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The Father of Deliberate Practice Disowns Flow

Feeling Low on Flow

In a trio of recent articles, I emphasized that flow is dangerous (see here and here and here). It feels good, so we’re tempted to seek it out, but it doesn’t actually help us get better: the key process in creating a remarkable life.

Most of you liked this concept, while a few of you thought I had missed the boat. Here’s an example of the latter sentiment:

I disagree with [your] point. Flow is the experience of being lost in one’s effort. That can easily happen when one is highly challenged and enjoying the intense effort.

There was also quite a bit of discussion on what, exactly, “flow” means, with enough different points of view presented that I soon felt that the whole issue was becoming muddied and difficult to wade through.

Then someone sent me an article penned by Anders Ericsson — the psychologist who innovated the study of how we get better by introducing the idea of deliberate practice. In this article, which was published in 2007 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Ericsson addresses the difference between flow and deliberate practice:

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (‘‘flow’’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

In other words, the feeling of flow is different than the feeling of getting better. If all you seek is flow, then you’re not going to get better. There is no avoiding the deliberate strain of real improvement. (This is not the say, however, that you should not seek flow in addition to deliberate practice as a strategy to recharge, or experience it as unavoidable when you put your deliberately honed skills to use.)

Ericsson concludes by echoing a warning familiar to Study Hacks readers:

The commonly held but empirically unsupported notion that some uniquely “talented” individuals can attain superior performance in a given domain without much practice appears to be a destructive myth that could discourage people from investing the necessary efforts to reach expert levels of performance.

He said it. Not me.


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by Kofoed)

67 thoughts on “The Father of Deliberate Practice Disowns Flow”

  1. Again, my thanks for your continued research in this field. Quick question, do you think there are fields where deliberate practice is not possible? I’m in finance. I invest other people’s savings on their behalf. What can I do to increase my level of skill through deliberate practice principles? I don’t feel the answer is take a new course; get your doctorate, etc. necessarily. If I was playing basketball, and I had a terrific game, except for free throws, I would toil away at improving my free throws. How do I assess what I am not good at in a thinking game like finance and then develop a (hard) practice schedule around that?

    • Is your job actually about choosing good investments for them, or is it communicating those investments in such a way that they keep their money with your company? If it’s really about choosing investments, then the best way to practice would be to back-test your strategies and practice making good investment decisions. If your job is really about communicating those investments in a coherent way, then you’d need to practice your pitch with a video camera or someone else that can give you accurate feedback.

  2. I think the reaction in defense of flow is that, the way you present it, flow cannot lead to learning or improving. I think this is a much different thing than saying that flow and deliberate practice are different things, or that deliberate practice is the way improving learning. The notion that flow cannot provide any learning is one that would need a lot of support.

    The state of flow surely involves not only being fully involved in an experience, but also the sense that things ‘just fit together’. This process is described as one where previously perceived barriers disappear, and requires the immediate feedback to see that, in fact, they are no longer there. I believe this is a learning process, learning to differentiate between the useless and the useful.

    The counterpoint to this is to say that deliberate practice is what enables this realization to occur in or around the flow state. And I agree with that; it is essential. But is it not possible that these types of learning are indispensable to each other? A simplistic analogy would say something like deliberate practice lays down the foundation, and flow builds on top. Deliberate practice gives you the tools and the familiarity to achieve something in flow that is more complete.

    It’s almost as though you were saying that deliberately practicing scales and technical sections is all you need to get better; that actually playing a whole piece through with emotion and some abandon is merely the result of the former, and not part of the process of learning. As though flow doesn’t itself guide or improve your deliberate practice. I think this is reflected by the way people actually practice, which involves alternation between these two states.

  3. From the same paper.

    This is why you are never getting that Knuth medal, Cal.

    During development, elite performers often engage in more
    than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. This accumulated
    practice frequently accounts for as much as half of the total
    variance in performance among skilled individuals such as
    regular participants in chess tournaments and full-time students at music academies. Only future research will determine whether the remaining variability in expert performance can be
    accounted for by more objective detailed measures of individual differences in the amount and micro-structure of practice during their extended development and/or by more basic (genetic)interindividual differences.

