blink and it’s time to go home, but you’d kill to be able to stay just a little bit longer.

Think back. How long has it been? Now, I wonder how much more enjoyable life would be if you could recreate that magical sense of total-absorption, effortlessness even in the face of extremely hard work. Imagine how rich each day would be if you could bring this experience not only your play, but to the way earned your living.

What would it take, I wonder, to have a job where you worked harder than ever before, earned more than ever before, and succeeded bigger and faster than ever before, but felt like the whole experience was natural, so engaging, so intrinsically-rewarding, you’d have paid to do it as a hobby, had it not have been your job?

You can experience effortless success…if you know how to get into the flow

Writing this, I quickly flashed back to a Sunday night, about 8 years ago. My wife and I rented a little summer cottage by the bay on Long Beach Island, NJ with two other couples. As the weekend wound down to it’s inevitable end and everyone began to pack for the drive home, one of the husbands grumbled, “I hate Sunday nights.”

“Why?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “Because, it means tomorrow I go back to work.” And, here’s the funny thing…this particular guy couldn’t even complain about having to work for the man, because the man was him. He had his own law practice, but every day was just another miserable, paycheck earning day. The emotional drain of how he chose to earn his living made every tap of a key on his keyboard seem like an unbearable burden.

I never really understood that. “You’re the man, you can change anything you want. Do it and stop bitching,” I’d say. Though I’ve now seen the phenomenon so many times since, it makes me wonder whether we all just really like to complain a whole lot more than we’d like to succeed at something we love to do.

Simple, sad fact—the vast majority of grown-ups will never leave a job in the name of creating a more passionate, joyful life. And, of the precious who do, the vast majority will leave their life-sucking jobs in the name of getting a life, but then, scared of doing something that might really turn them on but require them to step out of their comfort zones a bit more, end up either working back in the same sector, just under another boss or company, or make a slight shift in emphasis, landing them in “Same sucky job different company/boss/location-land.”

And, oh, the travesty of that person who takes the giant step of starting her own business, changing the setting and control, but holding onto the same content of work that’s led to years of dwindling inspiration. If you’re gonna make the jump, put yourself, your time and money at risk, please, at least make the potential rewards in terms of life and job satisfaction potentially huge.

Where am I going with all of this?

Simple. I wake up every Monday with the same feeling about work that my daughter has about camp. I love it! My work is an extension and adaptation of my play. Don’t get me wrong. I work hard. But it is so enjoyable it feels almost effortless. Like an artist, a musician or an athlete in that magical place, other-worldly place they call “the zone.”

And, because of this sense of absorption and ease, I am inspired to do what I do better, faster and more often. And, that leads to success on a level rarely attained by the pursuit of a living defined by uninteresting, disengaging, burdensome work. Which all led me to wonder…

What exactly is this effortless “zone” state and how can anyone create it at work?

Some of the most powerful research in this area has been done by noted cognitive psychologist and author of the book Flow(aff), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks-sent-me-high”).

Csikszentmihalyi spent decades studying a wide variety of professionals, actors, artists, scholars and athletes who regularly cultivate that zone-like state of effortlessness he calls Flow. And, what he realized is that Flow is not about minimizing work. In fact, most of the people he studied experience their deepest flow-states while engaged in extremely challenging physical or mental work.

Indeed, the element of work or exertion was so connected to inducing this highly-desired state that it led subjects to work harder and more often in the name of finding more flow and making it last longer.

And, it is this level of deliberate, focused practice (more on this later) that quickly vaulted many of these people to the pinnacle of their professions and activities. It cultivated a sense of effortless success.

So, what is flow and how do you get it?

