Flow is a state of consciousness in which performance goes up more than 200 percent. Business executives use it. People learning languages. Extreme-sports athletes. Miles Davis, Robin Williams, Pablo Picasso. We’ve recognized flow for millennia. William James called it “mystical experience.” Abraham Maslow called it “peak experience.” Mihaly Csiksentmihaly interviewed people from all walks of life around the world, and learned that they were happiest when things “flowed,” and thus re-named the phenomenon once again.
Flow occurs when the brain’s frontal cortex temporarily shuts down. Art gets out of the way. You become less judgmental. Time dilates or shrinks. You lose your sense of self. You make more connections and learn quickly.
DARPA halved the time it takes to train snipers by using trans-cranial magnetic stimulation to get around the frontal cortex, but an enriched environment, high consequences, or a challenge slightly above your skills can all do the same thing.
Steven Kotler in his adventure-sports book, The Rise of Superman, writes, “It is also a very disruptive technology—which is exactly what we need right now. In 2011, I co-wrote a book with Prize founder and Singularity University cofounder Peter Diamandis called Abundance.
“In it, we explore how exponentially growing technology combined with [DIY innovator, the Technophilanthropist, and the Rising Billion] gives humanity the power to significantly raise global standards of living over the next two or three decades.
“This is not the place for too much detail, but the important thing to know is that abundance is not guaranteed. The four forces we describe create a wave of possibility—the possibility of solving society’s grand challenges and exceeding the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet. Yet if we want to ride this wave, we face the same issue as all surfers: first we have to paddle fast enough to catch it.
“Without question, paddling fast enough to catch a possibility wave like abundance means we’ll need the most capable versions of ourselves doing the paddling. We’ll need to be better, faster, stronger, smarter. We’ll need intrinsic motivation and incredible cooperation. Our imaginations will have to be deeply engaged; our creative selves operating at their full Picasso. In other words, if we’re interested in forging a future of abundance, then we’re going to need flow.”
I’ve been taking my twin grandchildren to an indoor playground, The Eagle’s Nest at the New Brighton Community Center. Mona and Jasper are three years old, in the early stages of prefrontal cortex development, which is not complete until the mid-20s. The world is still new to them, and it’s easy to find challenges that exceed their skills.
The Eagle’s Nest is a flow factory—a collection of slides, ladders, and kid-sized hamster tunnels, ringing with childish cacophony.
The twins quickly disappear into the maze, but you can eventually find them at the Web Tower Challenge, a 23-foot tower over a fat, inflated safety cushion.
Seven webs of straps strung from the perimeter give kids a way of climbing to the top, and slows them as they dive back down. This is Jasper’s meat. His first time in the Web Tower, he couldn’t get to the first level.
The trick is that the top straps have less give than the ones that cross under them. He eventually figured that out and got to the third level, but then froze, crying. There’s a floor there, and another way up, scaled for small bodies. I wormed up it to Jasper and held him on my lap. Mona popped up through the hole I’d come through.
The first time I saw the twins, weighing three pounds apiece and hooked up to monitors and tubes that fed them and kept them breathing, I knew which was which. Jasper is lean and muscular; Mona had hips before she reached normal birth weight. Mona is flirtatious and keeps track of what everybody’s doing. Jasper does only what he wants and doesn’t say much, despite having the larger vocabulary. As their father told me in their first year, “Mona figures things out. Jasper finds things out.”
Abruptly, Jasper got back in the tower and slid down. That solved the problem of rescuing two babies. Mona said, “I want to look at the blue, puffy things”—padded rods that dangle at the top level. Without thinking, I agreed and lifted her onto the next layer of straps.
Mona wrapped her arms around the straps. I got my arms and head up to Mona’s level, then grabbed the straps above her. This let me pull up to sit next to her, and hoist her to the next level. Mona briefly examined the blue puffy things, and I realized I’d had a taste of flow.
It occurred to me that night that it was irresponsible to have carried Mona up the tower. If I fell, it could have been onto somebody a quarter of my body weight.
Of course, you shut down your moral center in flow. No doubt members of the Schutzstaffel operated in flow, and then used performance to validate moral error. So be sure you know what you’re doing before you pull the trigger.