Whenever I'm researching history or some old technology, I am fascinated by the scope of our achievements. When I look at Da Vinci's designs for the Ornithopter or the helical Air Screw, I can't help but appreciate the amount of meticulous planning and theorising it would take just to come up with a blueprint drawing.

But then there are also times when I see pieces of artwork where, by account, the artists conveyed their imagination seamlessly and effortlessly onto canvas within a short frame of time—as if controlled by a force of nature, wrapped in an obsession that transforms hands into a faucet of creative juices.

Morning muse: an arrangement of books, flowers, sheet music, and coffee.
Photo by Joyce McCown / Unsplash

In early Greco-Roman mythology, the nine Muses were the offspring of Zeus and Mnemosyne. They grew up with a tendency toward the arts under the instruction of Apollo. These mythological figures would continue to be sources of inspiration for creative types, with countless pieces of art and music dedicated to them.

The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.” ― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle

There is a shared desire among all creative types for the next quiet moment of introspection. They look for a golden nugget of inspiration, a new idea or some burst of motivation that will hit them and lift their arse off the floor to get started on the blank canvas.

We all have our little routines, bordering on OCD mannerisms, that help us kick into gear and get laser-focused on the next project. Artists have made offerings to gods, prayed for inspiration, and paid for countless mentorships and education courses, only to still be stumped for ideas and motivation. This dilemma is something that humans have always experienced, and realistically no higher power will ever truly give them what they need.

Researchers have studied this mental battle through the years and have identified a specific mental state known as experiencing "Flow", which we undergo when we reach peak performance. Psychologists have nailed down the perfect conditions required to induce the flow state. So far, I've only mentioned this in an artistic context. This built-in ability to hyperfocus is used by Olympic coaches, students and even romantic partners! Everyone is mentally built for peak performance.

What trying to learn a skill without flow looks like

We've all been there before. You know the feeling. You decided to pick up water-colour painting as a form of expression! It's fun getting started with all the excellent new tools and paints. As a routine begins to form, it becomes easier to do what you imagined things to look like.

The honeymoon phase makes everything unique and exciting! Until it doesn't. Novelty starts to wane, your technical progress seems to plateau, and honestly, you're just bored of it now. Sound familiar? Some frustrated people who go through this scenario identify as a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. It's honestly a very painful experience and can even lead to a life not well-lived (It depends on the individual, I think). A neurological function within us has revealed our capacity for peak performance, which is also intrinsically life-affirming.

Internal and external distractions

Due to many reasons, experiencing this mental barrier described is quickly becoming the norm among most people. We now have to deal with so many distractions compared to those before us. The obvious offenders are the constant streams of attention-grabbing notifications from our phones, streaming services, targeted advertising and even food! These are known as external distractions that seem to also play into our tolerance to delayed gratification.

Internal distractions, which are also related to our tendencies toward external distractions, are more psychological. For example, ruminating thoughts can cause insomnia and anxiety, which feeds into a self-sustaining loop of tiredness and negative self-talk. Unfortunately, this can manifest subconsciously. The occasional view of fear or doubt can bubble to the surface as an intrusive thought.

phone wallpaper by @efekurnaz
Photo by Sara Kurfeß / Unsplash

Skill plateau

When we learn a new skill and run into the inevitable skill plateau, we do this odd thing where we tell ourselves that we've hit a natural barrier. If you've read enough self-help books, you've seen how they like to talk about growth vs. fixed mindsets.

In a growth mindset, your flaws are just a to-do list of things to improve. –Derek Sivirs

Suppose we convince ourselves that a certain level of proficiency is our physical/mental limit. In that case, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The likelihood of deliberate practice slowly turning into auto-pilot increases significantly.

Continuing in a venture without the right attitude decreases receptiveness to our own mistakes. The direction we need to take towards improving becomes less noticeable. The comfort zone is sneaky in that it convinces us that we are making progress even though the same mistakes keep repeating.

Photo by Salemi Wenda / Unsplash

Self-talk is a powerful thing when it comes to motivation. Our attitude toward new ventures ultimately decides how far we go. But getting past the "plateau" is more than just willpower. Proficiency in a skill is nurtured by applying the proper learning techniques.  

