Enabling Genius: How to Tap Into Flow States and Unlock Your Limitless Potential
BY MYLES DOWNEY
we all have the ability to express genius and for most of us, that process involves learning how to tap into flow states consistently. photo: jock+sott photocase.com/em>
Getting into Flow
A further aspect of developing and expressing your genius is to increase your skill at getting into a flow state [editor’s note: flow states, widely popularized by researcher mihaly csikszentmihalyi, are states of heightened mental and intuitive awareness, creativity and performance characterized by the slowing of time, intense focus in the present moment and superhuman intelligence or physical ability, depending on the situation]. Getting into flow, or Gallwey’s Self Two, is not something that can be bottled and sold with a guarantee of satisfaction for every occasion.
Flow also has a broader impact in enabling your genius. Irena O’Brien writes:
“Flow, by definition, implies a growth principle. One of the conditions of flow is a balance between the demands of the task and the individual’s skill level. Usually, this means that the work should be somewhat challenging. Flow is rewarding and motivates people to engage in the activity again and again and to seek increasing levels of challenge, thereby improving their skills and abilities.”
Planning and Preparation for Flow
Because the experience of flow can be so profound many people think that getting into a state of flow is a matter of chance—or a gift—and so don’t do the work that makes it more likely. Just pitch up on the day and it will not happen. Most people I know who are expert performers plan, some with an almost obsessive zeal, for the flow state. Nothing is too small to be looked at, planned for—equipment, approach, clarity of intent and outcome, seating arrangements. In addition to the more obvious planning they often will be mentally rehearsing a few days beforehand visualizing specific situations or techniques, rehearsing key sentences. Irena O’Brien, in her article in the in-depth section, “The science of Flow”, refers to three “antecedents” of a flow state, prerequisites if you like:
1. The goals are clear, but to be overly concerned with the goal can interfere with performance.
2. Feedback is immediate—knowing how well one is doing provided by the task itself or by supervisors or co-workers
3. There is a balance between skill and challenge—the optimal amount of challenge is subjective—what is challenging for one may be easy for the other.
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+ Is the activity an expression of you Unique Individual Genius or one of your sub-geniuses? If not, is it worth identifying the unique sub-genius for this activity? If it is, how will it impact the goals you set and your approach?
+ Understand the inherent meaning in the task. What is the broader purpose in doing this?
+ Identify clear performance and learning goals for the task or activity. Try to make the performance goals sufficiently challenging to engage your interest but not so challenging or boring as to cause distraction.
+ Identify your approach to the task or activity.
+ Within your approach is there anything, a skill or an element of your strategy, that you need to practise deliberately to improve it?
+ How are you going to rehearse?
+ Finally, a key part of planning for a state of flow is to identify any possible interferences and to find means for eliminating or reducing them.
I plan my writing activity to increase the possibility of a flow state—some days it happens and some it does not but I am getting better at it. My writing genius is a “seanachi”, an Irish word meaning storyteller—I try to find the story in what I want to communicate. This means identifying the basic building blocks and putting them together in a logical order so that the reader’s understanding is built up, layer upon layer. It happens that I enjoy the poetry of W. B. Yeats for the rhythm in the language so this, and a capacity to make distinctions, is what I want my seanachi to look and sound like in written words. Deliberate practice takes the form of “free writing” with a pencil on paper, writing anything that comes to mind and getting a sort of “flow of words” moving within me. To practise making distinctions I identify something, usually a concept or an idea, and ask myself repeatedly “What is it?” and “What is it not?”
The inherent meaning in the task is most often associated with my desire to help others find their autonomy or authority and to live their lives from that source.
As I prepare for a specific writing task, or any activity that may engender a flow state, I will remind myself of the elements mentioned above and then get clear about the specific intent in the piece I am to write—what I want the reader to be thinking and feeling or, perhaps, asking at the end. I will set an objective which is usually to complete a section rather than a number of words. Then I turn off my phone and my email.
Craig W. from the perspective of a tennis coach, one of his many roles, writes:
“The champion is defined by someone who goes the extra mile, who has something that extra little bit special. They understand deeply that 100% perfection may not exist, yet they are nevertheless mindfully absorbed in a relentless quest for perfection to get as close to the 100% flow state as is humanly possible. Equally they understand that it may not be realistic to be ‘in the zone’ all the time, but they can certainly increase their chances of time spent in the zone by doing a number of factors:
+ They do the basics extremely well: ordinary things consistently done, create extraordinary results.
+ They know what they need, and have routines and teams that support and empower their performance
+ They are true to themselves, they are not using excess energy constantly trying to prop up their identity and be someone else.
+ They are energy efficient; they understand that the person with the most energy wins the game.
+ To this end they are Coherent: they have a strong order of alignment in their daily living: their clothes, their choices, their team that supports them: all fully and powerfully aligned (boat & vessel): look at the unity and power of the Djokovic camp or Murray team.”
