The SuperBowl game last night gave us an incredible lesson in the power of flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi popularized this wonderful term (Rolla May in the 50s called it the “peak experience”) where we enter “the zone,” get “in the groove,” or “on a roll.” Flow is statr of heightened awareness, focus and accomplishment. “Chicks,” as he is sometimes called, is known for describing an individual state of being, but his work on Florence also talks about the social conditions of flow, where things come together to promote a general flow. Flow becomes a social phenomena.
Anyone who has played team sports know this to be true. There are certain conditions that make for extraordinary team play. Sometimes we are aware of them and often we are not. Last night, the Ravens entered a flow state from the moment the game began and played a smooth, skillful, winning game. The team, as one social unit, was in the winning groove.
Until the lights went off and knocked them out of their groove. The team improvised on the ground, it powered with amazing throws and catches. It was just awesome. Somehow, that half hour in the dark broke the flow state for the Ravens and they almost lost the game. They were going to lose the game but were saved by the 49rs–who had entered their own flow state BECAUSE of the lights going out. But the 49ers fumbled their play and the Ravens ground to a close victory.
In my book Creative Intelligence, I quote Keith Richards from his biography, Life. His agent forces Richards and Mick Jagger into a room and tells them not to come out until they’ve written a song–which neither has ever done. They write “As Tears Go By,” later sung by 17 year-old Marianne Faithful. Richards discovers he can do (working with Jagger) what he never thought he could do–write songs.
He says he’s in the room “…and then something else took over in this process. I don’t want to say magical, but you can’t put your finger on it . It was a revelation, an epiphany, this discover that I had a gift I had no idea existed. Song writing.” The flow state came when he worked as a team with Jagger under intense pressure.
The flow state is a critical part of creativity and we know little about it really. We know it is mostly social, not individual, it is unusual yet can be structured and made to happen, and it is fragile–the lights can go out on it. You can manage it–up to a point. You can put people together as a team to generate flow but keeping that flow going is perhaps the most delicate management task of all.