Deliberate practice with well-defined goals is the key to receiving feedback. Outlining goals explains the appeal of mentor-student relationships as objective feedback is valuable. It is intended to be digested and appropriately applied by the student.  For those reading who intend to learn a new skill through self-teaching, I want to affirm that we all have an innate capacity to create our feedback loop. It all depends on the approach.

Inducing and experiencing Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, aka "The Godfather" of Flow psychology, writes about the eight elements of flow:

  1. Clarity of goals and immediate feedback
    By creating big goals and then specifying aspects of that goal into smaller achievable ones, we can easily maintain clarity and presence on the task at hand. When goals are defined, intuition about what comes next occurs naturally.

    If a mentor or teacher can also provide immediate feedback, it is preferred. When combining clear goals with honest feedback, skills are built upon more efficiently with less time wasted on less fundamental aspects of a skill.

  2. Intense, focused concentration on a specific task
    As mentioned before, both external and internal distractions can stop us from achieving total concentration.

  3. A balance between skills and challenge
    The challenge/skill ratio requires balance and sometimes takes quite a bit of nuance to get right. Flow occurs at the midpoint of boredom (the task is too easy) and anxiety (the task is too challenging). Finding this sweet spot is the most difficult part (for me, personally) when triggering the Flow state.

    You want to find something difficult enough to require your full attention but not too easy that you don't receive that dopamine hit that reinforces the feeling of progression.

  4. Sense of personal control and agency over the task
    Flow is easier to induce when it's something you enjoy doing. When you enjoy something, you are more likely to go out of your way to fit it into your schedule. You can decide to stick with it, regardless of whatever life throws at you.

  5. Effortlessness
    You'll know it when you see it. Those glazed eyes and furrowed brows of someone completely lost in the flow. It may look like they're straining to concentrate, but things are running smoothly internally. Every split-second decision they are challenged with is spontaneously answered through intuition and confidence.

  6. Time distortion or altered sense of time
    Personal accounts of people experiencing the flow state seem to deviate between the immediate passing of time or the complete stretching of time. For example, applying colour to canvas is remembered as a blur by the painter. But then, at times, they get sucked into the details of their work; and an hour can feel like several.

  7. Consolidation of action and awareness
    Do you know that inner voice that tells you something is a complete waste of time? When a task induces flow, you're less likely to doubt the value it adds to your life.  Perfectionists who tend to have an all-or-nothing outlook on things are more likely to fall into this type of negative thinking. The Flow state can negate this as they become one with their work.

Autotelic experience and the neuroscience of the flow state

Autotelic (definition): having an end or purpose in itself
Greek: (autos - Self) + (telos - Goal)

This 8th and last element here ties in with internal motivation and one's capacity for curiosity (which I have touched on). The neuroscience of Flow relies heavily on the dopaminergic system, which is involved in impulse control and motivation.

Within the context of the flow-state, the dopamine effect on motivation functions through "perceived novelty" (High-risk, high-reward, the complexity of the task etc.) Novelty allows dopamine to stimulate the pattern recognition areas of the brain and facilitate deep learning. Think of this function as a key to multiple doors of "opportunity".

Photo by Ian Schneider / Unsplash

When curiosity is stimulated, passion is built through the reinforcement of positive feedback that confirms what we believe we enjoy. When a source of passion is identified, our sense of purpose is developed along with it. I've written on this topic previously when I was researching Jung's idea of Circumambulation.

Utilising the flow-state in this fashion allows us complete autonomy and creative freedom. We can define our life mission and let passion overtake us. This is what makes the flow state "Autotelic" in that the flow state can only operate when a skill provides meaning in itself. Genuineness of motivation in our ventures is what leads to true mastery!

With social media presence running rampant, we live in an age where skill-based hobbies can be picked up as a projection of how we want to be perceived. Unfortunately, this approach can lead us to the mental barriers that we inevitably run into, causing our hobbies and ventures to crumble away, but I digress. My point is that anyone trying to learn a new skill can use the flow state.

The fantastic results from the ability to hyper-focus are undeniable. Still, being contrived and achieving flow is not a matching pair. Before we even attempt to reach such a state, we need to find the roots of what genuinely interests and motivates us first.