Csikszentmihalyi identifies the following fairly universal experiences while in a flow state:

  • Working toward a clear goal with a well-defined process – The task, big or small, must be as defined as possible and the steps needed to get there must be laid out in detail or at least highly-delineable along the way. Getting there does not have to be easy, but you need to be able to see, even in the distance, where you are going.
  • Cultivating deep-concentration – the nature of the job must require an intense sense of concentration. Examples would be a fast-moving game like ping-pong or a gymnastic routine. In a work setting, leading a high-stakes, face-to-face negotiation, drafting a document, writing a blog post (ha ha ha), creating a detailed artistic rendering or coding of a computer game, animation or program would qualify.
  • Lack of a sense of self-consciousness – you become so engaged in the nature of the work that are no longer aware of yourself, but, rather feel a sense of total absorption in the task. It’s like that old sports adage, “be the ball.”
  • Altered sense of time– time seems to either stand still or literally fly by in the blink of an eye.
  • Ongoing, direct feedback – either through people or the testable nature of the task, you need regular enough feedback to be able to constantly adapt, correct course and make progress toward your goal. For example, when writing a computer program, you can constantly compile, test and de-bug the ensure you are on the right track.
  • Task is highly-challenging, but doable – the task must be hard enough to finish that it requires a significant investment of your attention, resources and energy that lead to the sense of absorption. But, it also has to easy enough to allow you to believe that a solution is, in fact, possible, or else you’d just give in.
  • Control over the means – you must have the ability to harness the resources to get the job done.
  • The activity is meaningful or intrinsically rewarding, by the very nature of doing it – while the end result might entitle you to a big outside reward, like a bonus, raise or high sale-price, the essential nature of the activity is so rewarding that you would do it at the same level, even without he extra motivation of some kind of external prize. For example, most great artists don’t paint for a paycheck, they paint because the very process of painting is so woven into who they are that not painting would be akin to not breathing.

Do all of these elements need to be present? No. But, the more the better, the deeper the flow and greater the sense of effortlessness.

So, this gives great insight into the qualities we need to add to create more of a flow experience in our work. That covers the “effortless” element of effortless success. It lets us enjoy the journey and find flow. But, how does it lead to success on a bigger, better, faster scale?

Deliberate practice – the connection between flow and greatness.

It’s so easy to look around at people who reach the pinnacle of any career or activity and say, “oh she succeeded on a level I never could, because she’s got a gift, it’s just in her genes.” Saying this makes us feel better about the massive gap that lies between those uber-achievers…and us. But, increasingly, research is proving the gift-theory wrong.

In fact, a growing body of experts now argue there is no such thing as a natural gift, leaving something else to explain extreme success.

In late 2006, British researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda revealed, in a massive study, “The evidence we have surveyed … does not support the [conclusion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.”

That study showed, across a wide array of endeavors, most people learn quickly at first, but then peak out and eventually stop learning, even though they continue to engage in the activity. But, an exceptionally small percentage of people never peak. They continue learning and improving for years of decades. And, it’s those people who become the biggest successes, who reach true greatness in any field.

Surprisingly, though, it’s not some natural gift that lets them continue to excel long after others have peaked.

What makes people great is practice, but not any old practice.

Rule number one—to get great at anything, you need to work hard, very hard. But, the way you go about that work or practice is the difference between good and top-of-the-heap great.

Let look at golf, for example. If I go out and play a round and hit three buckets of balls every day, that’s a lot of work, a serious commitment to practice. But…it’s not good enough to become the best in the game. There something missing. And, the experts call it “deliberate” practice.

According to prominent greatness researcher, Professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, it takes a serious commitment to intense work and lots of hours and adds in a relentless drive to improve with every repetition of every element of every task.

That means, for a baseball player, hitting every pitch with a specific intention, responding to each swing and correcting with each repetition. So rather than having a goal of just hitting 100 balls, each swing would be aimed at a specific point in the field and the batter would not move on until that point was hit 20-times in a row.

If this sounds a bit brutal, for most people, it is. And, it is completely unsustainable for very long. Which is a shame, because the research also reveals something a bit disconcerting about how long you have to engage in this deliberate practice to become truly great.

The 10-Year Rule.

