challenge vs skill

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Proposed by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields including sports, arts, and science. Popular terms for this or similar mental states include: ‘to be in the moment,’ ‘present,’ ‘in the zone,’ ‘on a roll,’ ‘wired in,’ ‘in the groove,’ ‘on fire,’ ‘in tune,’ ‘centered,’ or ‘singularly focused.’

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task, although flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.

Csíkszentmihályi identified six factors as encompassing an experience of flow: intense and focused concentration on the present moment; merging of action and awareness; a loss of reflective self-consciousness; a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity; a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered; and experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience. These aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience.

Flow is so named because during Csíkszentmihályi’s 1975 interviews several people described their ‘flow’ experiences using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along. The psychological concept of flow as becoming absorbed in an activity is thus unrelated to the older phrase ‘go with the flow.’ Csikszentmihalyi began researching flow after becoming fascinated by artists who would essentially get lost in their work. Artists, especially painters, got so immersed in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep. The theory of flow was greatly used in the theories of Maslow and Rogers in their development of the humanistic tradition of psychology.

Flow has been experienced throughout history and across cultures. The teachings of Buddhism and Taoism speak of a state of mind known as the ‘action of inaction’ or ‘doing without doing’ that greatly resembles the idea of flow. Also, Hindu texts on Advaita philosophy such as ‘Ashtavakra Gita’ and the Yoga of Knowledge such as ‘Bhagavad-Gita’ refer to a similar state.

Historical sources hint that Michelangelo may have painted the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel while in a flow state. It is reported that he painted for days at a time, and he was so absorbed in his work that he did not even stop for food or sleep until he reached the point of passing out. After this, he would wake up refreshed and, upon starting to paint again, re-enter a state of complete absorption.

Bruce Lee either spoke of a psychological state similar to flow or spoke about the importance of adaptability and shedding preconceptions in his book the ‘Tao of Jeet Kune Do.’ In his book, he compares the state of flow to water where he so famously says, ‘Be like water …Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.’

In every given moment, there is a great deal of information made available to each individual. Psychologists have found that one’s mind can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time. According to Mihaly’s 1956 study, that number is about 126 bits of information per second. That may seem like a large number (and a lot of information), but simple daily tasks take quite a lot of information. Just having a conversation takes about 40 bits of information per second; that’s 1/3 of one’s capacity. That is why when having a conversation one cannot focus as much attention on other things.

For the most part (except for basic bodily feelings like hunger and pain, which are innate), people are able to decide what they want to focus their attention on. However, when one is in the flow state, he or she is completely engrossed with the one task at hand and, without making the conscious decision to do so, loses awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs. This occurs because all of the attention of the person in the flow state is on the task at hand; there is no more attention to be allocated.

One cannot force oneself to enter flow. It just happens. A flow state can be entered while performing any activity, although it is most likely to occur when one is wholeheartedly performing a task or activity for intrinsic purposes. Passive activities like taking a bath or even watching TV usually do not elicit flow experiences as individuals have to actively do something to enter a flow state (though at times people do become fully engrossed in a mundane activity).

Flow theory postulates three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state: One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress (this adds direction and structure to the task); The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback (this helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state); and One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. However, it was argued that the antecedent factors of flow are interrelated, as a perceived balance between challenges and skills requires that one knows what he or she has to do (clear goals) and how successful he or she is in doing it (immediate feedback). Thus, a perceived fit of skills and task demands can be identified as the central precondition of flow experiences.

Several problems of this model have been discussed in literature. One is, that it does not ensure a perceived balance between challenges and skills which is supposed to be the central precondition of flow experiences. Individuals with a low average level of skills and a high average level of challenges (or the other way round) do not necessarily experience a fit between skills and challenges when both are above his or her individual average. In addition, contrary to flow theory, one study found that low challenge situations which were surpassed by skill were associated with enjoyment, relaxation, and happiness.

Some of the challenges to staying in flow include states of apathy, boredom, and anxiety. Being in a state of apathy is characterized when challenges are low and one’s skill level is low producing a general lack of interest in the task at hand. Boredom is slightly different state in that it occurs when challenges are low, but one’s skill level exceeds those challenges causing one to seek higher challenges. Lastly, a state of anxiety occurs when challenges are so high that they exceed one’s perceived skill level causing one great distress and uneasiness. These states in general differ from being in a state of flow, in that flow occurs when challenges matches one’s skill level.

Csíkszentmihályi hypothesized that people with several very specific personality traits may be better able to achieve flow more often than the average person. These personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only. People with most of these personality traits are said to have an autotelic personality. Up to now, there is not much research on the autotelic personality, but results of the few studies that have been conducted suggest that indeed some people are more prone to experience flow than others.

One researcher found that people with an autotelic personality have a greater preference for ‘”high-action-opportunity, high-skills situations that stimulate them and encourage growth’ compared to those without an autotelic personality. It is in such high-challenge, high-skills situations that people are most likely to enter the flow state. Experimental evidence shows that a balance between skills of the individual and demands of the task (compared to boredom and overload) only elicits flow experiences in individuals characterized by an internal locus of control or a habitual action orientation. Several correlational studies found need for achievement to be a personal characteristic that fosters flow experiences.

