Being in your element — that elusive “it” is the magic crossroads of aptitude and passion. When “it” feels right in your gut. There’s no stopping you; anything is possible. You’re in the ‘zone”; you’re feeling the “flow.”

It’s a feeling of being at one with your setting and your pursuit.

High-performance athletes talk about a near-clairvoyance that occurs in this psychological state. The once-legendary Boston Celtic star Bill Russell noted in his autobiography Second Wind:

“It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken.”

Author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose research into the state of optimal performance led to his seminal book on the topic, defines flow as a state of heightened focus and blissful immersion.

“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other… Sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.”

The Elusive “Flow” and Pastimes

We civilians wrestle with finding this elusive sense of “flow.” And it’s often in our leisure time that it seems most difficult to pin down.

Jeff Ikler wrote recently and eloquently of fly fishing. He doesn’t feel he has the natural ability to be a great fly fisherman, regardless of his interest.

The mismatch between his ability and the challenge of attaining expertise in fly-fishing creates a frustrating behavioral loop. Jeff writes, about his hobby:

“I am passionate about it, but I have only marginal aptitude when it comes to it. I’m only marginally good at it because I don’t practice, and I don’t practice because I’m not inclined to.”

Maybe Jeff won’t find fly fishing puts him in the zone. So what?

He’ll continue to enjoy the sport, the moments of validation with it all comes together, the restorative serenity of nature. And that’s not bad. 

Finding your “flow”

Professor Csikszentmihalyi notes that the “flow” — the optimum state of hyper-focus and performance that seemingly suspends time — is the delicate balance between the degree of challenge and ability. 

To achieve flow, says Csikszentmihalyi, the balance must be the “Goldilocks Moment” — not too hot, not too cold, just the right. The calibration between competency and challenge is important so that the commitment, the determination to improve through practice, delivers the pay-off.

If the challenge is not met with adequate competency, explains Professor Csikszentmihalyi, you’re just stressed. On the other hand, a challenge that’s too easily mastered quickly becomes boring.

“You want to feel inspired, but not overwhelmed. Not so much challenge that you burn out, not so little that you get bored.” — Csikszentmihalyi

How do you know if you’re in the “flow”?

What does being in the “flow,” in your “element,” feel like?

The literature on the topic includes the following characteristics of flow.

  1. Complete concentration on the task — a sense of total immersion where you’re so drawn in, you’re unaware of external circumstances.
  2. Change in sense of time, whereas it either speeds up (“I can’t believe 2 hours has passed”) or slows down in the trance-like “flow.”
  3. The experience is intrinsically rewarding and pleasurable, tied to the appropriate balance of challenge and skills.
  4. Effortlessness and ease, yet control, which loops back to the sense of pleasure.

The Upshot

It doesn’t have to be the “Flow” or nothing.

For heaven’s sake, give yourself some headspace.

You don’t have to be great at something, particularly a hobby, to enjoy it.

Maybe Jeff Ikler won’t find fly fishing puts him in the zone. So what?

He’ll continue to enjoy the sport, the moments of validation with it all comes together, the restorative serenity of nature. And that’s not bad.

The idea of a hobby is play for adults. Children just play; they don’t agonize whether they’re good at it or not.

Would you give something you enjoy doing, your “play,” even if the “Flow” is beyond your grasp?

Of course not. Nor should you.

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