Even if you have the drive to develop a deliberate, daily practice, for hours a day, seven days a week, it will take a good 10-years before you can expect to become a rock-star in your chosen pursuit.

In fact, in a 2006 article in Money Magazine, John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University revealed, “The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average.” The more complex the activity, the longer it takes to become great. Which is why most of us become pretty darn good at a lot of things, but never become truly great at much of anything.

10-year rule detractors point to people like Tiger Woods, who won his first Masters at the age of 21, but forget that Tiger was on late night television with Johnny Carson hitting golf balls when he was just 3-years old. So, by the time he hit his late teens, he’d already had more than 15-years of deliberate practice.

Which brings us, finally to the critical link between effortlessness or flow and extreme success. How does this all come together to create Effortless Success?

Flow fuels deliberate practice and that’s what makes for greatness

In order to succeed on the highest level, you need to engage in deliberate practice for an extended period of time, at least 10-years. The commitment needed to sustain that level of practice, that level of work, is nearly impossible to cultivate (beyond early parental and peer pressure)…

unless…

the nature of the activity, itself, is so intrinsically rewarding, engaging, and capable of totally absorbing you that you simply cannot get enough of it. Unless what you do regularly drops you into that magical flow-zone where gargantuan effort seems almost effortless.

So…

Work that cultivates flow inspires a sense of effortlessness that fuels the deliberate practice needed to become great at what you do and succeed on a level you never imagined possible.

There, I said it!

To become great at what you do for a living, to succeed on a massive scale, to be not just really good, but great, you need to be working at something that cultivates a strong enough sense of effortless flow to inspire the deliberate practice/work that will thrust you to the peak of your profession.

So, my question for you is – what are those activities, endeavors, pursuits in your life that have brought the greatest number of the elements of flow into the experience?

Now, here is your Awake At The Wheel Challenge – figure out a way to either bring as many elements of effortless flow to you’re your current job or start looking at other ways to earn your living that will give you the greatest opportunity to spend the most time in effortless flow.

Once you find that, then it’s time to dive in and prepare to be awed by what unfolds!

Think about it, then share your thoughts and questions in the Comment section.

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45 responses

45 responses to “Effortless Success – How to turn work into play and succeed on a massive scale”

  1. Andrew says:

    Jonathan,

    Interesting post. I’ve not read “Flow” but have come across the concept in several other places. Creating flow is always good advice.

    The “mastery takes 10 years” concept though is depressing even if you find flow in what you do. I find it hard to think of anything that I would undertake if it took at least 10years to master. Delaying gratification is fine…for a while!

    Nice blog generally.

    Andrew

  2. John A says:

    They tell me I’m talented, a different “kind” of person than everyone else because ow all I’ve done and get done. Yep, flow exists, I’ve lived in it for years. I look out and see those who don’t (just about everyone) and ask why. So I shut mine down for 10 years and tried living “outside” the Flow. Ahhh, now I know why everyone wants to stay there… they like their own personality, they like their own ego, they like their own sense of self worth, they like their pride, some like their suffering. Inside the flow, though, I mean deep within the realm, you get capabilities, you get open access to knowledge, you get focus, intention and the abilities you kneed to “pursue & finish your task”. But focus means “Not thinking” about yourself… takes away from what you’re trying to focus on, it means NOT puffing up that ego… actually just the opposite, gotta forget the “concept of ego” completely… cause it just doesn’t matter to the “duty at hand”… which is why you’re trying to “focus” in the first place. Look I could go on and on… but what it really comes down to is a choice… to live “In The Flow” or NOT to Live In The Flow Or to develop the ability to walk in & out of the flow. I’ll finish this with a line from an Aerosmith song… “Life’s a Journey, not a destination, cause ya just can’t tell, just what tomorrow will bring. Ya gotta learn to crawl, before ya learn to walk” Now go try to convincd Norman Vincent Peale fans or Zig Ziglar Fans or Maxwell Maltz Fans that that’s true… But the Religious sect will Love Ya! What I’m trying to do here is illustrate the enormousness of the concept of “Living IN The Flow” or Out of it. Wars used to be made from this. Let it jell, reread it occasionally. Perception is everything. Have a Great Day, and remember, I could be wrong! John

  3. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Andrew – Don’t let the 10-year rule get you down. Instead, use it as inspiration and ask, “what could I do that would so inspire me that I would beg, borrow or steal (not really steal), to be able to do it all the time?” Then, let the 10-year rule take care of itself.

