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#reThink13 : Hey Ho Let’s Flow

In a conference that's been a little short on crazy ideas, Steven Kotler of the Flow Genome Project turned on the style in successive lunchtime sessions that brought the show a touch of visionary glamor.



By Tom Ewing

When one veteran researcher tweets that your presentation is the worst keynote he’s seen in 20 years, you’re either doing something disastrous or very right. Whichever, it’s probably not boring. In a conference that’s been a little short on crazy ideas, Steven Kotler of the Flow Genome Project turned on the style in successive lunchtime sessions that brought the show a touch of visionary glamor – entertaining even if, as some clearly did, you thought Kotler was talking rubbish.

Kotler’s topic and muse is Flow, the state of improved or optimum performance identified by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi* in the 1970s and much researched since. Flow exists and it feels very good – in Csikszentmihalyi it’s the point at which your skill level and the level of challenge mesh to put you “in the zone”, taking the right decisions unconsciously and (Kotler says) learning from them. It inevitably fades, but while it lasts, your performance and productivity are at their peak. Catnip for knowledge workers, you’d think – and Kotler agrees.

In fact he’s evangelical about it – flow experiences saved his life, he says, and they hold the key to becoming Superman: hacking flow to more regularly put yourself into a state of peak human performance. With a wide-eyed, personal style that’s TED meets Bill And Ted, Kotler leads you through his stories of surf dudes and psychologists with a conviction that can leave you giddy.

He’s in the tradition of Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary – psychonauts who rarely landed ad research speaking gigs but whose concerns with mind-expansion and human potential were similar. In fact Kotler is quite open about the fact that drugs can approximate elements of flow, but he warns that they’re no substitute for the full-on rush of the real thing. And where Leary took the hippies as his data set for human advancement, Kotler and his Flow Genome Project have seized on another subculture – extreme sports. “Marginalised”, according to Kotler, which may come as a surprise for anyone who saw X Gamers bro-ing it up incessantly on MTV in the early 00s. Extreme sports athletes hit flow more often than anyone – the physical risk and low margin of error acting as a trigger. And Kotler’s aim is to reverse engineer these shaggy-haired superhumans so that we can all access flow more easily.

It sounds terribly exciting, but where are the practical applications for marketers? This is the kind of question to make any visionary wilt, and on Day 2 the transformative power of Flow seemed brought down to earth slightly. Kotler, joined now by two colleagues, presented the four stages of Flow: the initial struggle, the trigger, the flow experience itself, and the resolution to a higher level of skill. This was a sensible model, but relocated to the office environment Flow stopped sounding like Captain America’s super-soldier serum, and started sounding like, well, just another way of getting stuff done. People block on tasks, take a break, find they can do them, and learn from the experience: this is a part of human existence which doesn’t necessarily benefit from a neuromagical angle on it.

Ways of getting stuff done are not so common that we should spit in their eye, though. The advice on productivity was very solid – build in interactive spaces but don’t make your offices open plan; beware of “digital leashes” – phones, email – that distract you; and don’t multitask (you’d get more done if you were drunk). There is plenty of evidence for the virtues of uninterrupted time, and certainly one of them is that you are more likely to get into a flow state.

Perhaps the problem is that flow isn’t quite as special as Kotler makes out. Csikszentmihalyi says that any active task can induce a flow state, and the community that has most embraced flow as a goal, philosophy and design aim is probably videogames. Flow states have become an accepted part of gaming psychology, and most gamers will be familiar with the sensation. This suggests to me that the physical risk which triggers frequent flow experiences need not be real (just as well for us office workers) and also that flow will as easily be triggered by activities which are utterly non-productive as useful.

The Flow Genome Project also had some advice for brands, drawn from the later work of Abraham Maslow, he of the Hierarchy Of Needs. In his later career Maslow became fascinated by self-actualization – the top level of the hierarchy – and conducted studies on peak self-actualizsers, which Kotler identified with “flow hackers”. At the brand level, the presenters explained, we are entering a Transformational Economy – yes, another new “economy” – in which brands that succeed will be those that help enable peak experiences. The same smartphone that prevents flow states by acting as a digital leash can also transform lives – by this point the presentation was no less slick but it seemed like the topic of flow, and how to achieve it, was wandering away.

This was still, in the end, a worthwhile presentation – it was entertaining, different and flow is an important topic and worth the focus it got here. In a conference more focused on tools and process than psychology, Kotler’s evangelism and excitement reminded us that there’s more to people than their data. The worst keynote in 20 years? Not even close.


*it’s pronounced, roughly, “Chick sent me high”. Dude.

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