In my opinion a true Champion operates from a space of relaxed concentration and non-judgemental awareness. That is to say, they detach themselves from the good and the bad, rather they are able to move beyond this into a noticing, a witnessing of their own performance. Note well, that whilst this implies the bad shots are ‘not you’ hence not to be discouraged by (it’s all part of an unfolding process), it also implies the “good shots” are equally “not you”. To truly get this requires great humility and poise, but I believe empowers the greatest likelihood of pure flow state showing up on the court.
Exercise: Following Interest
As an inner game coach one of the techniques I might use to help someone get into a flow state is called “following interest”. If I am with someone at the golf range a conversation might go a bit like this:
Me: Hit a few balls and then tell me what you notice.
Golfer: My swing feels a bit jerky.
Me: Hit some more and tell what you notice this time
Golfer: My hips are turning
Me: Hit some more and tell me what you notice.
This sequence of questions and answer would happen three or four times and then:
Me: You have mentioned the jerky swing, your hips turning and some discomfort in your shoulders. Hit a few more balls and tell me which of those three things is most interesting.
Golfer: The turning in my hips.
Me: Hit a few more and tell me what you notice about the turning in your hips.
Golfer: Sometimes there’s quite a lot of movement and others there’s almost none.
Me: OK. Tell me for each shot you take how much turning there is. Use a scale of one to five, one is almost no turning, five is a lot.
Me: Next ball.
At this point the golfer is almost certainly focused and in a flow state or self two. As an inner game coach I know that the golfer’s innate capacity to learn will now kick-in. My job as the coach is to get the player into the state of flow. I do that by establishing what is being noticed, what is interesting, and then getting the player to select the thing that stands out the most. I am not directing their attention but simply following where their attention is drawn. You might notice that this process of entering the flow state as described above with the golf lesson is also the process that helps the learner access his or her innate capacity to learn. This is the process of learning through awareness.
I think of this as a sort of continuum of attention. The first stage is “unconscious awareness”: things are happening and you can be aware of them or unaware but you are not consciously paying attention to them. As we move across the continuum there is “noticing”; this is where you become conscious of what is in your field of attention, either as a function of choice or because the object is in itself compelling. Then there is “focused attention”, where your attention is fixed on the object and there is little or no room in your attention for anything else, a key piece of most flow states. Sometimes this can deepen into a state of flow or absorption—all your attention is with the object and it can feel that observer and object are one.
Exercise: The Continuum of Attention
Unconscious Awareness >> Noticing >> Focused Attention >> Absorption
One way into the state of flow is to start to notice what’s happening. This can be in almost anything; a meeting, a discussion, a problem, a game. Then ask yourself what’s most interesting or, sometimes an easier question to ask is, “What stands out?” and try to bring your attention to whatever that is. Then you ask yourself what is most interesting about the focus. Attention deepens; the flow state. In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goldman writes:
“There are several doorways to flow. One may open when we tackle a task that challenges our abilities to the maximum—a ‘just manageable’ demand on our skills. Another entryway can come via doing what we are passionate about; motivation sometimes drives us into flow. But either way the final common pathway is full focus. No matter how you get there, a keen focus jump-starts flow.”
As I have said, getting into the state of flow is a skill that can be developed and you can learn how to achieve flow states. In his book on Psychosynthesis, What We May Be, Piero Ferrucci, a student of Assagioli, describes many exercises to develop your ability to focus, which is a key element, such as these:
“Close your eyes and visualize the following:
A pen slowly writing your name on paper.
A single digit number. The substitute a two-digit one, then a three-digit one and so on until you reach the limit of the number of digits you can retain. Keep that number in front of your inner eye for two minutes.
Various coloured shapes: a golden triangle, a violet circle, a blue five-pointed star, and so on.”
Which brings me to mindfulness. I am not sure why I have such a strong objection to this word—not the practice, mind you. The word sounds to me like “Buddhism lite”. And anyway I want my mind to be more empty, not full. “Full” is killing me as I try to write here in my office in West London: train, planes, fire-engine sirens, police car sirens, construction work, diary commitments. Rant over! Mindfulness, according to Wikipedia “is the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment, which can be trained by meditational practices that are described in detail in the Buddhist tradition.” As a mean of developing one’s capacity to focus and achieve a flow state, it is excellent. There are courses everywhere, even on-line.
