Actualized Leadership: Flow (Part 1 of 2)

Actualized Leadership: Flow (Part 1 of 2)

The best moments in life usually occur when a person’s body or mind are stretched to their limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The basketball court for me, during a game, is the most peaceful place I can imagine.
Michael Jordan

In our last BLOG we examined Candor, the first of the three behavioral or “doing” characteristics of Actualized Leaders.  In this entry I would like to explore the concept of “peak experience” or Flow, what Abraham Maslow referred to as the dividend for being more self-actualized.  In this entry we will explore and define the concept of Flow.  In the next entry we will examine strategies to help you discover Flow, or more precisely said, to help it find you.

For our purposes, we will define the term Flow as follows:

An optimal state of consciousness where we perform at our highest level, often achieving more than we thought possible and with seemingly less effort.

This concept was first studied in western culture by the famous psychologist and philosopher William James in the late 19th century.  James referred to this phenomenon as a “mystic experience” and attributed it to spiritual or Divine intervention.  He based the concept of mystical experience on what the ancient Greeks and Romans referred to as “eudaimonia,” a happy and good life based on fulfilling one’s highest potential.  In her book “Big Magic,” author Elizabeth Gilbert (famed author of “Eat Pray Love”) reminds us that both the Greeks and Romans described this behavior has having a Divine or spiritual element.  They believed that greatest human endeavor, whether from an artist or a warrior, was the result of a Divine or spiritual guide helping to facilitate a magical moment or breakthrough outcome.  In this sense, they did not consider an individual to be a genius; rather, the individual had a genius intervening on his or her behalf.

Maslow, who was uncomfortable attributing such experiences to a supernatural cause, referred to these instances as “peak experiences” where the individual feels intense, ecstatic emotions and seemingly limitless horizons.  He believed these experiences were well within the natural world, and he focused his research on the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects associated with them.

Influenced by Maslow’s work, world famous researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term Flow to describe this state of optimal and peak performance.  Today, we often think of artists, performers, and athletes who are “in the zone” to describe Flow.

Irrespective of whether you attribute this experience to natural or supernatural causes, there are some common elements that occur, and they follow:

  1. Complete immersion in the task or activity
  2. A sense of ecstasy that transcends our normal understanding of reality and performance
  3. A total sense of serenity or peace
  4. A sense of timelessness – losing track of time
  5. A paradoxical feeling of being both more powerful, and yet more helpless

Have you experienced Flow in your life?  Maybe you have found yourself “in the zone” while running, skiing, writing, or playing a musical instrument, or perhaps, while working?

Here’s the tricky part – you can’t find or create Flow.  It has to find you.  But there are specific things you can do to increase the likelihood and frequency of experiencing Flow.

And here’s the good news – we all have access to it, every one of us.  And research shows that those who experience Flow are the happiest and most satisfied among us.

So, whether you believe you have the potential to be a genius, or to have a genius, we’ll discuss the specific steps you can take for achieving this optimal state of being in our next blog.


  1. Willie Smith

    Dr. Sparks Flow appears to be the point or state where one has achieved a state of harmony. The state where one is both aware of surroundings yet not inhibited by the reality of the task at hand, freeing the mind to achieve a creativity beyond comprehension.

  2. Dr Will Sparks

    Willie, yes, exactly … A sense of harmony and connection to something greater than ourselves.


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