Chasing Flow

I hadn’t heard of “flow” the first time I felt it. In the churning time of my last career shift, I spent some time thinking I would become a graphic designer. I would spend hours designing t-shirts for my own small business. I clearly remember how addictive it was. When I had a design I was working on, I didn’t want to do anything else. It almost felt as though I couldn’t do anything else.

I didn’t learn what that feeling was until years later. I was listening to a podcast discussing the principle of flow, and I was immediately transported back to my days as an aspiring graphic designer. I could feel it. More striking at that time was the realization that I hadn’t felt flow since then. Instead of becoming a graphic designer, I went to law school. I actually hadn’t thought of this until now, but I didn’t experience one millisecond of flow either in law school or during practice. That’s not to say it’s impossible to get there practicing law, but it doesn’t seem to be possible for me, and at this point I don’t care to analyze why.

Last fall, I found flow again while I was writing and this time I was not going to let it get away. This awareness is one I only have in hindsight–I didn’t see at the time that I was chasing flow. All I knew was that I wanted to feel that way every day as much as possible and that I didn’t feel that way at work ever. For me, the ingredients to achieve flow are relatively simple: I need to have the opportunity to focus deeply without distraction and I need a problem to solve (or a creative idea to execute) that is complex enough to require substantial attention but within my accessible skill set. Recently, I’ve found glimmers of flow doing my trigonometry homework, which is thrilling for someone who previously self-identified as “bad at math.” I haven’t experienced it yet with coding, but my skills there are still quite shallow. I can feel it at the tips of my fingers and it keeps me motivated to do my homework. Programming has all the necessary ingredients, and you can even get paid to do it. How exciting is that?

Are you familiar with flow states? Have you felt it? What gets you there? The video below has a good high-level explanation of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow.