Go with the Flow

I grew up in a wordy family. My grandmother was a writer, my grandfather an editorialist, my father an educator, and my brother a librarian. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d end up messing about with words in some way, even though my pursuit of the letterpress is a more literal interpretation of the phrase. I’ve been accused of using big words (to be fair, it’s true), but it’s not to sound smart I assure you—my goal is always clarity. Words are delicious things and the good ones need to be savoured and shared. I bring that up because I want to tell you that I have an autotelic personality, which is the most accurate word I could find to describe how I roll. 

The idea of flow has become pervasive in our society, but the term is actually fairly recent. While the experience has existed under other names for millennium, it wasn’t until the mid-1970s when the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term Flow State. Mihaly was fascinated by artists, especially painters, who got lost in their work. Many of his subjects described being ‘carried along’ by a river of creativity—being in the flow. For many artists, to flow means the rest of the world fades away and the only imperative is the canvas. That act of creativity takes precedence over other expendable activities like eating and sleeping. When an artist is in the flow, time slips by unnoticed and nothing else matters. 

As the idea of flow gained traction through the 1980s, many groups and industries began studying it as a way of understanding human potential. The business world, sports psychologists, and education experts all got on board to try to find ways to maximize the understanding of the benefits of how people reach and maintain their ‘zone.’

Over years of study, they’ve identified some specific personality traits that make it easier for people to get into the flow: curiosity, determination, low self-centeredness, and high intrinsic motivation. It seems that getting into the zone requires someone to see value in the activity itself—that the journey of exploration and discovery is rewarding enough. To the artists out there, is this starting to sound familiar? If so, you probably have an autotelic personality too. 

Autotelic comes from two Greek words: auto should be self-explanatory (pun intended), and telic means ‘goal’—ergo: self-goal. Having an autotelic personality means that some self-contained activity is performed for the simple joy of the experience, rather than for any future benefit, which rings true for me. Certainly, nobody chooses visual arts as a career path in order to amass wealth or find stability.   

Flow is not just for the artists—the idea has spread into other important parts of our lives here in Fernie. How many flowy mountain bike trails do we have here? The idea of building a singletrack with the goal of getting people into a rhythm is absolutely about flow state. A flowy trail is like a Flow State Machine because it helps melt away everything around us but the exhilaration of the ride. 

Musicians also talk about being in the zone: ‘in the groove’ or ‘feeling it’ are ways you hear people talk about a great jam or notable performance. Letting go of nerves or insecurities and surrounding oneself with the moment allows a performer to hear notes in their head and get them to the strings unimpeded—it feels like swimming in music. 

Whatever you do and however you get there; know that flow state is one of the few sacred emotional spaces left to us. We should seek it, practice finding it, and work on maintaining it for no other reason than it’s good for our mental health. The biggest enemy of flow is interruption, so while I don’t advocate (often) skipping meals or sleep to stay there, I do recommend carving out significant time without your smart phone nearby, with the door locked, and with family informed that you should not be disturbed for a few hours. If they ask why, tell them it’s because you’re autotelic—I’m sure they’ll appreciate it as much as my family does.