Flow: Introduction

My First Experience with Flow

I was playing pinball. The ball was slowly rolling down my flippers. (If you do not know pinball, do not worry; the details of pinball are unimportant. But if you want to know, the flippers are like little baseball bats down at the bottom of the pinball machine. You press a button at the side of the machine and the arms quickly swing foward, hitting the pinball to the top of the machine.)

Normally, before that day, I would first consciously calculate what target I wanted to try to hit. Then I would consciously calculate when I should flip the flippers to try to hit that target. I couldn't imagine doing anything different.

That day was different. I wasn't doing any conscious calculations. Instead, my consciousness was just listening for urges. So I didn't consciously think about what target I wanted to aim at. Not even having a consciously-chosen target, of course I could not calculate when I should flip my flippers. Instead, I just waited for my urge, then I flipped my flippers.

It was amazing! The ball would go shooting up the machine and hit a distant target with amazing accuracy. Normally, I wouldn't even have aimed at that target -- it was too far away, it was too small, and there was too much dead space around it. That day, my flipping was far better than it ever had been, even though I throwing away all of the "benefits" of conscious thought and instead just following my urges.

In pinball, you control the ball also by bumping the machine. A beginner doesn't bump the machine; experienced pinball players usually bump the pinball machine as often and as forcefully as they can. Before that day, I was constantly bumping the machine. I would try to consciously calculate where I wanted the ball to go and how hard to bump the machine to get it to go there.

That day, I used the very curious strategy of bumping the machine with the least force necessary. And I kept repeating to myself "the least force necessary, the least force necessary, the least force necessary..." Meanwhile, I again was not using any conscious calculations. Again, I was just listening for urges and following them.

Before that day, I thought I was a good pinball player. I thought I was playing to the best of my ability. I thought it was important to use my conscious knowledge. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That day I played far better pinball than I had ever played in my life. My unconscious, as it turned out, was a pinball wizard. In pinball, you win "free games" when you play well. I was winning far more free games than I needed. I remember at one point looking up, seeing all the free games I had won, and just laughing at how well I was doing.

I was very rigorous about only acting when I felt the urge. A few times, the ball came to my flipper, I felt no urge to flip, and the ball just bounced off my flipper. Before that day I would never have used that strategy. To me, hitting the ball with the flippers is a chance to make the ball go to a good location. Why pass up that chance? But I didn't have an urge to flip the flippers, so I didn't. Nothing bad ever happened.

Or, normally, when there is any danger that the ball will go to a bad place and be "lost", I would bump the machine. That day, occasionally the ball would balance on a peak. If it fell left, I had an excellent opportunity to hit it with my flippers; if it went right, it would be lost. It seemed, by my conscious calculations, foolish not to bump the machine. But I had no urge, so I just watched the ball to see which way it would roll. It always went in the safe direction.

The point of the lesson was not lost on me. From that day on, I tried to let my unconscious be in charge whenever I played pinball, and I tried to stop my consciousness from taking charge. That wasn't easy and I didn't always succeed. But whenever I did, I was a very good pinball player. And it wasn't just pinball. My unconscious was a much better at raquetball, volleyball, etc.


Sometime in the early 80's, around ten years after my pinball enlightenment, I stumbled on a journal article by a researcher named Csikszentmihalyi. He asked people to describe their experiences when they were being most effective at performing sports, arts, and crafts. Many described a state which Csikszentmihalyi decided to called flow. (This name comes from the phrase 'go with the flow'.)

Csikszentmihalyi provided a lengthy description of the flow experience, but the most important and interesting aspect of this experience was effective action accompanied by little to no conscious thought. Consciousness must attend to the flow experience -- you can't be daydreaming about something else while you flow. But consciousness doesn't do anything. Obviously, this was my pinball experience (and my vacationing experience, described in Chapter 6).

Csikszentmihalyi went on to write books about flow and become fairly famous. Csikszentmihalyi wasn't the first person to describe flow. That honor, as far as I know, goes to Chuang Tzu, writing in the fourth century B.C. But Csikszentmihalyi has by far the most extensive description of flow, and he was the first to connect flow with enjoyment. So I think of Csikszentmihalyi as the father of flow, and I strongly recommend reading one his books on flow.

Other Reports of Flow

About the time I had my pinball experience, I read a similar account in a book called Powers of Mind, by Adam Smith. He talked about learning to let the mysterious "It" serve at tennis. He reports the amazing ability of the It. Adam Smith had trouble recreating his experience with the It. Of course, he did not know about his Inferential System or how to tap into it. I will tell you how to flow so that you can flow whenever you want, though it does take some practice to learn how to get your consciousness out of the way.

The term "It" comes from a book by Herrigel called Zen in the Art of Archery. Instead of conscious thought, the It shoots the arrow. Herrigel describes the amazing effectiveness of the It in archery and swordfighting, and it mentions its use in crafts like flower arranging. His book is an excellent source of the description of flow.

There are a number of reports by professional athletes of something like flow. Yogi Berra said "How can you think and hit at the same time?" and the judo expert Robert Linssen said "He who thinks is immediately thrown." (Winokur, 1990). Joe Montano said, "If I ever stopped to think about what happens after the ball hits my hands, it might screw up the whole process." (Ferris, 199x) At a tennis clinic, the less-talented tennis experts could explain their form and strategy. The very best tennis players, though, just said that they did it (Carlson, 1998). Allegedly the Dallas Cowboys attributed their success one year to flowing.

Basketball players sometimes have a dunking contest. In this, they dribble up to the basket and then dunk the basketball any way they want. The goal is to do this in a difficult way, yet still be graceful and creative. You would think that the basketball player would decide in advance what movements to make. However, apparently Michael Jordan (who is undoubtably one of the greatest basketball players of all time) did not decide in advance what he would do. That sounds like flowing to me.

There is no widespread report of flow by professional athletes. Maybe they just don't notice. There usually isn't much to describe about the flow experience, so maybe they just don't report it. Or maybe many of them do not flow. But they would perform better if they did -- according to Csikszentmihalyi's research, the athletes are flowing when they are performing at their best.