Sunday, May 31, 2009

Are you in the flow?

A couple of weeks ago I went sailing in the SF Bay. I am total novice sailor so excuse my ignorance of the nautical lingo. During part of the trip I was in charge of guiding the boat, which was not very intuitive. Steer to the right, ahem! starboard, and the boat turns to the opposite side. Try to correct the trajectory and off it goes, too much of a swerve. You loose the sail's optimal angle with the wind and the boat slows down.

At some point instead of fighting with my brain I decided to let go and just "feel". Magically I started getting the boat "on track". Moreover I was able to led my fellow seamen in the complex maneuver of tacking(*). I felt a connection between my hand, the rudder, the boat and the sea. I was able to rationalize my moves and I had the theory in my mind when I performed them but my ability to guide the boat was not the direct result of a conscious rational effort. Time passed by without me noticing it.

This evoked Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly's concept of flow, which is "the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity". Here's a link to his presentation at TED. Wikipedia quotes the formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna regarding his qualification for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix:

"I was already on pole, [...] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel."

Music and Arts in general, Sports, Spirituality... seem to be fields prone to generate the flow. Apparently software developers call it the "Zone" or "Hackmode" and stock market operators say they are "in the pipe".

(*) Tacking consists on changing course by turning the boat's head into and through the wind and is relatively complicated, especially for a rookie mariner like me.

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