Summoning the mystical state to do our best work

Most of what we need to know in life can be gleaned from Disney movies.

  • It’s what’s on the inside that really matters - Beauty and the Beast

  • Tell the truth — Pinocchio

  • Don’t give up; dreams can come true — Cinderella

You get the picture. I even wrote a chapter in my last book called Let it Go, inspired by the trials and tribulations of Anna and Elsa in Frozen’s enchanted, if chilly, world of Arendelle. (Some say I need to update my cultural references. Fair point.)

Disney’s got the basics down when it comes to life lessons, and they tell a story as well as anyone. But the big questions in life—the really hairy ones—the existential crisis type ones—well, they leave those to their brethren at their subsidiary, Pixar.

Indeed, the studio which rose to fame with the animated film, Toy Story, has tackled some doozies.

They covered love, loss, and aging in the beautiful tale, Up!

They delved deep into human psychology and the emotions that wrestle for control of our minds in the film Inside Out.

And in the recently released Soul, they’ve tackled what is perhaps the biggest question of them all—whether or not there is life after death (or even before birth).

In typical Disney/Pixar fashion, Soul provides kids with a fast-paced, laugh-filled hero’s journey of sorts, while also challenging adults with deeper philosophical questions—like are we truly making the most of every moment we have?

One concept covered in the film that you might miss if you weren’t paying close attention is the idea of “flow.”

So what exactly is flow?

Well, Wikipedia describes the concept as well as anyone: "a flow state, also colloquially known as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some 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 the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one's sense of time."

Author and Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective, Steven Kotler may be the world’s foremost expert on flow. Here’s his 1-minute description of the concept:

An optimal state of consciousness. Complete absorption in the task at hand. Time distortion. Mental and physical performance going through the roof.

Amazing, right? But… maybe a little intense for a Disney movie, don’t you think?

In Pixar’s imagination, people in states of flow are hovering somewhere between the physical world and something else—call it ‘The Great Beyond.’ Maybe it’s an afterlife, maybe it’s heaven… maybe it’s an alternative universe. But it’s most certainly outside the realm of what see and touch every day.

In Pixar’s interpretation, people from all walks of life are regularly entering such states—an actress performing on stage, a tattoo artist creating her latest work of art, and even an NBA basketball player going up for a dunk (Pro tip: come for the flow reference, stay for the Knicks joke).

Pixar and Kotler agree that flow is experienced across an endless number of fields and activities. If you watched the Netflix hit, The Queen’s Gambit, you’ll note that Beth Harmon experienced flow in the form of imaginary chess pieces moving across her ceiling.

But it’s not just chess. It’s the skier “unconsciously” navigating a mountain’s icy terrain; it’s the writer effortlessly weaving together beautiful prose; it’s even the lovestruck couple sharing a glass of wine and such great conversation that the rest of the world seems to melt away.

Why is flow important?

Why is Steven Kotler dedicating much of his career to studying flow? Why do professional athletes and Fortune 500 CEOs clamor for the latest research on the subject?

It’s simple. Because time and time again, we’ve seen that people in flow states—across every one of the fields I’ve mentioned—are outperforming. They are winning basketball games and chess matches and ski races. They are writing best-selling novels and delivering Oscar-winning performances. Or they are simply developing deeper, more meaningful relationships personally and professionally.

That is why flow is important. It’s the state in which we can do our very best work.

Summoning flow

So this begs the question: How can we summon flow?

Kotler, again, has much to offer on this topic. In fact, it’s the subject of his soon-to-be-released book The Art of the Impossible, which he discussed in a recent podcast interview with James Altucher.

In short, there are some common elements that tend to be present when the mystical state of flow arrives:

  • Mastery — in all likelihood, a first-time chess player is not going to be in a state of flow. Nor a first-time skier or basketball player. But a writer who practices her craft every day may achieve flow; or a stand-up comedian who is on stage every night. In order for something to feel effortless, we must know what we’re doing first. And that requires practice.

  • Passion — And what do we practice? Usually, it’s what we’re curious about. It’s what we think is cool or interesting. It’s what we’re drawn to. Of course, it seems unlikely that we are going to achieve flow states while doing tasks we dislike. Conversely, curiosity plus practice can ultimately lead to passion. And, when we are good at something, and passionate about it, we are that much more likely to enter flow.

  • Challenge — Interestingly, Kotler’s research shows that flow is more likely if the activity we are “losing ourselves in” is slightly beyond the scope of our current abilities. It may be a skier attempting a particularly challenging trail, a public speaker addressing a particularly large or well-informed audience, or an engineer writing a particularly challenging piece of code. Attempting something just on the outside edge of our current capabilities drives us to focus.

  • Focus — And indeed, we do need to focus to achieve flow. It is likely impossible to multi-task our way into flow. According to Kotler, the science shows that we are most effective in 90-minute increments. That means focusing deeply on one task alone for 90 minutes. Such an ability to take ourselves offline is in and of itself a superpower of sorts in today’s day and age. I explored this idea in this piece on conquering digital distractions. Think of the edge one can get in almost every field if they focus and even achieve flow while their competitors bounce like goldfish from one distraction to another. It is perhaps the game-changer of all game-changers.

So as we think about how we can leverage flow in our own lives, these elements are crucial to keep in mind. And it doesn’t need to be some formal wishy-washy seance to summon flow. It can simply be sitting down to write that article or email, or getting ready to play that tennis match or golf game—and thinking intentionally ahead of time: Am I setting myself up for complete and undivided attention on the task at hand?

For me, I feel like writing is the primary time when I’m able to achieve flow. I’ll note that music helps—instrumental only for me—and blocking off a time when I can shut off the rest of the world, if only for an hour or two.

But it’s not just writing. I can lose myself completely in a Peloton ride when I am hyper-focused on achieving a new output record, or even in a stimulating conversation with a friend or colleague.

If nothing else, I think being aware of the concept of flow can help us to achieve our potential. And as you know, that’s a topic I love to explore each week in this very newsletter.

Thanks as always for reading. And welcome to the ~70 new subscribers who joined us this week (wow!). I posted a tweet that linked to this article on the 40 lessons I learned in my first 40 years of life and… what do you know? It seems to have gone viral!

So, welcome. I’m super grateful for all of my subscribers and I hope I can keep earning this space in your inbox every Thursday.

Have a great week,


Image credit: Jeremy Bishop @ Unsplash.com

Extra credit: I’ve just ordered Steven Kotler’s new book, The Art of the Impossible. But I’d also highly recommend Stealing Fire (also on human performance, flow, etc.) and I’m a huge fan of the books he has written with Peter Diamandis, Bold, and Abundance, which will convince you that the world is getting better at an accelerating rate. Trust me, reading these will leave you in a much better mood than watching cable news.

That podcast I mentioned with Steven Kotler and James Altucher is worth your time. Here’s the link to that.

And finally… How can I not leave you with the Soul trailer?!? Great film. Check it out.