When our youngest son went off to college out of state, I was not prepared for the silence and the grief of the empty nest. I had to ask myself a challenging question: Who am I without my kids? For 25 years my wife and I had poured ourselves into our children's lives. What now? Work, of course; I love to speak and write, but what about play, hobbies, or outside interests? I made a bucket list: River-rafting for the first time? Check! Hot Yoga? Check! Kayaking? Check! But what had I ONCE done that I loved? The answer was basketball.
I learned the old guys played at the health club in Edmonds on Monday nights and Saturday mornings. So I showed up in a brand-new pair of Nikes ready to rumble. It turns out, I went to jump and nothing happened. I went to cut and my legs didn't respond. It's a young man's game. My muscle memory had Alzheimer's. But I persisted.
The other night we were down 18-6. I was 0-5. The guy guarding me fouled me on every shot. Then something happened. A switch was flipped. After his sixth foul on my arm, I turned to him and said with confidence, "I am not going to miss again!"
Like Lazarus from the dead, the old competitive juices kicked in for the first time in 25 years. I hit a 3-pointer and then another. He came out to stop my third 3-point attempt and I faked and drove to the hoop for a lay-in. I was grabbing every rebound in sight. I had a tip in. I did a turnaround jump shot from eight feet. I was 5-5. We went on a 14-0 run and came back to win. I played defense like never before and he went 0-7. Time flew by in a blur. Like a voice in the wind, the game was over, gone. I stood there in the afterglow of the win. I went over to the guy and said, "Thanks for the inspiration." He looked at me with a puzzled expression. I didn't care. Endorphins coursed through my veins. One young guy on my team said with a big smile, "Wow, I have never seen you play like that. Nice job."
I asked myself, WHY? Why had I made that statement? Why had I played with such passion? How had I put myself into that FLOW state? It was so much fun. Time had stood still.
In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow-a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. It is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where a person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. Flow is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill-and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.
When are people most happy? According to Mihaly's research, people are happiest when they are engaged in specific activities with optimal flow. Creative unfolding occurs: Ecstasy (writers), Rapture (artists), and Zone (athletes). They stop thinking and just do. It happens after the human will has been asserted, discipline and order over time. Have you ever been in the FLOW state: on the golf course, in sales, making a presentation, or building something? Most people have, but just didn't know what to call it. "I just got lucky," they say. It's more than that. It's preparation meeting opportunity. It is following your bliss. The big question: How can you recapture it? Why? You want to recapture it because a person becomes more after each flow experience. We do more of what we love and our effectiveness soars; we do more in less time. It's living in the moment. Frederick Nietzsche said, "Maturity is the seriousness of acquiring the attitude of a child at play." It brings order and meaning to our lives and work.
"KNOW THYSELF," said the Oracle of Delphi. Have you ever wanted to prove some naysayer wrong and then did? Have you ever had a competitor-in school, sports, music, or business-and you vowed to beat them? Chances are you have and you did.
What do you love to do? What do you have a passion for? In what specific activity, when you are engaged, does time distort? What comes easy for you? When you surrender to those activities, FLOW happens. To thine own self be true. Soar with your strengths.
Olympic athletes have long practiced the art of Reflection and Imagination. They are taught to "Flip Back to a Past Win" and remember it. They learn to recall the emotion, the detail, the result, and the ensuing positive feedback. They experience again the high fives, the pats on the back, the articles written about them, and so on.
Once that memory is re-created, imagine closing the next sale, making the perfect putt, or finishing the project on time and under budget. Do this over and over again a couple of times a day for a month. One day, FLOW will happen.
I can't wait to play again next Monday. I still can't jump, but hey, neither can the other old guys. One thing I know, if FLOW happens again, the juice will be worth the squeeze. It's time to reflect and imagine.