A while back, while thinking about this book and the possible contents I got to thinking not about how to achieve a flow state, but about the nature of intelligence and I noticed a kind of wrinkle in my thinking, something that did not stack-up, a received prejudice perhaps. This was the idea that some people have intelligence—and others do not. For some reason this one did not get the scrutiny it deserved. That the few are the inheritors of intelligence is an idea that is, in large part, perpetuated by the education system and by the unequal distribution of wealth. The ability to pay for an education or the good fortune to be selected for a great school, such as the British Grammar Schools of the past that then lead to “Oxbridge” or a good university, produces people that we might think of as intelligent. Again, as with flow and flow states and so many things in this book, it’s the process. The process here is the learning experiences provided by the schools and universities. I have been thinking of this as “the intelligence trick” (to borrow from the title of Baggini’s book The Ego Trick).
There are two parts to the trick. The first, one we have perpetrated on ourselves, to our own detriment, is that we have either been tricked, or tricked ourselves, into thinking that intelligence is a given, fixed quotient—some have it and some don’t. The second part is to suggest that intelligence is in some large part a trick. A technique. Something that can be learned. The word intelligence itself provides a clue as to how to get started in developing intelligence: the Latin roots of the word are inter (between) and legere (to choose): to choose between—a big part of intelligence is the ability to make a distinction between one thing and another. And, just like how to achieve a flow state, that is something that can be learned and practised.
The numbers of people that I have met who think they are not intelligent is huge. In most cases it is not about some missing mental “horsepower” it is simply that they have not learned how to think. I studied architecture at Bolton Street College of Technology and the unexpected bonus was a development of my thinking ability. The process of developing a concept from a sketch to a detailed set of working drawings forced the students to resolve often conflicting aesthetic and functional or technical problems and the best way to do this was with a pencil and paper, drawing from different angles. In the process of doing this one is forced into a state of flow, absorption and focus, the surrounding world disappears and insight comes without effort. A further aspect of thinking is that we often do not trust our thinking—we create interference, preventing us from expressing genius and tapping into a flow state. We want to know what someone else thinks, a teacher or a boss or simply continually second guess ourselves. I recall, many years ago being stuck in a complex business situation without any idea about what to do and I thought, “I’ll ring my father.” A complete sell-out on my own capacity to think and nonsensical because my father would have had no idea what to do and was no longer alive.
Genius thinking is thinking in flow, in self two. Because fear and doubt are (mostly) eliminated, because there is less interference, there is greater clarity of thought in the flow state. It is more intuitive and creative—when intuition or creativity is required. Genius thinking is more than cold logic, but it is that too. It embraces and acknowledges feeling, imagination and desire. What follows are four ideas that help induce genius thinking: the idea that thinking unfolds, the importance of simply noticing; how to focus your thinking and three positions from which to view a situation.
Some years back I was flying into Austin, Texas and was looking out the window as the plane started its descent. I had been thinking about thinking and how it works, my mind slightly adrift after a long flight. I noticed the Colorado River below taking long sweeping, flowing turns to the left and right as it made its way towards Austin and then on to the Gulf of Mexico. I was thinking, like some kind of demented engineer, about the huge waste of time and energy lost in the large meanderings of the river and that it would be far better to build a canal, straight from source to sea.
Something was knocking at the doors of my consciousness. And I kept on thinking—it dawned on me that the river was in fact following a straight line, just not one that was obvious from thirty thousand feet. At ground level, if you could get far enough away to see it, you would notice that the river flowed in a pretty straight line from high to low. And you might also think that it was following the path of least resistance as it flowed around rock and higher ground rather than trying to plough straight through. Almost as if the water had its own logic and was in its own flow state—one that would make Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proud.
The knocking grew more persistent. What if our capacity to think had its own internal logic? What if thinking unfolds? Maybe we could trust our thinking, trust the process, the unfolding.
My thoughts then turned to a dear friend of mine who has struggled with depression most of her life. Every now and then she would seek help, both medical intervention and “talking therapies”. With the latter I noticed a pattern: the first two or three sessions would be productive and useful but, by the third or fourth, the value and the enthusiasm would start to diminish. I had put this down to resistance on my friend’s part, unfairly. I began to see what was happening; here’s my hypothesis: in the early sessions the therapist or counselor had to listen—he or she did not know the client! Value would accrue as my friend told her story, meandering as necessary, allowing her thinking to unfold. The process of thinking and talking has its own internal logic. Come the third or fourth session the therapist would have formed an opinion, taken a position and begun to propose a way forward, no longer listening, no longer in a state of flow. Let’s build a canal. At which point the thinking can no longer unfold.
Tapping into genius (and flow states) requires that we trust our thinking and this means allowing it to unfold. It is by this means that we maintain the process of construing.