    @John A – The big picture proposition is the more flow-experiences we can add to each day, the more content we become.

    Thanks for your comments!

  4. Mike DeWitt says:

    Jonathan,

    This is an excellent post! There is other research that indicates that there is a fair amount of genius that doesn’t required the 10-year rule. Sadly, that seems to be the “you’ve got it or you don’t” variety.

    There are also plenty of fields where you can make a nice living without being the very best individual on the planet, just a very good one in your sphere of influence.

    Thanks for this!

    Mike

  5. John says:

    This is exactly right.

    I’ve been reading book after book for over a year now trying to find what you have described. I’m currently reading “The Pathfinder” in an attempt to hone in on what activity locks me in the flow as well as how to translate that to a job.

    I thank you for this post because your visual description of the sensation has really helped me to have a better understanding of exactly what I am looking for. Thank you for that.

  6. Bob says:

    I’m glad I “stumbled upon” your site a couple days ago and subscribed to your RSS

    Great article. While I worked at Ford Motor Co. I read the book “Flow” although I wasn’t able to give the book 100% attention while reading it on the job (repair type work) it did strike me as very interesting at the time. Thank you for re-introducing the concepts of “Flow” to me.

    I recently took an educational buyout from Ford Motor, so I am in the process of restarting my 10 year plan you could say. I have just started college full time, and I remember one of the concepts of Flow was that to get into that state your skills performed needed to match your ability in order to be in “Flow”. well, I am in the process of learning a whole new skill-set.

    thanks for the article, I will re-read the book flow again.

    Its funny how you can read/learn something new that at the time seems so groundbreaking, then a few months later totally forget the about concepts.

  7. Gail says:

    Jonathan, It blows my mind the synchronicity of our lives! I read that book 10 years ago when I was in the recruiting field. I have felt that very flow in many areas of my life, but what I have discovered is that when there is very little distinction between your work and play, your labor and leisure your mind and body… that is flow. Namaste, Gail

  8. Vinayak says:

    This is one of the excelllent Blog posts I have seen in recent times. Its well researched and credited for. Thanks John. Keep me posted if anything on such accord comes up.

  9. robert says:

    This is a great blog post, I need to get into the flow, thanks.

  10. Chad says:

    I refuse to believe the 10-year rule!

    Absolutely not. With no distractions, passionate desire, keen interest, and needed rest at good interval (a must!) you could be great at guitar, great at Wing Chung, great at making Sushi, great at marketing, whatever you were trying to accomplish within 6 mos. to a year.

    …and I think I’m being too conservative there!

  11. […] Jonathan Fields tells us how to create “Effortless Success” by getting into the […]

  12. Thank you so much for the post. I’m more like that lawyer than I would like to admit.

    I’ve featured this post in this week’s “Sunday Seven”

  13. Jonathan Fields says:

    Hey gang,

    Great comments all around and thanks to all who’ve given this post some link-love…keep it coming 😉

    @ Chad, John and others about the 10-Year Rule – Thanks so much for brining up something I wanted to clarify. Yes, you can be successful, very successful on many levels in far less than 10-years, but the greatness the research I shared was talking about was what you might consider “virtuoso” level accomplishment–best in the world.

    We’re talking about the YO YO Mas, Warren Buffets, A-rods, Picassos and Tiger Woods’s. The studies and the 10-year rule are about greatness that goes way beyond being really good, better than your friends or local colleagues and competitors to being one of the best in the world.

    Here’s an example that I think will help out.