Csíkszentmihályi suggests several ways a group can work together so that each individual member achieves flow. The characteristics of such a group include: Creative spatial arrangements (chairs, pin walls, charts, but no tables); Playground design (charts for information inputs, flow graphs, project summary, craziness, say-anything place, result wall, open topics, etc); Parallel, organized working; Target group focus; Advancement of existing one (prototyping); Increase in efficiency through visualization; and Using differences among participants as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle.

Only Csíkszentmihályi seems to have published suggestions for extrinsic applications of the flow concept, such as design methods for playgrounds to elicit the flow experience. Other practitioners of Csíkszentmihályi’s flow concept focus on intrinsic applications, such as spirituality, performance improvement, or self-help. Reinterpretations of Csíkszentmihályi’s flow process exist to improve performance in areas as diverse as business, piano improvisation, sport psychology, computer programming, and standup comedy. His work has also informed the measurement of donor momentum by ‘The New Science of Philanthropy.’

In education, there is the concept of overlearning (developing automaticity), which seems to be an important factor in this technique, in that Csíkszentmihályi states that overlearning enables the mind to concentrate on visualizing the desired performance as a singular, integrated action instead of a set of actions. Challenging assignments that (slightly) stretch one’s skills lead to flow. Around 2000, it came to the attention of Csíkszentmihályi that the principles and practices of the Montessori Method of education seemed to purposefully set up continuous flow opportunities and experiences for students.

Musicians, especially improvisational soloists may experience a similar state of mind while playing their instrument. Research has shown that performers in a flow state have a heightened quality of performance as opposed to when they are not in a flow state. In a study performed with professional classical pianists who played piano pieces several times to induce a flow state, a significant relationship was found between the flow state of the pianist and the pianist’s heart rate, blood pressure, and major facial muscles. As the pianist entered the flow state, heart rate and blood pressure decreased and the major facial muscles relaxed.

This study further emphasized that flow is a state of effortless attention. In spite of the effortless attention and overall relaxation of the body, the performance of the pianist during the flow state improved. Groups of drummers experience a state of flow when they sense a collective energy that drives the beat, something they refer to as getting ‘into the groove.’ Bass guitarists often describe a state of flow when properly playing between the percussion and melody as being ‘in the pocket.’

The concept of being in the zone during an athletic performance fits within Csíkszentmihályi’s description of the flow experience, and theories and applications of being in the zone and its relationship with athletic competitive advantage are topics studied in the field of sport psychology. Sports consultant Timothy Gallwey’s influential works on the ‘inner game’ of sports such as golf and tennis described the mental coaching and attitudes required to ‘get in the zone’ and fully internalize mastery of the sport. ‘Being in the zone’ may also influence movement patterns as better integration of the conscious and subconscious reflex functions improves coordination. Many athletes describe the effortless nature of their performance while achieving personal bests.

Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix explained: ‘I was already on pole, […] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel.’

For millennia, practitioners of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism have honed the discipline of overcoming the duality of self and object as a central feature of spiritual development. Eastern spiritual practitioners have developed a very thorough and holistic set of theories around overcoming duality of self and object, tested and refined through spiritual practice instead of the systematic rigor and controls of modern science.

The phrase ‘being at one with things’ is a metaphor of Csíkszentmihályi’s flow concept. Practitioners of the varied schools of Zen Buddhism apply concepts similar to flow to aid their mastery of art forms, including, in the case of Japanese Zen Buddhism and Aikido. In yogic traditions such as Raja Yoga, reference is made to a state of flow in the practice of ‘Samyama,’ a psychological absorption in the object of meditation. Theravada Buddhism refers to ‘access concentration,’ which is a state of flow achieved through meditation and used to further strengthen concentration into ‘jhana’ (a state of meditation where the mind is fully focused), and/or to develop insight.

In Islam the first mental state that precedes human action is known as ‘al-khatir.’ In this state an image or thought is born in the mind. When in this mental state and contemplating upon an ‘ayat’ or an imprint of God, one may experience a profound state of Oneness or flow whereby the phenomena of nature, the macrocosmic world and the souls of people are understood as a sign of God. Also, the teaching in the Qu’ran of different nations of people existing so that they may come to know each other is an example of Oneness. All members of society and the world are considered to be in flow of Oneness, one family, one body.

Flow is one of the main reasons that people play video games. This is especially true since the primary goal of games is to create entertainment through intrinsic motivation, which is related to flow. Through the balance of skill and challenge the player’s brain is aroused, with attention engaged and motivation high. Thus, the use of flow in games helps foster an enjoyable experience which in turn increases motivation and draws players to continue playing. In addition, game designers, in particular, benefit from the integration of flow principles into their game designs. Overall, the experience of play is fluid and is intrinsically psychologically rewarding independent of scores or in-game successes in the flow state.

Developers of computer software reference getting into a flow state, sometimes referred to as ‘The Zone’ or ‘hack mode,’ when developing in an undistracted state. Stock market operators often use the term ‘in the pipe’ to describe the psychological state of flow when trading during high volume days and market corrections. Professional poker players use the term ‘playing the A-game’ when referring to the state of highest concentration and strategical awareness, while pool players often call the state being in ‘dead stroke.’

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