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Flow State Vs Skills

We all have experienced that mental state when we’re so immersed in a task that we lose track of time. A never-ending source of energy just flowing through our mind and body. No hunger. No tiredness. Just fully engaged in whatever that is we’re doing. 

The easiest way to experience this flow state is through sports. If you’ve ever played any sports, you would know what I’m talking about. For me, being in the flow state means - doing instead of thinking. Other people call it getting out of your head, being present in the moment and so on. It’s also the time when we perform our best. 

But there is a big difference between performing your best and winning or getting the desired outcome. Just because you’re performing your best doesn’t necessarily mean it’s enough to get you what you want. Think of it like this - Lebron James, on his worst day, will still beat you on your best day. Do you know why? Because he has better SKILLS. 

And that’s the missing part of the equation. 

The Problems of Pursuing the Flow State

There is enough scientific evidence to support that the flow state is indeed a real phenomenon. The concept of flow has been there for a long time, but one can argue that it was popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi with his book, Flow, published in 1990. 

In his book, Csikszentmihalyi explores the idea of what makes us truly happy. Roughly speaking, he concludes that happiness is not a destination where we arrive or an item that we get. Instead, it’s a mental state. And the best way to sustain this mental state is through flow. 

Now the problem arises when people use the flow state as a crutch. As we established before, being in flow doesn’t mean you’ll get what you want. It just means you’re performing at your optimal level. But even if we put that argument aside for a second, there is another problem at hand.

As I said before, flow is when you’re doing instead of thinking. It’s when you’re out of your head and present in the moment. So by definition, if you think about getting in flow, you’ll never get it. Hence, pursuing being in flow is actually a counterintuitive approach to get there.  

So, what now?

The Science of Skills

What are skills? According to the dictionary, it’s the learned ability to do something. Think of walking. Walking is the learned ability to put one foot in front of the other while balancing your body to get yourself from one place to another. 

It sounds absurd and stupid explaining what walking is, but that’s really what it is. It’s like any other skill that you learned through many trials and errors. You’re not walking because you’re in the flow state. You’re walking because it’s a skill you learned and mastered over the years. 

Now, let’s take the same example of why Lebron James, at his worst day, will still be better than you, at your best day. It’s because he is far more skilled than you, which he learned through years of practice and trials and errors. That’s why even his worst is better than your best. 

But here comes the interesting part - pursuing the flow state will not get you in flow. But paradoxically, when you’re not worried about getting in flow and focused only on your skills, on what you’re DOING in the moment, that is when you’ll actually get in flow. 

What Should you Rely on: Flow Vs Skills?

Skills.

And that is not to say that the flow state isn’t real or isn’t helpful. It’s definitely a great tool in your arsenal to unlock your full potential and have a richer experience in whatever you’re doing. 

But you can’t rely on it for reasons that we just discussed. On top of that, if winning or getting what you want is more important for you than to just have a “good time”, you better focus on your skills. In the real world, nobody really cares if you did your best. In the real world, there are actions, and there are consequences.

That said, here is a model that you can actually rely on to work on your skills and hit the flow state almost every time you’re doing something. But keep in mind, you have to let go of the need to be in flow - 

Pursue a challenge that is appropriately difficult based on your current skill level. If it’s too hard, you’ll get demotivated and give up. If it’s too easy, you'll get bored and give up. But if it’s a challenge you know you can take on, that is where you’ll see exponential growth.

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