The Art of Strengths Coaching

F is for The Flowing Life

There are many ways to live life. One approach is to aim to flow rather than fear. It is to follow a framework in which you can flow, focus, finish and, as a by-product, find fulfilment.

Different people follow this approach in different ways. Some set aside blocks of time in which they can pursue certain activities. They then immerse themselves in writing, gardening, designing, doing creative projects or tackling challenges.

Some athletes prepare themselves properly both physically and psychologically. They then go into the arena and choose to flow rather than be consumed by fear. They aim to give their best and leave everything in the arena.

Some people apply this approach to their whole life. They aim to create and follow a framework in which they can get the right blend between quality of life and quality of work. They aim to live fully and also do fulfilling work.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pioneered much of the work in this field and published his findings in Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. He said that flow experiences are those where you become completely absorbed in an activity and time goes away.

You start by choosing to do something stimulating and perhaps stretching. Mihaly says that you may then go through some of the following stages.

You concentrate fully on what you are doing, set clear goals and believe you have a chance of achieving success.

You have a sense of control over your actions, do satisfying work and get immediate feedback.

You experience a deep and effortless involvement that removes the frustrations of everyday life.

You find your concern for self disappears, but paradoxically your sense of self emerges stronger.

You find the experience is so enjoyable that your sense of time disappears.

You keep doing your best, keep developing and sometimes achieve your picture of success.

Looking back on your life, can you think of a specific situation when you went through some of these stages? This could have been in your personal or professional life.

You may have been writing an article, playing a sport, singing a song or whatever. What did you do right then? What were the principles you followed?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the past when you aimed to flow, focus, finish and, as by product, found fulfilment.

Describe the specific things you did then to take these steps.

Describe the specific things that happened as a result.

Mihaly and his colleagues interviewed thousands of people from all walks of life when studying flow. These included factory workers in Chicago, farmers in Italy teenagers in Tokyo and paraplegics recovering from accidents. He explained some of the findings in the following way.

They all said these same things. So ‘flow’ seems to be a phenomenological state that is the same across cultures. 

What I ‘discovered’ was that happiness is not something that just happens. We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate.  

On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is therefore something that we make happen.

Mihaly says that teams may also go into a state of flow. He describes one example in the following way.

Surgeons say that during a difficult operation they have the sensation that the entire operating team is a single organism, moved by the same purpose.

They describe it as a ‘ballet’ in which the individual is subordinated to the group performance, and all involved share in a feeling of harmony and power. 

Great teams get the foundations right. They aim to implement the right strategy with the right people in the right way. They then create a framework in which people can channel their talents to flow, focus and finish.

Flow in action

Imagine you want to flow in a particular situation. You may want to give a keynote speech, sing at an audition, run a workshop, participate in a sporting event or whatever.

It will be important to set aside time to prepare properly. You can then be fully present when going into the situation, follow your chosen principles and aim to achieve your picture of success.

There are many ways to do your best in the situation. Here is one approach you may wish to take.

Step One

You can clarify the things you can control and prepare properly before going into the particular situation. 

You can clarify the real results you want to achieve and translate these into a clear picture of success.

You can clarify the key strategies you can follow to give yourself the greatest chance of success.

Step Two

You can recall a similar situation in the past when you were able to flow.

You can clarify what you did right then – the principles you followed – and how you can follow similar principles to flow in the future situation.  

You can rehearse how you can follow these principles – plus maybe add other skills – to flow in the future situation.

Step Three

You can click in action when going into the situation, be fully present and follow your chosen principles.

You can, if thing go off track, buy time to clarify the real results to achieve and then pursue your chosen strategies to achieve these results. 

You can continue to follow your chosen principles and then flow, focus and finish on the way towards achieving your picture of success.

Flow rather than fear

People are more likely to flow when they dare to do their best. They are less likely to do so when they are consumed by fear. This is true for both individuals and teams.

One soccer coach gave an insight into how a coaching icon inspired him when he attended the elite training programme. He explained this in the following way.

The famous coach explained that the game was about getting the fundamentals right. It was then about encouraging and enabling the players to flow. This was a breath of fresh air.  

Many other coaches had come in to lecture us, but they kept talking about fear. They listed the number of coaches that had got fired and how few got employed again after losing their first job.

After leaving the room I felt inspired. Going back to my coaching role, I focused on doing what I believed in. I aimed to become the best kind of coach I could be.   

People who flow often enjoy the journey as much as reaching the goal. Mihaly explains this approach in his book Flow.

The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever.  

The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself.

The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognising that you are a flow.

The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going.

This does, however, highlight a paradox. In order to enjoy the journey, sometimes you need to set a specific goal. How to make this happen?

One approach is to set  stimulating but achievable goals each day. This give you the chance of achieving meaningful success. You can then go through the process of absorption, adventure and achievement.

Mihaly describes this approach in his book Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Here is how he describes the process that people can follow to both enjoy the journey and reach the goal.

Wake up in the morning with a specific goal to look forward to. Creative individuals don’t have to be dragged out of bed; they are eager to start the day.

This is not because they are cheerful, enthusiastic types. Nor do they necessarily have something exciting to do. But they believe that there is something meaningful to accomplish each day, and they can’t wait to get started on it.  

Most of us don’t feel our actions are that meaningful. Yet everyone can discover at least one thing every day that is worth waking up for.

It could be meeting a certain person, shopping for a special item, potting a plant, cleaning the office desk, writing a letter, trying on a new dress. 

It is easier if each night before falling asleep, you review the next day and choose a particular task that, compared to the rest of the day, should be relatively interesting and exciting.  

Then next morning, open your eyes and visualise the chosen event – play it out briefly in your mind, like an inner videotape, until you can hardly wait to get dressed and get going. It does not matter if at first the goals are trivial and not that interesting.

The important thing is to take the easy first steps until you master the habit, and then slowly work up to more complex goals.

Eventually most of the day should consist of tasks you look forward to, until you feel that getting up in the morning is a privilege, not a chore.


Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a situation in which you would like to flow?

How can you prepare both physically and psychologically? How can you get enough rest? How can you rehearse properly? How can you clarify the principles you want to follow? How can you rehearse managing any potential challenges?

How can you follow your chosen rituals when going into the situation? How can you, for example, breathe deeply and then click into action? How can you then be fully present?

How can you follow your chosen principles? How can you stay calm and buy time if things go awry? How can clarify the potential way forward? How can you do what you believe in? How can you work towards achieving your picture of success?

If you wish, try tackling the final exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to flow, focus, finish and, as a by product, maybe find fulfilment.

Describe the specific things you can do then to take these steps. 

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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