Can You Flow Your Way to Great?

ski jump
Credit: flickr / Shay Haas

If you know me at all (or have just been reading my blog for a while) you’ll know I’m really interested in how to be more productive, more effective, and generally achieving more. And of course I read Zen Habits and all these other blogs that talk about flow.

Flow is about being completely absorbed in what you’re doing. It does wonders for your productivity, and definitely, being in a state of flow is awesome – I achieve it from time to time, but nowhere near as much as I would like to.

But I also love Study Hacks, where he writes a lot about achieving greatness, specifically (at the moment) through deliberate practice. The key to this is working on something that is hard and uncomfortable. And Seth Godin writes a lot about how you need to fail to achieve awesome.

And I wonder, are these two things in conflict? Because thinking about skiing, I can be in a state of flow, carving down a pisted black (or blue, or green run). I can be completely absorbed in what I’m doing, and energized – it feels like I’m flying – but I’m well within my comfort zone. Does this make me a better skier? Maybe not. To be better, I have to leave my comfort zone. So I go and ski moguls because they make me uncomfortable and I’m not as good at them. The biggest break through I had as a skier, was when I decided I had to get a grip with moguls and I went and skied them again, and again, and again, until eventually I could make it down without falling over.

Was I experiencing flow? No. I was uncomfortable, and my legs hurt, and I wasn’t having a good time. But time like that is necessary for progress. It’s a teaching technique that I use and that was used in my PDP last week – work on X on a run within your comfort zone. Then, work on it again on a run that makes you uncomfortable. Come back to the first one, see improvement in your skiing. Rinse, and repeat.

My first release of my graphs was hacked together in an afternoon. After a morning of fighting with the software, and fighting with myself to focus.

Right now, I should be working on a testing assignment – to do with databases. I’m not a fan of databases, so every distraction is inviting. I’m uncomfortable and bored. But, this is how I become a better programmer – by sitting down and making myself work at it until it is done.

If we chase flow too much, we miss the moments that make us uncomfortable. But we should learn to seek out those moments, because they are what make us better, at whatever we seek to master.

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