Finding flow: the alignment of challenge and capacity

My taekwondo instructor, Master Hakan from the Australian Martial Arts Academy talked about flow in a Zoom class this week. He’d just taken us through a strenuous warm-up, exercise after exercise, pushing us hard. As we were catching our breath, he talked about that state which sits between the mental and the physical, where our engagement with our task is so complete that we forget time. It’s a state which others might know as being ‘in the zone’.

American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi articulates the concept in his classic book, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, first published in 1990. He says, ‘The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding…. It provide[s] a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality’ (2002: 67).

Part of the deal, of course, is that it takes work and this was Master Hakan’s point. A state of flow emerges when we’ve put in the effort and are pushing our capacity to the limit. We see our kicks become more defined and accurate, can hold our balance for longer and our stamina surprises us.

The elements of flow, of indeed happiness, are ‘clarity of goals, feedback, feeling of control, concentration on the task at hand, intrinsic motivation, and challenge’ (89). Understanding this changed my life. When I read Flow in 2013, I saw that a few things had gone missing. But I knew where to find them.

I recognised that feeling when I worked with words: writing, editing, creating meaning in text. I became absorbed in my task. I drew on my strengths, extended myself, and found the work intrinsically satisfying. I changed my career, gained a second Masters degree, and set up my own business.

This is also my martial arts journey in a nutshell. We start as white belts and as we learn more and more difficult techniques, we are challenged to go longer, harder, higher. But that sense of optimal experience which Csikszentmihalyi describes can just as easily come from a perfectly executed white belt foundation kick. You can see and feel your mastery; the feedback is immediate.

This morning, I felt lighter and stronger, with energy to spare … With a hot shower, breakfast and work to get on with I didn’t keep going, but it was nice to feel I could have! As I sit here now, I am still alive with sensation. Yes, it’s partly endorphins but it’s more than the physical. Flow changes you: ‘[After] each episode of flow, a person becomes more of a unique individual, less predictable, possessed of rarer skills.’ (41). And this is the extraordinary compounding effect that allows us to improve, to keep on.

Finding the balance between challenge and capacity, finding your flow, is the biggest game-changer of all because, ultimately, it is the source of our happiness.