Finding your flow
Recently out for a jog, cursing the fact that my holiday was being rained on, my mood wasn’t improved by surfers rushing past me every which way, searching for the best waves along the strip of coast. On reaching what was clearly the most popular spot, I stopped to watch for a while – fascinated how so many people in such a confined area could avoid wiping each other out. After realising they were pretty skilled, I started thinking about the “flow”(1) they must experience for the 30 or so seconds while they’re riding a wave. That took me to the blindingly obvious realisation that the sheer joy of that experience must more than compensate for the hassle of running barefoot from beach to beach, the shivering cold, the bleeding injuries, and fighting the surf (and fellow surfers) to get back to the next wave.
As a non-surfer, my frame of reference has always been that those few seconds of actual surfing couldn’t be worth the time and hassle involved in the getting there in the first place. In a moment of self-reflection, I realised the need to re-frame. Once I was able to put myself in the shoes (or feet) of a surfer, I could imagine the pleasure they derived from the moment – how they would be challenging themselves to catch the perfect wave and make that their best ride. It was a great reminder of the power of “flow” – those times we experience the strongest positive emotions when we’re in the zone between boredom and anxiety. When positive responses are triggered by the release of endorphins, adrenaline and feel-good chemicals like dopamine.
That prompted me to reflect on what I’m increasingly seeing in my coaching practice – a disconnect between what clients are doing and what they really want to be doing. This is often a result of self-reflection once life’s “have-to’s” have largely been taken care of and their focus is turning to their “want to’s”. However, in today’s reality of constant corporate restructuring, digital disruption, and technological advances that threaten previously secure jobs, I’m also seeing more clients who want (or need) to find new paths. Senior executives who’ve been told that their skills and experience are no longer required are looking to connect with work (or hobbies) that they are passionate about. A vocation or new career that will keep them active, interested and relevant well beyond traditional retirement age.
Clients are therefore increasingly interested in having conversations about how their work can make a difference in people’s lives and to discover (or re-discover) their reason for being. Simon Sinek’s talks and book (2) about purpose, and the Japanese concept of “Ikigai”, which is about finding your life’s meaning, are becoming increasingly common references. However, when faced with an anxious client with an immediate imperative to find a new job of equivalent status and reward than the one s(h)e is being forced to leave, it can be a challenge to persuade them to give themselves the permission to explore different possibilities.
To achieve a congruent outcome for any client, a coach needs to have a good understanding of that client’s values, belief systems and ways of thinking. That can only come from taking the time to understand what makes the client tick. Taking the time to listen to the client’s “life-story” - which is the key interaction that opens the coaching space. In that context, I was struck by a passage in neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s recent autobiography (3):
“Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realised, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living….”
While coaching is clearly not in the same life-saving category as neurosurgery, it can and should be a life changing experience. So, I always find that first session with a new client – the couple of hours where they are able to relate their life-story to someone who is truly listening – to be a prerequisite to achieving the best possible coaching outcome. It prompts clients to identify gaps between where they are in their lives and where they want to be (or thought they would be), to explore the tension between their own “have to’s” (whether real or perceived) and their “want to’s”, and to bring into consciousness memories and emotions that are stirred up by their own recollections.
Clients also need to give themselves the time and space to do some blue-sky thinking – to build a picture of what they’d like their life to look like if they could have, be or do anything they wanted. Again, a really difficult challenge for clients whose main priority is to find the next job as quickly as possible. However, once they’ve developed a really clear sense of what they want to achieve and of their personal brand, the results are amazing.
I’ve recently worked with a few clients who, at the start of their coaching were certain that they would only be able to find a job similar to their old one – even if it meant staying in an industry or profession that they were increasingly disenchanted with. The outcome for each of them has been a revelation – whether a better paying job in a different sector; turning a skill, hobby, or interest into a new business venture; doing voluntary work; or taking their career in a different direction with their current employer. The common factor for all of them is that they had the courage to set aside their immediate anxieties, contemplate change, and challenge themselves to figure out what it was they truly wanted.
Thomas Friedman4 makes the point that the rate of technological change is now accelerating so fast that it has risen above the average rate at which most people can absorb all these changes. This creates a real challenge – how to keep up when getting slower to adapt makes you feel increasingly disorientated. Slowing down technology is obviously not the solution, so Friedman contends that enhancing our ability to adapt even slightly would make a significant difference. This creates the challenge of learning faster and, when faced with the need to remain relevant, it’s a lot easier to learn about new things that you’re truly interested in and passionate about. That’s a sure path to finding your flow.
(1) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1992) Flow
(2) Simon Sinek (2009) Start with Why
(3) Paul Kalanithi (2016) When Breath becomes Air
(4) Thomas Friedman (2016) Thank You for Being Late