    • It was found after analysing the same data Erikson used to support his theories about practice that in fact only 1/3 of proficiency in a given domain can be attributed to practice.2/3 of proficiency was unrelated to practice.Individuals were shown to have mastered advanced skills with only a fraction of the practice erikson claims to be essential.Both the type and amount of practice correlate relatively poorly to expertise attained by individuals.Many factors other than practice have been shown to have critical influence over skill aquisition such az genetics and early life conditioning.For example iq of pianists,chess masters,doctorate recipients,nobel prize recipients are generally vastly higher than average.IQ has proven thus far immutable in adulthood.On the basis of this alone we can see that IQ is largely inherited and is one of the strongest predictors of skill aquisition and general occupational success.Smart people do better in life as a rule,and no body so far can demonstrate that smartness can be learnt or earnt,at least not in adulthood.All attempts to increase general intelligence by training have failed.

      attained by an individual.vary enormously in ghe rate of learning

  4. Excellent!

    I also thought about the relationship of flow and deliberate practice and came to the conclusion that flow must be sprinkled into your life, but deliberate practice is needed to systematically build up one’s skills.

    Both are needed; flow to develop and carve out an intrinsic motivation to keep pursuing that esoteric point in your respective field, and deliberate practice to feel that level of satisfaction after a day’s worth of hard focus on that seemingly unsolvable problem.

    Thanks Cal

  5. Hi Cal,

    I really like your blog.

    There is a substantial difference between flow and deliberate practice. Flow is what happens when you’ve done a vast amount of deliberate practice and you’re not trying to get better at something, but just trying to do something.

    I’ve done both, and flow is very enjoyable and you do get a vast amount done during flow. But flow is not about getting better at a task or series of tasks.

    You do deliberate practice to experience flow.

  6. Two of the quoted sentences suddenly and quietly helped me put all the recent talk of deliberate practice into an old, familiar, almost duh-worthy context that I’ve known for most of my life as a musician: There’s a difference between practice and performance. And generally speaking in my experience, the more either one is contaminated by the other, the less effective it is.

  7. I wanted to read the links in the previous post, but the links don’t work…

    This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

  8. I think it is obvious that learning anything(like truly learning) is uncomfortable for the brain just like when you just like when you run on a treadmill faster than you can handle.

  9. do you think there are fields where deliberate practice is not possible?

    Probably. But my instinct is that it’s applicable in more places than people assume.

    A simplistic analogy would say something like deliberate practice lays down the foundation, and flow builds on top

    My read of the research is that flow is a nice side-effect of mastery, but it’s not necessary.

    This is why you are never getting that Knuth medal, Cal.

    My PhD advisor won the Knuth prize while I was working with her. I am sad to report that it is, in point of fact, a plaque, and not a medal…which would be much cooler.

    flow to develop and carve out an intrinsic motivation to keep pursuing that esoteric point in your respective field,

    The relationship of flow to motivation is a big open question in this field. Interesting stuff…

  10. I couldn’t agree more. I used to be really into music production. Tapping into the skills I already had produced the “flow state.” If used the same techniques–the same ol’ routine I already had, I’d flow. BUT…this did not make me better.

    Learning how to compose in new ways, learning musical notation, etc…this made me better, but this process was not that enjoyable in comparison to what I already knew. It was hard and if being honest, kind of sucked while learning new techniques in the short run. But I was always happy in the long run that I put in the work and improved my ability.

  11. I take issue with your statement that Ericsson “disowns” flow, however. He points out a firm and useful distinction between flow and deliberate practice. That’s quite different from rejecting the notion of flow altogether.

    Hi Tara! You’re right to point out that I’m exaggerating some in my title. You know how it is in the age of Twitter: headlines rule…

  12. Being uncomfortable is definitely a sign that you are stretching beyond your comfort zone in deliberate practice.Flow results from being in a state of oneness with the task at hand and results possibly from mastery ,confidence and/or absolute concentration an involuntary state of quiet enjoyment.
    In deliberate practice there can be theoretically no experience of flow because of the extra effort made to go beyond one’s ability and curiously enough that feeling of lack of flow results in progressive improvement.

  13. I’m a software developer. For my part, flow is a productive state that allows me to quickly crank out a lot of code in a relatively short amount of time. The more focused I am on a task, and the fewer distractions I have, the easier it is to get into that state.

    I normally seek to attain a state of flow when I’ve got to crank out a lot of nasty code that doesn’t necessarily push the boundaries of my abilities; it’s just code that’s got to get written so that I can move onto something else (for example, writing a bunch of wrapper classes around some system-level concepts, and writing container abstractions for those classes; nasty, grungy stuff that isn’t fun and can be hard to finish when distracted).

