"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."
Some leaders just continue to amaze us.
Richard Branson builds brand new companies in industries that have no apparent room for a new competitor.
Oprah expands the reach and service provided by her media empire through every channel imaginable.
Steve Jobs introduced us to the personal computer in our home, 1,000 songs in our pocket, an all-access communication device on our hip and then revolutionized the personal computer in our home so it could go everywhere with us as a tablet.
Alicia Keys delivers new Grammy award-winning, record-breaking hits album after album.
...the list goes on.
How'd They Do It?
It's not a secret, but the process is also is not widely known. The research into how leaders perform such amazing feats again and again has been the subject of speculation and research for millennia. We know for example that Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius was both a student and practitioner of Stoicism. He pursued a life of meaning while ruling the greatest empire of the age.
You can study any of the greats and you will find similar practices and approaches in their daily lives.
This article will address one of those practices. The concepts here leverage the research of Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and those who followed him in their research of the psychological state of flow, the optimal state of human performance. I have adapted the concepts based on my own understanding and learnings from research and application.
It is my intention that you can use these concepts in your personal and professional life to grow. And, you can use them to understand why your employees, customers and others are reacting the way they are. You will have the tools to help them step back, reassess, and build a new pattern of behavior that leads to greater achievement and fulfillment.
How We See Challenges
In every moment we are faced with challenges. Now, you may not see it that way but it is true. Inside of your body there is a battle to maintain your life, your well-being, your mental and emotional status quo. Outside, you have to earn a living, engage in conversations, drive your car, pay your bills...
You get the idea. There's a lot that you have to do.
Most of the things you face daily you probably look at as being easy: Making dinner, driving to the office, browsing Facebook or LinkedIn. But on occasion, you are faced with something that appears difficult: talking with your significant other or your boss about what's on your mind, training for a marathon, creating a new product, service, or process.
When we face a challenge, we make an instant decision about what we will believe about the ease or difficulty of that challenge. Depending on our state of mind and our emotions, we may see a challenge as easy at one time and difficult at another. These beliefs are not objective truths, but rather, subjective interpretations based on a number of factors.
Leaders are no different than you in this regard. They also immediately judge a task to be easy or difficult. However, what they do about the challenge may be different, as you will see below.
How We Access Required Skills
When we see a challenge, we immediately assess it. And, as a part of the evaluation if it is easy or difficult, we consider the skills we believe we have in the moment. We may engage in little or no conscious thought because our skills are habitual and the task appears easy. As an example, rolling over in bed. That is easy for most of us most of the time. But, if you had a broken leg that was elevated in a sling, you would look at the challenge differently and you would assess your skills accordingly.
When we place the line representing our access to the required skills perpendicular to the line representing our belief about the challenge we face, things start to look a bit more interesting.
Where Your Skills Meet The Challenge
Somewhere on the chart we are building you can place a marker for where your belief about the challenge and your ability to access to the required skills intersect. At this point, you engage in the activity and generate a result.
If the challenge is easy, and you can access the skills habitually, you do it without thinking. Let's imagine this is what it is like to read road signs on your way to the office. You really don't need to look too hard because you habitually recognize the surrounding area and the shape of the sign, its position, the length of the words, etc.
But, consider the situation where you leave the office with friends to go to a new restaurant for lunch. You know this is an easy challenge because you know how to drive and you know roughly where the restaurant is and if you do have a question, your GPS or friends will likely help you. However, as you start to drive and eventually get closer to the restaurant, you need to pay more attention--you need to focus on accessing your navigation skills--to successfully complete your challenge.
Another scenario could be that you have a difficult challenge, like making a sale to a new client because you need the commission to pay your mortgage. This is where it gets much more interesting. You may have sold many clients before but this one triggers something within you, probably because your house is on the line. The skills you have access to are not your master sales skills, but rather, because of your fear or anxiety you only automatically trigger patterns of mixing up your words, dropping your sales materials, getting your presentation out of order.
You see from this latter scenario, it is not a matter of whether or not you have master sales skills. What matters is if you can access them in a given moment.
What Triggers Your Habitual Skills
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed an overlay of emotions that are felt in each sector of the grid. As you can see below, there are eight core emotions that come into play when we are facing a challenge and accessing our skills.
Using our examples from above, you can see that driving to the office--an easy challenge completed with skills you access habitually--would likely generate a feeling of apathy or at most boredom. On the other hand, driving to lunch--an easy challenge completed with skills that you access by focusing your attention--would be relaxing, especially if you are with friends and anticipating a good meal and enjoyable conversation.
However, when you consider the sale you have to make to pay your mortgage, it appears difficult and you start to feel worried or even anxiety because the habitual skills that get triggered are those of you questioning whether you can do this thing. Your thoughts betray you. Your self-talk defeats you. If you don't shift your mind, you will likely lose the sale and not be able to pay your mortgage.
Here is Where You Want to Access Some Mental Tools
Here are a five tools that I have found work well:
1. Breathe deeply
2. Remind yourself of similar challenges where you were successful
3. Bring to mind feelings of gratitude for those past successes
4. Visualize yourself easily doing what is required to be successful in this new scenario, not just the end state of being successful
5. Decide that you will do your best and stay focused on giving rather than getting
We will come back to how these impact your performance shortly. For the moment, let's take a peek at the optimal state of human performance.
Accessing the State of Flow
In the center of all of these emotions (at the peak of the blue line), we can find the point where we believe our challenge and our ability to access skills meet. This is the point at which we are engaged to the peak of our abilities in the moment. We may have performed better in the past, but never under these specific conditions.
