Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

How to go with the Flow and reboot your brain

To help hang on to the pleasant glow of the Easter holiday weekend, here’s a posting with a different focus. In recent months I’ve been enjoying the natural beauty of my adopted homeland Australia by splashing around in the surf here at Manly Beach.

While surfing can be a rigorous and sometimes punishing exercise, it's also very good for focusing the mind and “rebooting” my thought processes. I always come away with fresh perspective and insights. Here are a few I’d like to share:

– the first time I went into the surf with a surfboard, I immediately noticed one thing: the ocean’s utter indifference to my very existence let alone what grand plans I had about "hanging ten". Any notion of my being in control of the situation vanished and was replaced by a healthy respect for the power of the natural forces at play and to which I was now subject. From what I’ve seen, the best surfers sense and work with these forces to create powerful displays of artistic athleticism. Overall, I find this insight is a hugely useful antidote to one’s own controlling tendencies and a good reality check.

– a surfer with 20 years experience said to me the other day, “only about 20% of waves are really rideable, the trick is to know which ones so you have fun instead of getting pummelled!” In a busy lineup at a popular beach you can’t get on every rideable wave that does come in. That means over 80% of your time is spent sitting on your board watching the horizon. Again, this is a useful refocus on what you have control over and what you don’t; you’re not in control of the swell and when the sets come in, but you can control your positioning, location, and level of acceptable risk (as in, “Oh hell, not sure if I can make this one, but I’m going for it!”). It’s also about matching your sphere of concern to match your sphere of control, being aware of what you can and can’t influence and focusing your energy on where it’s going to make the most difference.

– I can tell you now: the fitness level that surfing requires is far beyond what anyone who’s never done it can imagine, and the skill it takes could never be guessed at just by watching the guys who are out there…they make it look so easy...! The secret to success is to have a go, to just get out there and ride waves. So in parallel with patience to wait for the waves to come in, you need to resurface after a wipe-out, get back on your board and get paddling – there's no time to float around the break zone feeling sorry for yourself or cursing your luck because the next wave will be on top of you. It can be hard and frustrating learning new skills but we grow by learning and the challenge helps us to discover just how resourceful we are.

– when I (finally) do catch a wave, it’s amazing!! Despite the frustration of being a beginner, this experience helps foster the playful attitude of “aww come on…just one more wave!” that takes me back to my childhood days at the beach when I never wanted to leave the water. It’s a curious thing: like anything worthwhile, when you have to work at it to achieve, the appreciation is greater and the activity becomes very attractive. I think there's more to it than being grateful for the fun to be had. Experiencing the powerful forces of the ocean in this way fosters an appreciation and sense of awe for the natural energy flow of the planet, for something deeper and profoundly older we are. Like the surfers have long been telling us: "Dude…just go with the flow!"

Turns out they're on to something.

The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively about Flow. Most of us have been in a “flow state” before, where the goals are clear, feedback is immediate, there’s a balance between opportunity and capacity (i.e. your skills are pushed to their very limit of application), focus and concentration deepen, you are highly present and in the moment, sense of time is altered and the sense of one’s own ego fades as you are immersed in the environment and “become one” with the activity. It’s a good place to be for your body and mind and I find surfing’s a great way to get there.

But don’t just take my word for it: “It’s worth remembering what John Paul Getty said when he was asked in an interview what was the best thing he’d ever done in his life. He said it was when he was a teenager, when he and his friends picked up surfboards, paddled out and rode the waves. This was an old man, who’d been the richest man in the world and done whatever he wanted, and surfing was better than all of it.” [Chris Hines, quoted in High Surf by Tim Baker]

**I invite your comments on what you do to get into a "flow state". It could be a hobby or a passion, could even be something you did over the long weekend. To write your comment just click on "comments" below and a new window will open for you to enter your thoughts. I look forward to reading what you have to say!


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