    When I’m learning a new programming language or studying a new API or operating system (e.g., learning WinRT for Windows 8 Metro applications like I’m doing now), I’m definitely NOT in a flow, though I still try to minimize distractions and focus on the task at hand. It may very well be another year before I can enter a flow state while writing any part of a Metro app that’s not absolutely low-level, object-model stuff.

  14. Again, the consistent use of deliberate practice wins the race to becoming better. There is no doubt that you can’t grow unless you push yourself beyond the boundaries of comfort that we find such pleasure in. Some call it their comfort zone.

    Easy, no. Doable, absolutely!

  15. Hi Cal – very interesting article here.

    It appears that flow is for the performance, but deliberate practice may involve many starts and stops and temporary frustrating moments while your brain tries to synthesize incoming data and create new, lasting bits of talent or rigor of skill.

  16. You’re right on the money! At first I disagreed with your “flow… doesn’t actually help us get better” opening. But after a few seconds of chewing on it I totally saw your point by relating it to my own feeling of flow when I’m designing a Web site. I def experience “flow” when I’m just gettin stuff done – it just comes easily. But when I hit a snag and have to trouble-shot a Web dev problem, then I gotta actually get better. And I’ve never felt flow when I’m in the middle of “getting better.” It’s only after I’ve actually gotten better that I can then add that “being better” experience to my flow.

  17. I think Flow is important to creating. Also I think that a lot of deliberate practice is happening during flow in micro-instances of subtle learning and connections between actions and results.

  18. Do you guys and gals think that the brain needs “recovery time”? If so, how much is optimal? I’m studying for a standardized test right now and am wondering.

  19. Hey, Cal, I feel that it’s really time to elucidate a thorough definition of your notion of ‘flow’. For long, you’ve been giving the impression that you would claim: (Activities that are engaging) ? (Activities that build skills or knowledge) = Ø. It seems over-generalized to me.

    Take your field for example, let’s imagine that the algorithm teaching materials are broken down to minute individual chunks, each rated for an accurate difficulty level, ranging from Level 1 to say, Level 300 – don’t you think that when given exactly the appropriate level of material, a learner can enjoy the learning and make advancements at the same time? And one can learn from the most basic things, all the way to advanced cryptography. I feel that what we lack is engagine teaching material – and frustration by itself is not a virtue or worthy pursuit – and the feeling of frustration is not necessary for improving skill (which you seem to claim it is).

    Indeed, I personally get many of the things you are saying, being contantly seeking novel stimualtions, finding it difficult to sit still and focus on a task that I should do. And I do beat myself up often about not having high tolerance for tedium, if any.

    And I agree the general direction is most of the things you say, being obsessed with becoming a person of value or something remarkable – I do feel anxious about never having sat down and developed some real depth and substance in a particular field. I probably know more about computers than an average person (maybe even ranking ahead of 99th percentile), but I know it’s absolutely no good when compared to any serious computer scientist, I don’t even know Python… I can arrange some HTML/CSS, but never as good as any pro developer. I got top score in a pre-calc class, but never really deeply understood calculus (“Calculus Made Easy” is sitting there unread), I do feel extremely sick of this “better at most things than the rest, but nowhere as good as a pro”.

    Maybe the situation would improve if there’s some guidance. I want to learn NLP, I want to be really good at it, I want to be able to solve real problems, mount real data and implement experiments, I want to be as familiar with these techniques as they were excel spreadsheets (which I find to often come across as a ‘flow’ experience – I know exactly what to do and how to do it, able to visualize every step and feeling absolutely confident) – but I never learnt any programming or Mathematica – all those books on Ruby or JS I went through in extreme details and highlighting, but only the first chapter…

    You know, I wish the two can separate: on one hand, you can feel extremely confident, with a “feeling of knowing”, “I know it can be solved”, “I know I’m getting closer” – and almost delusionally optimistic but at the same time the choice of projects are quite good, i.e. attainable strech projects; on the other hand you are actually tackling something hard, something that you couldn’t do before, something that makes you better.

    In summary, DP and feeling good while doing it. Maybe some monks (after decades of practice) can do this… burning glucose and feeling absolutely great…

  20. While I agree with your point I believe you are taking it a step far. You wrote “If all you seek is flow, then you’re not going to get better.” and that is not a fact. The state of flow is only achieved when you are challenged at your current level of whatever it is you are doing. Are you going to get as good as deliberate practice? No! But that does not mean you are not going to get better.

  21. @Bornagainscholar:

    Are you going to get as good as deliberate practice? No! But that does not mean you are not going to get better.

    I think Cal’s point is that there are two different things you get better at when comparing flow to deliberate practice.