    A friend in high school was mad about guitar. He’d run home every day to practice and lock himself in his room till he went to sleep. After about 2 years, he blew everyone else in my town, heck, the county away. And, if you asked, he’d tell you he was a guitar-god.

    He went to college then got a job with a company that published talbeture for guitar players. His job was to sit in a booth, listen to every new song and guitar lead played by the nearly every great pro-level guitarist in the world, figure out exactly what they were doing then write it down. To do this, he had to be able to play what all these people were playing.

    He had to get far beyond the level of technical expertise to nuance and tonality, to the million little things that allow someone’s heart to pour through the instrument. Through this, he became astonishingly better and even became one of the best session guitarists around.

    He can now play anything any guitarist in the world can play, often better or with more soul than the original. And, here’s the thing, while he and everyone in a 10-mile radius thought he was great back in high-school, if you asked him now, 20-years of deliberate practice later, he would laugh and tell you that back then he was a total hack.

    Is that true? Of course not, he was still extremely good, great even in comparision to those around him. But, in contrast to what he can do now, in comparison to his true “virtuoso” greatness, there’s just no comparison. And, that is what the 10-year rule is about. The thousand almost imperceptible things that take decades to master, but bridge the gap between really friggin’ good and best in the world.

    Thanks for all the great insights, keep them coming!

  14. Paul M. says:

    I have just talked about it on my lunch but I didn’t know it is called Flow and is described. I only really enjoy things I can do in a flow, where I forget about the whole world.

    I also now understand why I am not good in playing the piano or the guitar. I just wasn’t in a flow while practising.

    John, I like your comment regarding ‘not thinking’. When I do something to feed my ego I need to find with ‘you can’t do it’, ‘you won’t make it’. But if I stop thinking and just do something I am so creative.

    Thanks, Jonathan. I am subscribing to your blog. Great FreelanceSwitch post.

  15. Jonathan Fields says:

    Hey Paul,

    Thanks for your comments, flow is definitely at the heart of every deeply creative process. It is the ultimate enabler!

  16. […] Jonathan Fields’ blog.  Among his must reads section he has a great post about finding “effortless success.”  It’s that seemingly impossible intersection of career and personal passion. “What […]

  17. […] I came across an article called, “Effortless Success – How to turn work into play and succeed on a massive scale” by Jonathan Fields of […]

  18. Rob says:

    I have seen this article published on many other blogs and failed to find anything original added to your interpretation. It’s a shame, I would like to have found out how you think it can be applied, how we can find activities that allow us to engage in flow for example. IF yolu identify with it so much then where is the anecdotal evidence that this is the reason you love your chosen profession so much?

  19. […] Jonathan Fields Effortless Success – How to turn work into play and succeed on a massive scale […]

  20. What an fascinating post! I never thought about these ideas before. I realize now that “deep concentration,” “altered sense of time” and “lack of a sense of self-consciousness” are things that I just take for granted in my job (researcher at National Geographic Traveler magazine). I totally look forward to going in to work in the mornings, and have a hard time leaving, even though I have a very wonderful family. The thing that motivates me most I think is that I am constantly learning new things in my job, not skills so much as information, about people, places, cultures, history, geography. And the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, which makes me want to learn more. And yeah, I’d do this job even if they didn’t pay me (don’t tell my boss!).

  21. […] present?  Sure.  But, the more the better and deeper you’ll get. (Check out Effortless Success for a more in-depth discussion of the elements of […]

  22. […] Fields has a nice writeup on how to get in “the zone” (or “the flow”), which is the key to getting […]

  23. […] interesting perspective on achieving great success in any field: To become great at what you do for a living, to succeed on […]

  24. […] can find a way to turn your natural talent into your job. The most successful people in the world will tell you that pursuing your passion in life will make you more likely to achieve success than pursuing […]

  25. […] Carpe Factum connects that Sometimes, it’s important to find the support that is hidden to the naked eye. That applies in our professional lives also, doesn’t it? Effortless Success – How to turn work into play and succeed on a massive scale […]

  26. A Zen poet wrote,

    “A person who is a master in the art of living makes little distinction between their work and their play, their labor and their leisure, their mind and their body, their education and their recreation, their love and their religion.
    They hardly know which is which and simply pursue their vision of excellence and grace, whatever they do, leaving others to decide whether they are working or playing.
    To them they are always doing both.”

