“I wake up, and I’m in the zone… My performance is the continuation of my life.”
— Savion Glover, American tap dancer, actor, and choreographer
You’ve probably heard athletes say that they were “in the zone” during an incredible performance when they won a gold medal or helped their team win a big game. While in this state, they felt unstoppable, time slowed down, all distractions fell away and they attained a laser-like focus on their goal.
Many of us non-athletes have achieved these amplified moments of consciousness, where we make connections we may have missed before, develop breakthroughs to previously frustrating problems and generally push our own limits beyond what we thought possible.
I’ve felt it many times while writing this blog, but never realized that it had an official name or such extensive research into it.
What is this superhero-like state and how can financial advisors leverage it to improve their practice?
Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, the co-founders of Flow Genome Project, have been working for twenty years to discover the triggers that unlock and possibly control these “flow states.” I was fortunate to be invited to a private, one-day seminar run by Kotler and Wheal at the recent TD Ameritrade Elite LINC Conference.
According to Wheal, “Flow Genome is the largest open source research project in ultimate human performance.” What does it take for individuals and institutions to level up their game? What does it take to achieve paradigm-shifting breakthroughs?
Source Code of Ultimate Human Performance
Like the feeling of being moved down a river by the current, this positive groove has been described as a “flow.” In fact, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University in California, coined the term in his 1990 book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (Harper & Row, 1990).
Flow has been described in many different ways. Kotler refers to them as optimal states of consciousness where you feel and perform your best. Examples exist from almost every creative and scientific discipline. From Archimedes’ eureka moment in his bath, to Ada Lovelace building the world’s first computer to Stephen Curry’s magic on the basketball court. Kotler and Wheal have researched how sports competitions, scientific discoveries, and works of art are linked to the unconscious creativity that bursts out of flow states.
In Kotler’s book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, he explains that athletes, musicians, dancers, and artists have an easier time achieving flow states, but executives and business people can reach them as well.
Tim Hockey, TD Ameritrade’s President and CEO told a story during the conference’s opening session about a trip he took with a group of friends cycling through the hills of Portugal. Towards the end of a day’s long ride, they all experienced a 10 minute period of euphoria, which cyclists refer to as “no chain“, a feeling of effortless exertion and being in the flow.
A ten year study by the consulting company McKinsey found that executives in flow state are 5x more productive than out of it. Maybe Tim Hockey should consider bringing his bike to the office?
What is Your Flow Profile?
Everyone in the seminar took a free online test (available here) that placed you into one of four flow profiles. Once you know your flow type, you can begin to tailor your environment and activities in such a way that you experience more flow in your everyday life.
- Hard Chargers – Classic adrenaline junkies. They often seek out risk and play for high stakes in their professional as well as private life. They love challenges with lots of variety and have a fundamental dislike for monotonous, repetitive work. They are generally highly self-critical and perfectionist, constantly looking for self-improvement, and for the next adrenaline high.
- Deep Thinkers – The virtuosos who can lose themselves completely in full concentration in a task. They need peace and often choose the early morning or late evening hours to delve into something and to get into the flow. Once engrossed in a problem or study, they are hard to rouse from their concentration.
- Flow Goers – Free spirits, yogis and artists. They choose their lives and activities carefully in order to live in the flow as much as possible. Career and money play subordinate roles and their desire is for shared experiences with old and new acquaintances.
- Crowd Pleasers – The classic extroverts. As the jokers in the crowd, they draw energy from the community with others and can really get lost while in a circle of friends and family. Often found at festivals, concerts, conferences and parties where they are always welcome guests because they transmit their positive mood to everyone. Usually night owls.
Identifying his flow profiles made a big difference for Larry Lindsley, a principal at Summit Planning Group. The results of the survey showed that Lindsley was primarily a Crowd Pleaser and Hard Charger as secondary.
Lindsley felt that the combination of these two could be why he needs to recharge a bit before important meetings or events. Since he tries so hard to share his positive energy, he often feels drained and not as prepared when the time comes for action. He plans to schedule more down time between activities to ensure he can focus on building up his own energy levels.
