His surfing is effortless, almost as if the surfing itself is doing it for him. He feels like a passenger just along to enjoy the ride. He paddles back to the line-up after each wave without the slightest effort, feeling like he could go on catching waves forever. He is living in the moment, enjoying surfing for its own sake. Nothing exists apart from himself and the waves and maybe the wind or the odd seagull. All that stuff he was doing earlier that morning seems like something in the distant past, almost from another life.
Have you ever been so deep in concentration, your world reduced right down to what you see and feel in your immediate surroundings. Nothing exists apart from you and your task at hand? You are living for the present; the past and the future are insignificant?
Dr. Tony Butt in his article The Cleanest Line: Flow using a surfing analogy describes what psychologists call Flow or Optimum Experience. He says, “Flow is an elusive state of mind which gives us great satisfaction and which is normally very healthy for us. Probably, the people who are in a state of Flow more than anybody else are children. As we get older and grow up in a superficial modern society our minds become cluttered and chaotic, and we become less able to get into that Flow state. In fact, most people probably don’t even know that Flow is possible. But if you surf, climb or do any other activity that puts us a little closer to Nature (see my article Dancing with Nature) and, especially if you like big waves or slightly more radical situations, you will be familiar with Flow.”
The challenge for the Sales Professional is to get into a state of Flow at every client engagement opportunity. Given that emotions are contagious (Are Your Emotions Contagious? | The Edge), the content of your discussion, probing, challenging, or persuasion is likely to have a profound and lasting impact.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience describes Flow as a “state of optimal experience, a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” He adds: “Optimal Experience depends on the ability to control what happens in Consciousness moment by moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts and creativity.”
Csikszentmihalyi started off by realizing that people found it easier to enter a Flow state from a particular activity if their motivation was the intrinsic quality of the experience itself rather than the prospect of a future outcome. He then started finding out that people generally got into Flow more often from activities that were challenging or risky rather than passive and easy. He also noticed that certain people – those with so-called autotelic personalities – were able to get into Flow more easily than others.
He says that t is useful to recognise a Flow experience when it comes along. Of course, you won’t actually be able to recognise it as it is happening, because, if you do, you’ll immediately cease to be in Flow. But there is nothing stopping you thinking back and remembering the times when you were in Flow, which should help if you want to have more of those experiences.
Time distortion: You completely fail to record the length of time you have been doing something. Your own perception of time varies according to what you are doing and doesn’t seem to bear any resemblance to ‘clock-time’. Usually, time goes quicker than it should – hours pass by as if they were minutes. But the opposite can occur as well. Time can seem to expand, with things that lasted less than a second sticking in your memory as if they lasted for several minutes, every subtle detail carefully remembered.
Total concentration: Your entire mind is so focused on what you are doing that you can’t fit anything else into it. As you become more focused, the task at hand takes up a progressively larger proportion of your brain power, which means that other things start to fall by the wayside. Registering the passage of time is probably one of the first things to go, but then as you become more focused you start to forget about that any other inconsequential sensory input. Eventually you won’t even have enough room for conscious thought. You’ll be truly running on autopilot.
Hyper-alertness: If all your conscious effort is focused on the task at hand, your senses will be working overtime to suck in as much stimulus as possible from your local surroundings.
Loss of self-consciousness: If you are lucky enough to really get into a total Flow situation, the whole thing will become a strange out-of-the-body experience. Your mind and body will merge into one and you will feel like the whole activity is running itself and you are just a spectator. Paradoxically, you will still feel like you are in total control of the situation.
It is good to be able to recognize Flow situation from the past, but if you want to repeat the experience you’ll need to know the circumstances most likely to lead you into Flow.
Challenge-skill balance: You will have more chance of reaching Flow if the difficulty of the situation is matching your level of competence. The best situation is if you are just on that upper edge, where you are pushing your own limits. The trick is not too set the challenge too high, otherwise the stress will interfere with your Flow. But not to make things too easy either, otherwise you’ll start to get bored and distracted. It doesn’t matter what level you are at; what matters is the level of challenge relative to your own level of competence.
In radical situations the dimension of fear also comes into play. You are more likely to get into Flow if you are operating on or just a touch beyond your own fear threshold. But if things are a bit beyond you, your worries about failing will make you nervous and interfere with your concentration, stopping you reaching Flow.
“It doesn’t so much matter what we fear of where our edge is, but rather where we operate in relation to it. We truly feel the Stoke when we operate at or just beyond our fear threshold” – Paddy Upton, South African cricket coach and psychologist (from an article in The Bomb Surf, 2010).
Well-defined goals: One thing that helps you reach Flow is being really clear about what you want to achieve. Again, it all depends on setting those goals at just the right level relative to your own competence. Having well-defined goals and setting the bar just right enables you to get immediate and clear feedback, which then enables you to re-set the bar for the next time, and so on.
An end in itself: This is probably the most important one. As you get into Flow, you will get more and more absorbed in the activity and everything external will begin to disappear from your mind. But sometimes you have to help the process along. As Butt says, “If your motivation for, say, surfing big waves is merely to enjoy the surfing itself, you’ll probably achieve Flow; but if your motivation is some external goal such as winning a prize or getting your photo in a magazine, you probably won’t.” As soon as you start thinking about things beyond the here and now, you immediately make it impossible to concentrate 100 per cent. If your motivation is some extrinsic goal you’ll be sabotaging your potential Flow experience before you even begin.
“When experience is intrinsically rewarding, life is justified in the present, instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future gain” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Happiness is a circuitous path that begins with achieving control over the content of our consciousness, according to Csikszentmihalyi. Our perception of our lives are the outcome of many forces that shape experience, each having an impact on how we think and feel. Many if not most of these factors are beyond our control. Yet, we have all experienced times when we do feel totally in control of our actions, masters of our destiny. On the rare occasions that this happens, ” we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.” This is what is meant by Optimal Experience or Flow. Flow depends on the ability to control what happens in consciousness moment by moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts and creativity.
Do you get into Flow when engaging in business-to-business context? Does this drive the profound and lasting impact you have on your clients, which in turns leads to sustainable business?