    Let’s say you know how to ride a bicycle really well, but you also want to learn to ride a unicycle. Entering a state of flow on a bicycle might help reinforce your balance and muscle memory for your bicycle skills, but it isn’t going to make you any better at riding the unicycle. Only deliberate practice on the unicycle will improve that skill.

  22. I couldn’t agree with Zafir (comment 5) more. I think flow has more to do with motivation and engagement than it does with practice.

    When you have begun to understand concepts or mastered activities – that “aha” moment – your brain dumps huge amounts of dopamine so that the information “sticks”. Learning is pleasurable because it’s vital to our survival.

    So I think flow is the feeling of dopamine-fuelled engagement in an activity you’ve mastered through deliberate practice. The intersection of challenge & relaxation.

    The more you experience flow, the more you are motivated to put in the effort to deliberately practice. So then the practice doesn’t feel so hard because you’re engaged in your activity.

    So maybe

    Talent = deliberate practice + flow

    Both are crucial to expertise, and I don’t think you can have one without the other.

  23. Very interesting and comes a particularly good point for both myself and my college age son who is discovering that becoming an engineer requires practice and work. Thanks.

    I wonder to what extent flow and deliberate practice are complementary, rather than mutually exclusive. Could you be in a state of flow while engaging in deliberate practice? I’m inclined to think so. In the last couple of months I’ve been deliberating writing code daily to advance my skills, which is at least something like deliberate practice. I have discovered myself letting go of other distractions as I delve into solving some problem to make something work…a state at least similar to flow.

  24. Here’s an example that i hope might clarify when deliberate practice is useful, and when flow is useful. Cristiano Ronaldo is a terrific soccer player, who devotes countless hours to improving his free kick delivery. When practicing, his goal is to improve, so he engages in deliberate practice, scientifically determining the proper timing and angle of delivery. When in a match, his goal is not to improve his technique, but to score the next shot. Therefore he relaxes, enters a flow state, and strikes the ball.

  25. He says “These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice”, and does not actually “disown” it. Disown literally means “Refuse to acknowledge or maintain any connection with.” Don’t you think your title is misleading?

  26. I want to chip in my little piece of response that has probably already been reiterated through the comments so far, though from an undergraduate’s point of view.
    I’m in a Modern Hebrew class. I want to be fluent by this time next year. To me, the relationship between deliberate practice and flow is simple. I practice “deliberate practice” the weeks before the exam. I’m pushing myself to think in the vocabulary. I’m pushing myself to grasp the grammar. I’m pushing myself to comprehend what I hear. I’m pushing myself to write what I can in the language. I make mistakes. At times, the advance is sometimes mind-numbingly slow.
    But when I get to the test, well, that’s not the place for deliberate practice. That’s the place to let flow happen. If I have invested the hours of tough work and attempt at mastery, then the flow comes easy. Last week, I took a test, and I was flowing, thinking in Hebrew and writing and interacting and having a blast. This week, back to the grindstone.
    I don’t see the attraction of flow. Yeah, it’s fun for a moment. But deliberate practice is like always needing another fix – I love scraping hard for a little improvement and then getting the jewel of a breakthrough, even if it is tiny. It pushes me to scrape for the next improvement, just out of reach. Flow is just a nice little addition to that wonderful process.

  27. It seems to me, that all of us are somehow not able to reach a common, semantic definition for “flow” and “deliberate practice”.

  28. I propose we define ‘flow’ and DP as:

    – The flow state or a flow experience should be an observable and measurable phenomenon, rather than subjective self-reports.
    – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his talk gave a rough theory for the cause of flow: engaging activities that consume one’s most mental bandwidth. David Rock in a Google talk gave another rough theory: that it’s caused by an internal dopamine stimulation loop due to well-adapted response to challenge and novelty.

    – DP as defined as illustrated with examples by Anders Ericsson et al. in their HBR article; which is quite well summarised by Cal’s “Chess Master” article: i.e. a task that is deliberately designed to improve performance (this implies performance ranks lower before practice and higher after practice); the task usually has instant and continuous feedback about performance.

    One point I disagree with Cal, is his tendency of over-justifying the value of suffering in a ‘difficult’ task – lots of the difficulty results from lack of various supports, such as guidance, counsel, even just empathy and encouragement.

