The Problem with Seeking “Flow”


Review of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, by Steven Kotler

Boston: New Harvest, 2014

In The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, journalist Steven Kotler recounts stories of extraordinary achievement from the world of extreme action/adventure sports: surfers tackle seventy-foot waves, skateboarders jump over the Great Wall of China, kayakers solo deadly rapids, wingsuit-clad BASE jumpers plummet from mountain peaks at 150 MPH. Kotler knows the lingo and is close to the star athletes; his narrative is fast-paced, enthusiastic, exciting. But the book’s not just tales of daring-do. Over the years, Kotler noticed that extreme athletes exploit a special state of consciousness known as “flow.” His message to the reader is that ordinary folks can learn to harness “flow,” too, and make everyday life happier and more successful and productive – and without needing to engage in daredevil stunts. But is “flow” really a scientific proposition? And does this advice make sense?

The term “flow” was defined by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi as referring to “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Kotler is more lyrical: flow is “a rare and radical state of consciousness where the impossible becomes possible.” He elaborates:

In flow, we are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.

For those of us who don’t do high-risk activities, flow is still an important concept, Kotler asserts, because we can apply that state of mind to everyday activities: “flow directly correlates to happiness at work and happiness at work directly correlates to success.” As support for this statement, he cites a McKinsey study in which senior executives reported feeling five times more productive when in the flow. If the rest of us could flip this switch, we could be vastly more productive, happy, and successful.

But a close reading of the McKinsey study does not inspire confidence. It’s not a scientific study, rather, it’s a compilation of anecdotal observations over a long period of time, and there is no discussion of data, methodology, or analysis. Even had it been rigorous, it would still suffer from a fundamental confusion of correlation with causation. Were senior executives able to access a special mental state that boosted their productivity? Or did circumstances facilitate a burst of productivity, and they used the word flow to denote their pleasure at getting a lot done?

The correlation/causation problem is an issue for flow enthusiasts, because as Kotler goes on to proclaim, flow is “ubiquitous” in human life:

For writers, poets, painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, composers, etc., creativity is their frequent gateway. Scientists and engineers often feel the same. Endurance athletes, meanwhile, can ride pain and exhaustion into the zone. Runner’s high is the fabled name for this experience, but it also shows up in swimming, cycling, rowing, hiking, cross-country skiing, and almost any other activity where suffering long distances is a factor. In the world of philanthropy, helper’s high is the term for an altruism-triggered flow state, literally brought on by the act of helping another.

Not to mention, video-game players get into flow, and writing code, we are told, best happens in a state of flow. People can also get into flow in group situations, including team sports, bands, choirs, dancing, going to a concert, or joining a start-up. “Merely chatting on the job can be enough to put you in the state.”

But Kotler confuses cause and effect. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is the mental state characteristic of individuals who are able to exert some level of control over their conscious thoughts. In other words, flow is result, not cause. For this reason, Csikszentmihalyi warns, “however well-intentioned, books cannot give recipes for how to be happy.” Kotler seems genuine in wanting to help the alienated achieve a sliver of the exhilaration experienced by extreme athletes, but his suggestions are uninspiring: “If you don’t want to take physical risks, take mental risks. Take social risks. Emotional risks. Creative risks.” – “Seek out complexity, especially in nature.” – “Watch an IMAX movie.” – “Brush your teeth with the wrong hand.”

The premise doesn’t work, but the book is still fun reading, and it contains an interesting insight. Athletes tell Kotler that the flow state make it easier “to quiet the mind,” to win “the fight against my brain.” Apparently a condition called “transient hypofrontality” kicks in during periods of high-risk activity, in which those portions of the brain that control the concept of “self” are switched off, in order to focus resources on processing information and making real-time decisions:

Self-monitoring is the voice of doubt and disparagement, that defeatist nag, our inner critic. Since flow is a fluid state—where problem solving is nearly automatic—second-guessing can only slow that process.

When they enter a state of flow, the athletes tell Kotler they are rewarded with a feeling of “profound relief—a sense that finally, at long last, someone else is driving this bus.”

Escaping from the sense of self is a very old theme. Consider the 2000-year-old Hindu text, Bhagavad Gita:

They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego cage of “I,” “me,” and “mine.”

Similarly, the 19th century American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “man is as it were clapped into jail by his consciousness.”

Man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

Even today, it would appear that many people struggle to manage their “inner critic,” and perhaps that’s because there is no single, obvious path to the flow-like states that characterize a life of happiness and inner tranquility. The Bhagavad-Gita advocates practicing meditation and renouncing the fruits of action. Emerson would have us cast aside conformity and seek truth in nature. No doubt we can learn something from the stories of extreme athletes – but it’d be wise to consider some other options before zipping on that wingsuit.

Posted on 30 March 2016

KENNETH POSNER is chief of strategic planning and investor relations at Capital Bank Financial Corp. and a director of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. He holds the fastest known time for running the Badwater Double, a 282-mile journey from the Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney and back. Follow his blog at