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)…
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.
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.