  27. […] Effortless Success – How to turn work into play and succeed on a massive scale – Extensive article on applying the principles of flow to your work for enjoyment and success. […]

  28. […] Get Into The Flow: Can you imagine experiencing a state where your work is a pure joy and your day flies by, no matter how hard you work? To do this, you need to get into the flow. And Jonathan Fields explains how to do that in this great article. […]

  29. […] us. Productivity is only one part of his writing, but one where you’ll find true gems like how to turn work into play and the secret of chronic […]

  30. […] How to Turn Work into Play & Succeed on a Massive Scale @ Jonathan Fields […]

  31. Mark Essel says:

    I’m at the point in my career as an engineer where I can’t tolerate doing work that’s out of the flow. That’s why I’ve decided to leave this field and start my own business, one which doesn’t require my constant attention and time once started.
    Being told what and when to do something after adulthood just doesn’t jive with my concept of living. If you don’t want something for yourself, how can you possibly contribute anything useful to the work?

  32. Found your blog through a search of Tiger Woods….what an inspiration!

  33. […] what makes me come alive. This is the thing that drops me into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called the “Flow” state. It cultivates within me a sense of effortlessness, absorption, even in the midst of intense […]

  34. […] a quite compelling argument that to become kick-ass great at anything takes a bare minimum of 10,000 hours of what greatness researchers called “deliberate practice.” That’s not just painting, putting or potting for 10,000 hours, it’s something […]

  35. […] level of conviction and deliberate practice that will fuel greatness in all. And, according to the research on greatness, that’ll likely be the better part of 10-20 years. Yes, I said […]

  36. Well, if you want to rewrite my poker book for me…. 🙂

  37. Ah yes the 10-year rule. Malcolm Gladwell refers to it as the “10,000 hour” rule in his book Outliers. Highly recommended read for those interested in this theory. The argument is simple enough – practise (and lots of it) separates an amateur from a master. Gladwell also argues that circumstance plays a big part in any success, and that no hero ever rose to the top on purely their own merit. Every successful person had a helping hand along the way.

  38. Martha says:

    Thanks for the great post. Good advice! Work day to day can be extremely difficult. Is the answer to enjoy what you do or do what you enjoy? It’s tough. Thanks for you insight though.

    I stumbled upon this blog like I did yours. Though their insight on work was very meaningful: http://burisonthecouch.wordpress.com/2009/12/31/our-house/

    Thanks for the post! I’d love to see more like it.

  39. […] Effortless Success – How to turn work into play and succeed on a massive scale […]

  40. I’m again reminded that I must: (1) pay attention to my ‘flow’ moments and find ways to spend more time there so my “work” becomes my life and my life is my work, (2) To consciously seek out, and listen to, critical feedback – and develop a habit of deliberate practice, and (3) To learn to be patient with myself and enjoy where I’m at while building the future. (Another worthy addition to this discussion is the book “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.)

  41. Francis says:

    Hey Jonathan,

    Thanks a bunch for this. I’m in a place where I’m going stir crazy at my job, however putting a lot of thought into my next move – likely to be my own venture – so this post really re-enforced my current thinking that I’ve gotta be involved in something that gets my juices flowing. If it’s possible then why not?

    If you’re interested I wrote a brief book review on Flow on my blog entitled, Get Your Flow On: http://greatestnetworker.blogspot.com/2011/07/get-your-flow-on-book-review.html

    Cheers,

    Francis

    Sydney, Australia

  42. […] a fan of effortless and joyful living (and exercise…). Jonathan is big on that. Check out his post to turn work into […]