The Fine Art of Noticing
Noticing is the “not trying” of thinking. Trying is a big interference. Trying in the state of flow and physical activities almost always induces tension and stiffness, which will lead to a performance that is inefficient, inaccurate and inelegant. Trying to think, I discovered at school, involves frowning, pulling your eyebrows towards each other and holding the pencil ever more tightly. Trying to write a poem seldom works. Rather you set free your imagination and let the words flow. Trying acts as a magnet for fear and doubt and thus brings evermore interference into the mind. Again, noticing is the “not trying” of thinking. The trouble is that, having noticed, our minds flip immediately into judgment, criticism, problem solving or looking for an angle through which we might benefit. This takes us out of the flow state. We don’t rest with the simple act of noticing. As a consequence we decide and act without all the information. Through resting with noticing we can inhibit the knee-jerk response, we can take the time to check out our feelings or put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Noticing allows for greater objectivity, more distance.
Floodlight and Spotlight
There are a number of means of managing one’s thinking. One is called “floodlight and spotlight”. Floodlight comes first. Floodlighting sheds light on the whole territory and into every nook and cranny. It includes what one notices, what one thinks about, what one intuits, imagines, feels and desires. Floodlight is followed by the spotlight which is “What stands out the most from everything?” “What is most interesting?” A question that Cliff Kimber, mentioned earlier, asks frequently is: “What do you need to think clearly about?” Spotlight. If I can find the answer I am half way to resolution or insight. An example of using floodlight/spotlight occurred in developing the material for this book. When faced with the problem of simplifying the material for this book I created a mind-map on a sheet of paper that completely covered my desk and, on a Tuesday morning, I began to note down all the things that came to mind. I then went through all my notes and then all the notes that my colleagues had created. I added all this to the mind-map. I had it in my head that I wanted, and would receive, clarity or insight (sometimes sparked by my own entry into a flow state) by Wednesday evening. I went about various other projects, coming back occasionally to the mind-map. I started to highlight certain things and to link things together. At 5:20 on the Wednesday I saw something, a glimmer of an idea. The four Pillars of Genius emerged. Thinking unfolds and unfolds most elegantly in a state of flow, when you are not trying.
Three Position of Genius
I was introduced to this concept a long time before I conceived of the enabling genius project by a former colleague with the words: “Geniuses have been shown to have the capacity to see the world from three different perspectives—the three positions of genius”. I subsequently tracked this down to some work by Judith DeLozier and John Grindler who, with Richard Bandler, were early developers of the Neurolinguistic Programming model (NLP). NLP is an approach to communication, personal development and psychotherapy developed in the United States in the 1970’s. My colleague drew a sketch of a tennis court with a small circle at one end of the court with the number “1” in it and said that position one was that of the player engaged in the game, the experience, concerned with one’s own thoughts, feelings and activities. He then drew another circle on the other end of the court with a “2” in it. He invited me to imagine that as the player, when the point was over, I could imagine looking at the situation from my opponent’s point of view—I could stand in their shoes and imagine what they must be experiencing, thinking and feeling. This is Position Two. From this position I might gather information about how to adjust my strategy. Finally he drew a circle with a “3” in it at the side of the court where the umpire’s chair is. The umpire’s chair in much taller than a normal chair affording a good view of the whole court, the players and the surroundings. Position Three is to imagine oneself in the umpire’s chair to gain an overview, to get some distance and objectivity. You might now imagine yourself in a difficult meeting such as a negotiation and being in position one concerned about your aims and needs in the situation. You might then put yourself in the shoes of your opposite number and ask yourself: “What are their needs and aims, how are they feeling right now?” Then you might imagine yourself as a “fly on the wall” and ask yourself “What’s the dynamic here?” “How is the relationship between the key players?” These questions will almost certainly produce new information—and often times flow states as well—allowing you to manage the meeting more effectively. This process becomes even more powerful when you combine noticing and the floodlight/spotlight technique with the three positions of genius.
As I stated at the beginning it is not the intention to cover all, or even the larger part of what it takes to enable genius yourself but rather to bring to attention some really key things: developing autonomy, how to achieve flow state, and genius thinking. These three combined with the pillars of genius—identity; desire; mental state and mindset are, I believe, a firm foundation for genius.
This article on unlocking genius and flow states is excerpted with permission from Enabling Genius: A Mindset for Success in the 21st Century by Myles Downey.
About The Author
Myles Downey is a writer, speaker, consultant, innovator and is widely regarded as one of the leading coaches in Europe. For over 30 years he has coached senior executives and leadership teams in some of the most prestigious organisations, enabling them to deliver extraordinary goals. In 1996, Myles founded The School of Coaching to bring his coaching expertise in developing excellence to a wider global audience. He also created the first and only online coaching system, Enable, which extends high quality coaching to the many, flexibly and affordably. His book ‘Effective Coaching’ sold 30,000 copies and was considered a seminal work on coaching. This was followed by ‘Effective Modern Coaching’ in 2014. Between both books some 65,000 copies have been sold. From 2013 to 2015 he led the international Enabling Genius Research Project resulting in the publication of Enabling Genius—a mindset for success in the 21st Century. Myles is contactable at enquiries[at]mylesdowney.com Visit his website: mylesdowney.com