Tag Archives: flow

How do successful people become successful?

I came across two articles that were of interest to me. One discussed whether talent is overrated, and the other discussed how learning can be improved through a change in mindset. I also read a book called Psychology of Flow.

Why are some people able to accomplish certain goals better than others?  Is it because of talent?  Or is it inherent ability?

According to Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, it is one’s outlook and attitude towards learning a task or concept that makes a big difference.  Attribution Theory, which examines people’s judgements on causes of events and behavior has  a big impact.  When someone fails at a task, is it attributed to a lack of ability or is attributed to something the person can control (e.g. environment, effort, etc.).

Learning to “master” a goal or concept is different than having “performance goals.”   When learning has “performance goals” attached to it, the person is less likely to take risks, and each task is a challenge to their self-concept.  Because the person becomes risk-adverse, experiences that will help them grow or flourish maybe ignored.  However, when trying to “master” a concept or task, people do not worry about failure and take the necessary risks, experiment and tinker with new approaches.   With a “mastery” mindset, the person believes that intelligence can grow and has a growth mindset, whereas, someone with “performance goals” may believe that intelligence is fixed and possess a fixed mindset.

The differences between a fixed and growth mindset are noticeable.  In a recent study, a group of Stanford undergrads with the growth mindset found it easier to transition to college life.

I read the book “Think Big,” by Ben Carson, who grew up in a poor neighborhood in Detroit.  His mother did not even have a High School education.  He grew up in a single family setting.  In the fifth grade, his classmates taunted him and called him stupid.  Currently, he is a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University.  In his book, he mentioned how the majority of people are “surface skimmers,” people that engage in “performance mindset,” and looking to acquire adequate information in order to pass a test.  There is a minority, known as “in-depth learners,” who learn for the sake of acquiring knowledge and understanding, also known as people with a “mastery mindset.”  Dr. Carson was doing in-depth learning while many of his classmates were not.

With the growth mindset, in order to grow, one’s current abilities must be stretched beyond one’s current abilities.  This is called Deliberate Practice.   With sustained practice, that is how one grows.  It is certainly unpleasant because practicing an activity that is beyond one’s current abilities is quite mentally demanding, otherwise it becomes mindless.  In other words, Deliberate Practice must be repeated many times.  Feedback on results must be continuously available.  A teacher, mentor, coach, parent is vital for providing crucial feedback.  Deliberate Practice requires much focus and concentration, which makes it “deliberate.”  This growth activity must be hard because it is mentally demanding, it is difficult to be sustained for a long period of time.   Since this is a growth mindset, one needs to focus on their weaknesses.  Because if one only focuses on what they are good at, they already know how to do it well and one does not grow.

Isn’t work Deliberate Practice?  No, because it is typically mentally demanding and tiring, but it is not because of the intense focus and concentration, but rather engaging in activities that one already knows how to do and spending long hours doing this.

A fixed mindset sticks to what is safe and reliable, which is does not help one grow.  Engaging in Deliberate Practice makes it tempting to frame one’s mind into the fixed mindset.

To grow, successful people have immediate goals and long term goals.  The immediate goals are the activities that need to be completed today.  These goals are used as a stepping stone to whatever the long term goal maybe.  These goals must be exact not vague.

While performing a task, successful people have an excellent ability to self-regulate themselves.  When self-regulating oneself, one becomes engaged in metacongnition, which is thinking about one’s thinking and actions.  “What do I already know about this problem?” “If A is about X, what does B mean?”  An example is working out.  It can be painful especially if one pushes oneself to the max.  It is easy to think about other thoughts because it is painful.  But athletes would think about the specific muscle they are developing in their head.  Working out becomes as much as a physical challenge as it is a mental one.

Successful people after completing a task or activity, don’t simply think that their performance is merely good or okay.  They have specific goals and standards.

In one of Dweck’s experiments in 2002, Parents that praise their children for their intelligence rather than for effort, drained the children’s motivation.  The most disturbing aspect was 40% of the children who had their intelligence praised overstated their scores to peers, and made them lie.

To conclude, one must examine one’s mindset.  Does one have a fixed or growth mindset?  With a growth mindset, sustained Deliberate Practice that is mentally challenging and has a specific, measurable goal and can be performed with metacognition is essential to how successful people operate.  This experience may not be pleasant, but pushing oneself beyond one’s personal limits is so important.  It is easy to avoid these challenges, and that is what is endemic with a fixed mindset.

Engaging in Deliberate Practice also ensures one is in the state of Flow.  This is when one abilities and ones challenges simultaneously are it its optimal peak.  When one’s mind is in the state of Flow, there is a merging of action and awareness which people are so involved with what they are doing, they stop being aware of time.  Learning becomes an autotelic experience, which means that engaging in self-contained activity that has no expectation of future reward but by doing it is in itself enjoyable.

The psychology of Flow

In an earlier post, I had written about ten traits of creative people.  The author of that list, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, had written a book on the psychology of Flow, that is, when one is faced with a task/project, he/she is able to draw from his/her highest level of skills to tackle this difficult challenge.  When people are in the state of flow, time almost disappears, this is when the mind is working and one becomes “in the zone.” Or as he is quoted as, “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

More from Dr Csikszentmihalyi, 

For instance, the fact that you were completely immersed in what you were doing, that the concentration was very high, that you knew what you had to do moment by moment, that you had very quick and precise feedback as to how well you were doing, and that you felt that your abilities were stretched but not overwhelmed by the opportunities for action. In other words, the challenges were in balance with the skills. And when those conditions were present, you began to forget all the things that bothered you in everyday life, forget the self as an entity separate from what was going on—you felt you were a part of something greater and you were just moving along with the logic of the activity.

Everyone said that it was like being carried by a current, spontaneous, effortless like a flow. You also forget time and are not afraid of being out of control.” 

This article discusses the feeling of being in the state of flow, as well as how to get into the state of “flow.”  Daily mundane activities as well as a fear of others’ opinions can stifle one’s ability to be in the state of flow.

When students experience procrastination, they experience the state of flow far less than those that did not. In a study conducted by Eunju Lee, a research from South Korea, found the following:

Lee summarized his findings like this, “The more students procrastinate in doing their academic work, the less likely they are to experience flow state in the learning processes . . . students who did not have clear goals, did not concentrate on the task at hand and had high self-consciousness showed high procrastination tendencies” (p. 12). Lee then laid out the potential implications of these results for educators in helping students define clear goals, concentrate and not be excessively self-conscious.

Finally, Lee focused on the subscale that he found related most highly to procrastination, namely self-consciousness. “High procrastinators were more likely to be concerned with what others may been thinking of them, how they were presenting themselves, and about their performance during the learning process” (p. 13).

Do you all get into the state of flow on occasion?

For me, I need to be exposed and be involved in novel experiences. There needs to be sufficient challenge, and the feedback needs to be positive, whether it involves learning or doing a physical activity.  In the case of learning, it could be learning a new concept, and it simply clicks in one’s mind, and all connections and tangential ideas all make sense, consequently, the concept of time disappears.