My flow profile turned out to be Deep Thinker, probably because most of the time I get into a flow state, I’m working on a client project or writing my blog. As Kotler and Wheal; explained, I tend to seek Flow through creative, reflective, often soothingly repetitive work that lets my mind wander, lets my nervous system relax deeply, and lets my muse come through with “something
When you are in flow, your body releases five of the most potent neurochemicals for motivation, learning and well-being—norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide and oxytocin.
Kotler and Wheal provided four triggers areas that they have found most people use to enter their flow states:
- Psychological – Includes long periods of uninterrupted concentration, setting clear goals, getting immediate feedback and being challenged more than your current skill level.
- Environmental – Includes a bit of risk of the emotional, mental or social kind in place of the physical. Also requires novelty, unpredictability and complexity with total physical awareness.
- Social – Ways to enter your flow when you’re in a group require blocking out all distractions, shared goals, good communication, cohesive actions, equal participation, a healthy fear of failure, a combination of autonomy and competence, close listening skills and avoiding argumentative interactions.
- Creative – Being able to link new ideas together and having the courage to bring them into the world.
To move into your flow state takes training and practice, but Kotler taught us some methods to help get there faster. One was “creatively interpreting the terrain.” In doing so you become an active player in the scene, putting your own mark on the terrain that surrounds you.
Many people can do this already, but others need help. At one point in the workshop, we were asked to write down a childhood memory where we felt flow state had been reached. Everyone was then instructed to retell this memory to the person sitting next to them.
“I wasn’t sure how to determine when I was in my flow until we were forced to verbalize childhood memories,” explained Alyssa McNamara Reed, Managing Partner, McNamara Financial. “I think my happiest self and my most productive self are one in the same, which was extremely eye-opening,” she noted.
Finding way to increase her productivity at work is important to Reed. “I need to be able to create an environment that will allow me to be my happiest self, i.e. sunshine, quiet, and new flooring in the office!” she exclaimed.
Reed is experiencing a common aspect that Kotler and Wheal’s research has discovered. People who scored high in overall satisfaction are found to have the most opportunities for entering their flow state.
Four Stage Cycle
Flow is a four stage cycle, explained Wheal. You have to move through the entire cycle before you can return.
No one can be in a flow state all the time. Someone who thinks that they live in their flow state is referred to as a schizophrenic, Wheal joked.
The four stages of flow are:
- Struggle – Often accompanied by an amplification of the release of cortisal and norepinephrine (anxiety) in the body. This stage has to be hard and could last up to six months or a year! Note: Creative people like artists and writers need flow in order to make a living.
- Release – This phase takes your mind off the problem. Low-grade physical exercise tends to work best (20-25 min walk, creates exercise-induced release),
- Flow – Includes the global release of nitric oxide, which flushes out stress hormones, and resets the nervous system. The the half life brain chemicals norepinephrine and dopamine are around 20 minutes. Most flow states usually lasts between 1-1.5 hrs.
- Recovery – It takes a while for the neuro-chemicals released during flow to rebuild in the brain. Many people don’t respect this stage, according to Kotler. He recommended active recovery, since it works faster than passive recovery.
Many of the advisors at the session reported that they plan to share what they learned with their teams. One of those advisors was Byron Ellis, Managing Director, United Capital from The Woodlands, TX. Ellis had prior experience with Kotler and Wheal’s research. “I am already a fan and have read Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think and Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World and talk about both books quite often,” he declared.
Flow Research Collective
Financial advisors do not have the same pressing need to get into their flow state as do world class athletes, artists, or writers. But there could still be tremendous benefits to them in the increased productivity that results from finding their flow.
Some people feel that this whole thing is a bit too “new age” for them. Even so, there appears to be many ways that flow can improve speed of learning and overall business success.
As Larry Lindsley from Summit Planning Group observed, “The only sustainable competitive advantage is the ability to learn faster.”