    Fantacy example:
    Student A is interested in computational linguistics (kind of ‘passion’ and ‘dopamine-squirt interest/attention’ that Cal dismisses) and is guided by many helpful advisers, tutors and peers with all kinds of useful tools like Mathematica etc. and working on interesting bite-size projects design to build competency and performance, imaginably having fun along the way
    Student B is having a 1000-page linear algebra book thrown in front of, along with tons of such indiscernable materials – and the notion “these are essential for computational liguisitcs”
    Of course Case B would be much more ‘difficult’ – but this difficult is somewhat unnecessary and tragic, and there is no value in such suffering.

  29. Forget to put in “Inferring from their rough theories, flow should be an observable neurological phenomenon. Like blood pressure, it can be measured. And we should only take this kind of definition.”

  30. To summarise with an ananlogy: Cal, you are at a much more advanced position with Maths than many of Newton’s contemporaries; not necessarilly because you have worked harder than they did (imaginably they were much less comfortable), but because you are in a luckier age.

  31. As a musician, like a few other commenters, I have the experience of both flow and deliberate practice. I’d argue that the ability to control going in and out of flow and deliberate practice is itself a crucial skill. We need to know the difference and preferably be able to call up flow at the drop of a hat….which means we have to deliberately practice getting into a flow state, right? The lack of this ability can be pretty crucial–just ask my very smart young niece who has tanked every one of her ACTs & SATs because she chokes in a testing situation.

    Your second quote re: the role of talent is interesting in this respect, because I’d say one of the crucial talents for achieving high performance in any area is this facility for both deliberate practice and achieving flow. Some of this can itself be taught, but as with most things, some people learn it more easily than others.

    In my experience, the learning process is a leap-frog of deliberate practice with flow; lay down the skills with deliberate practice. Can you reach a flow state using these new skills? No? Not easily enough? More deliberate practice.

    All that said, I’m kind of tired of people acting like my skills are a result of sheer dumb luck, when I’ve put in thousands of hours of work.

  32. What works for some will not come naturally to others.
    Why is that such a difficult concept?
    For some people flow will come naturally, for others it will not. The approach of trying to find one thing that works for everyone is retarded.

  33. I’ve read most of Csikszentmihalyi’s books and what he means by flow is very similar to deliberate practice, despite what Ericsson says.

    To reach a state of flow, writes Czickzentmihalyi, you must engage in activities that are challenging.

    What are challenging activities? Activities with a specific and ambitious goal for which you must reach beyond your current abilities. Activities which are hard to do and for which you step outside your comfort zone. Playing tennis against someone as good as you won’t give you flow. Playing tennis against a better opponent will. Doing simple routine exercises won’t, doing exercises that are more difficult than you’re used to will.

    It’s the only way to reach flow, which is a state of heigtend concentration. It is perceived as pleasurable because it focuses your attention on one activity, keeps out the chaos of random and negative thoughts and gives your mental life structure and meaning, athough only for a while.

    So, there is nothing incompatible between deliberate practice and flow, at least as Csikszentmihalyi describes flow. Engaging in deliberate practice leads to full concentration and that’s what Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow is all about. When the task of exercise at hand is not hard, you won’t reach full concentration and you won’t reach flow

  34. I’d REALLY recommend the book – The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz that looks into the new paradigm of working. Among the two most important things they say is that work should be like exercise — you seek stress for a while and when your energy runs low, you DE-stress and recover it back. And rituals. Rituals are habits that build on performance by properly balancing your energy assets. And the way they look at it is — Life is a long series of short sprints. Deliberate practice is exactly like that.

    The marathon approach is what people normally do. They’re on cruise, usually doing 5 things at once, for several hours, usually when their energy is low. That doesn’t work.

    The best performers of deliberate practice, they work in a series of huge spikes punctuated by periods of rest. Their spikes happen when their energies are at their peak. Contrary to the old paradigm that downtime for rest is wasted time, all the best geniuses advise against over-practicing because the downtime is crucial for recovery as well as creativity. The best ones at their art are those who do it like a highly disciplined exercise regime of an athlete.

    Flow is usually where things happen and your mind is hardly thinking — flow is something more subconscious and works in things that have already become totally automatic — that’s ok in performance, but not practice.

    Deliberate practice is like “Think and analyse 10 times, play once”. It is done very consciously until it becomes an automatic thing and always works on specific goals. I’ve experienced flow practice before switching to deliberate practice and I can say that in flow all I was doing was playing, but I wasn’t thinking or analyzing or working on specific issues — after a while my skill saturated and I couldn’t go higher. But just one session of deliberate practice and I did more with my favourite piece in one session than I had done with just flowing along in years.

