Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

In defence of flow

A response to Barbara Gail Montero

In her essay “Against Flow”, Barbara Gail Montero attacks the idea that “flow” can enable the true virtuoso to transcend difficulty, struggle and self-doubt, and to perform with effortless excellence. She writes:

Flow sounds appealing, and it seems to frequently coincide with some of our most pleasurable pinnacles of human experience, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into optimal performance.

Notwithstanding the essay’s pithy title, it quickly becomes clear that Professor Montero is arguing, not against flow itself, but against what she sees as the prevalent idea that in fields such as ballet, concert performance and philosophy, expert practitioners can rely on flow rather than on work, physical effort, conscious thought and reflective self-analysis to achieve excellence.

To my mind, this seems to arise from a misunderstanding of what flow is, and what its uses might be. As I have understood it, flow is not a means or a method of achieving mastery or excellence, but rather the occasional, undependable and elusive reward for having achieved them. It is, first and foremost, rare, and it cannot be relied on to show up on any particular occasion. So, a concert pianist who trusted to flow to stand in for the hard work of deliberate practice, directed effort and self-awareness would be taking an unacceptable, indeed insane, risk. My suspicion is that flow happens when the deliberation, the self-examination and the physical effort become so integrated into a performance that they look and feel like second nature, as if the performer doesn’t have to think or observe or execute a difficult physical action, while the thought, the observation and the execution nevertheless have to occur.

Flow, then, is an end rather than the means. As Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal put it, flow is a sense of ekstasis, of being beside oneself, an altered state of consciousness. It is true that some of the groups and individuals that they write about in Stealing Fire (the Navy Seals, for example) are trying to find a way to control flow, to summon it at will, but of course that’s not to say that they think it can be used as a substitute for gruelling training. If they can control the flow, that may make their performance better in some areas, but I doubt if anyone thinks that their training will become any less demanding on that account.

The misunderstanding that I referred to above is not Montero’s own. She sees very clearly that flow-as-end is a much more useful idea than flow-as-means:

Csikszentmihalyi’s research suggests that flow is conducive to optimal experience. But it doesn’t tell us anything about whether it is conducive to optimal performance. So look for flow when you want to feel better, but not necessarily when you want to do better.

This is unobjectionable as far as it goes, but it leaves out of account the possibility that flow, while appearing only rarely, may well improve performance, when it is present. It is plausible that the undistracted mind may think, observe, reflect and exercise control more effectively, even when it feels like it’s doing these things “unconsciously”. And, even when flow isn’t present, its prospect may provide the motivation of the performer to work harder, do better.

Montero is concerned that the pursuit of flow may distract us from rather than assist our pursuit of excellence:

… if developing one’s potential is key to a meaningful life – developing what Immanuel Kant speaks of in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals as our duty to cultivate our ‘predispositions to greater perfection’ – then flow, while bringing momentary happiness, might impede the attainment of that loftier value.

If it is indeed the case that the cultivation of our “predispositions to greater perfection” is what gives life its meaning, it is nevertheless far from obvious that there is a clear, discoverable path of development or cultivation, to be followed by the would-be virtuoso without deviation or distraction; or that the attempt to achieve ekstasis will necessarily lead us away from that path.

While it seems to me that Montero overstates her case, I have to admit that her prescription of fully conscious striving over a prolonged period is unlikely to be damaging, except to the extent that it may discourage inexperienced people from trying to fulfill their potential. Kotler and Wheal (and the Navy Seals) notwithstanding, I remain sceptical of the notion that the active pursuit of flow or ekstasis will be found rewarding. When flow comes, it does so unannounced, and having been hoped for rather than confidently expected. In the meantime, why not play through that exercise again?

Posted by Art on 16-Feb-2020.