This is why a quarterback can play an amazing game one week and then just not be quite as good the next week. He may not be able to access the same level of skills he showed the previous week. It's not that he's a different player or that the challenge of throwing the ball to a receiver has changed, it is primarily what is in his mind and the emotions in his body that are affecting his ability to access the higher skills he showed previously.
Just to the right and slightly above of this center point, in the green zone of 'flow,' is where all human growth occurs. To the left we are not challenged beyond the skills we have access to and below we are not focused enough to build new neural pathways in our brain. We need the state of flow to connect parts of our brain that are just beyond the connections we've made before. This is when optimal performance takes place.
This does not happen without practice. Professional athletes could not access the flow state and perform seeming miraculous feats on the field or court if they had not pressed themselves through rigorous and disciplined physical, mental, and emotional effort in practice.
They cannot just walk on the field and achieve greatness. They are not born with it. They must practice.
The conditions that make this state possible are:
● Being involved in an activity with a clear set of goals
● Receiving clear and immediate feedback regarding your progress
● Perceived challenges must be in balance with perceived skills
When these conditions are met, and we achieve flow we lose awareness of ourselves, time shifts and a host of other phenomena occur. We literally move into an altered state of consciousness and an altered state of reality. Afterwards it is exhilarating, even addictive.
What Happens When These Goals Are Too Small?
Nearly 70% of the U.S. workforce is disengaged. They're bored, apathetic or saboteurs in their jobs. This is primarily because the conditions for flow are not right. One of those conditions is the lack of a challenge that appropriately engages their need to focus on accessing their skills.
If you feel apathetic or bored you are not thinking big enough. You are taking on challenges that are easy and you don't have to focus intensely to access the skills you require to meet the challenge. If you are relaxed in a task, you are focusing, but still, the challenge is too easy. When you reach a state of feeling in control, you have pushed yourself close to the edge of the skills you can access in the moment using intense focus, but you have not yet crossed the boundary into growth. If you stay here, you will never really achieve the flow state and you will be good, but not amazing.
If you find yourself typically somewhere along the blue curve, you have an opportunity to shine. You can choose bigger goals that make you uncomfortable. You can stretch beyond your skills and move out of what you perceive to be your safe zone. Just on the other side is the place where you will amaze yourself and the world. Research shows that the average stretch to move us to growth is about 4% beyond our previous best in the specific scenario.
What Happens When Your Goal is Too Big?
Yes, you read that right. Your goal can be too big. And it's stopping you.
Now, before you quote me, give me a moment to explain what that means.
Every time you choose a goal, you may say to yourself consciously, 'I can do this!' but in reality your subconscious mind is saying, 'Are you kidding me? Remember when we tried to achieve (fill in the blank) and we failed?'
Your emotions and your behaviors are primarily governed by your subconscious patterns and beliefs, not your conscious thoughts or consciously stated affirmations. When you take on a goal that is beyond subconscious belief of what is easy, you will start to have doubts and you may engage in defeating self talk. These words lead to feelings of worry and anxiety when you are habitually accessing the level of skills available at that moment. This is why so many people say, 'I am worried, but I don't know why,' or 'I just feel anxious, but I can't explain it.'
They are subconsciously believing that the challenge is increasingly difficult and their subconscious mind is only allowing habitual access to the skills that are ill-suited for the challenge. Therefore, this individual faces failure. If they attempt to focus more intensely, to use their will to achieve, or to just work harder, they will become emotionally aroused with anger or other unpleasant emotions. In this state, they are likely to get stuck or to retreat and accept failure as their destiny. On occasion, the person who is angry enough will break through. But, this is not an ideal plan. No one can long stand the presence of someone who is perpetually angry.
There are strategies to move through the emotions you may experience along the red curve. You don't want to get stuck here or retreat so you need to be aware when you start feeling this way so you can take the appropriate action steps.
Here is Where You Want to Access Some Mental Tools
● Breathe deeply
● Remind yourself that this goal is really a series of smaller milestones
● Bring to mind something you can do in the next 5 minutes that will move you in the direction of your goal
● Visualize yourself being successful taking this step while feeling gratitude for your ability to see success is possible
● Set an alarm for 5 minutes and take the action step you are aware of
Managing Your Expectations of Flow
As of yet, humans have not figured out how to maintain the flow state for long periods of time. In fact, it is not likely that we can without causing harm to our bodies. Athletes in extreme sports who are experts at moving themselves into the flow state to achieve spectacular results repeatedly risk addictions to drugs and may suffer depression. This is not a warning, but more of an awareness.
After achieving flow and maintaining that state for some time, your body needs to rest and recover.
You've consumed neuro-chemicals that need to be replaced. And, with any induced state of consciousness there can be a 'crash.' If you don't know this, you may think something is wrong with you or you may seek out chemical stimulants to feel better.
Don't worry. Plan for the relaxation and recovery after you go through a flow experience. That is part of the cycle. It is part of growth.
You Can Learn to leverage the Power of Flow
As you consider the daily practices of other brave leaders, you may realize you have areas where you too could improve your leadership.
I encourage you to leverage the latest research in human experience so you can overcome the mental and emotional patterns holding you back from success. The practices suggested above are proven to work through rigorous double-blind tests at Harvard, Stanford and other top universities.
Graphics in this article are adapted from the work of Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. ©2017 Tony Bodoh International, LLC
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