Elite athletes often describe clicking into a zone - such as a runner’s high - where they’re operating at peak performance. In this heightened state of intense focus yet relaxation their awareness is completely absorbed in the present moment. Everything is effortless as if they’re on autopilot. Time may seem to slow down. It’s intensely blissful to the point of being addictive. Surfers travel the world seeking the “perfect wave,” actually a peak experience of total synchronicity between inner and outer. Riding the wave is a zone experience. Mountain climbers push themselves to the limits of physical and mental endurance, seeking literally a peak experience of exhilaration, almost intoxication. They risk their life to be on top of the world.
For world-class athletes the competitive stakes are high. They go to great lengths to recreate the zone experience, this level of peak performance. It’s a state of both body and mind.
Top competitors - from track to swimming to skiing - are so evenly matched physically at the world-class level that the deciding factor for competitive success often becomes mental. Being “on your game” becomes all important. Books have been written about “inner tennis” and “inner golf.” The goal is to slip into an almost Zen-like state of balance, a state of being so centered, where inner and outer reality are so aligned, that inner vision effortlessly manifests into outer reality. You see the shot and take it. You put the ball in the hole. Everything just clicks.
Coaches try to motivate teams through positive thinking and stirring emotions. Pep rallies and cheerleaders up the stakes. But being in the zone is not something that can be achieved solely by force of will or conscious thinking. It’s as much about letting go as having focus. It’s finding that perfect state of balance where the conscious and subconscious levels of the mind are in synch. There’s no friction.
Being in the zone is clearly the way to go. Not only are we operating at peak capacity when we’re in the zone, but we’re doing so effortlessly. We’re doing less and accomplishing more. In addition, the experience is one of almost all-absorbing happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychologist, became fascinated by accounts of artists who were having experiences of intense happiness, which the psychologist termed being in “the flow.”
Michelangelo reportedly painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for days at a time, so absorbed in his work that he didn’t stop for food or sleep until he reached the point of passing out. He would then re-awake refreshed, start painting again, and re-enter the flow state of complete absorption. Musicians get into the groove during improvisations. They’re rapt in a heightened state of creative energy.
This type of experience is termed “autotelic,” meaning it’s so absorbing and fascinating it becomes an end in itself. Outside purposes and effects fade and dissolve. We’re in the moment. Paradoxically, it’s just when we’re not thinking about the goal that our performance becomes peak and the result most powerful.
Certain factors contribute to being in the zone. When we’re doing things we have a natural capacity for, that we’ve done many times before, we naturally start to run on autopilot. It’s easier for the subconscious mind to take over. If we’re intensely motivated and passionate about what we’re doing, if we truly love it, that helps. Think of surfers, musicians, mountain climbers. They’re not doing what they do for an ulterior motive. They love it. The experience is naturally autotelic, desired for its own sake.
Businesses have tried to incorporate this experience of being in the flow for management and staff. Obviously the more this experience can be fostered throughout a company, the more productive the company will be. Business models have even been developed to facilitate “group flow.” Think of creative, cutting-edge companies like Google that create a culture of relaxation and play within the workplace. Games are naturally autotelic. We play them for fun. They foster creativity and “flow.” Combining highly motivated, passionate, talented and skilled workers with an environment of relaxation and play is a formula for success. It’s a recipe for being in the zone.
Next time, Part II. Practical tips for living in the zone, in business and in life.