    Flow is a concept of performance and it is powered by more of subconscious energy. There you can even go beyond your normal levels of performance with the adrenaline rush. But usually what happens there is very spontaneous so most of it escapes your memory and conscious recall. When you hear long improvised passages keeping you on your toes, your awareness is only in the flow of the moment and you forget nearly all of what was played earlier. Deliberate practice on the other hand slows down to conscious levels of processing to transfer improvement into one’s sub-conscious and make it permanent. When you actually deliberately analyze a recording of it later you see that there is so much detail you missed in the flow of things — it’s those details that can allow to improvise like the musician in that recording. My teacher told me that I shouldn’t just let all my ideas flow in and then out of my mind just like that because I’d forget them later while practicing — that only happens in performance. He told me to stop when an idea flows in and then deliberately work on it to improve the music. I did and only then was I actually able to play the way I wanted.

    Playing a tennis match against a much better player is performance in flow. That helps a little, but only at the subconscious level — it is like skimming a book. But say the pro helps you review every move and mistake you made while playing and work on it and then incorporate it into your playing, that’s deliberate practice.

    Flow is where criticism, memory, analysis, feedback, fine tuning, polishing, awareness – they all shut down because the brain has turned all it’s processing power in flowing and the emotional rush. Deliberate Practice is where you do all those things very consciously until it becomes second nature. The greatest musicians never said “Practice. Practice. Practice.”, they said “Practice slowly what’s difficult and engage every brain and heart cell more than the fingers and bring it to performance standard”.

  35. Sri above has described ‘deliberate practice’ and ‘state of flow’ accurately. Deliberate practice is dynamic and requires pre-planned goals and methods, the objective being obviously to reach a higher level of performance bit by bit.
    Flow is almost static -time almost stands still as I experienced it perfectly twice -once in chess play in tournament in an almost do-die situation and another time during meditation .It is an enjoyable state of mind resulting from oneness with the task at hand leading to ‘perfect’ action.
    The Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of the Hindus is purely a description of the attainment of a state of flow.Is mastery needed to attain a state of flow? Definitely not in my view.

  36. As Sri described flow, and as it is generally understood by many, there is a big difference between Flow and deliberate practice. I agree.
    But the way Csikszentmihalyi described Flow, it is very very similar to deliberate practice.
    The reason why Ericsson stresses the difference between his concept – deliberate practice – and flow is probably because he wants to be seen as the one who discovered deliberate practice. While in reality what he did was refining and applying to expertise a concept already described by Csikszentmihalyi. Read his books and you’ll know what I mean.

  37. I think most of you including Cal, are not quite sure what flow really means or how it works.

    Just like Cal talks about in his debunking of the Parkinson’s law, by diving deeper into what the actual research is, this approach is needed here.

    If you look into the research of Flow, and not just what has been sort of bastardized as flow only being that state where you feel really nice and are enjoying yourself (which are only 2 consequences of flow, not flow itself) Flow results from the balance between Challenge and Skill. That is, you are only entering real flow when these two are at very high levels. It is not flow if you are just dicking around, doing something easy and having fun. That is just control.

    Also, Mike Csikszentmihalyi also states in various research that flow is a stretching experience. In other words when challenge is slightly above the individual’s skill level, flow often results. If it is too high above skill, the result is anxiety.

    So really, flow and deliberate practice are not mutually exclusive. This is real scientific flow, not just let’s feel warm and fuzzy inside flow. If you can get into a state of flow while deliberately practicing something that is above your current skill level, it is a stretch experience, and also with added positive affect benefits.

    Flow is not something that you can deliberately do like practice. But rather is something that happens to you when you become totally absorbed in a challenging task, which could be deliberately practicing to improve your skill levels.

    The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and flow is being highly misrepresented here.

  38. I think what Ericcson is getting at, is that there is a key distinction to be paid between ‘deliberate practice’ and ‘performance’ within the context of ‘flow.’

    Perhaps this is something that follows me from my experiences in sport, but more than 80% of your time is generally spent practicing in sport. You practice 4-6 days per week for one or two games per week on average.

    If you treat performance like deliberate practice, you’re likely to perform poorly. That is not the time to ‘work on skills,’ unless the competition in the performance is so under-matched by comparison and even then I believe there should be a distinction.

    To me Flow contradicts DB outright, as Ericcson notes, however I believe it contributes to performance. We should differentiate between the two, because performance is the opportunity to execute on your deliberate practice, but IS NOT deliberate practice. If you’re truly performing, you should not be practicing (even deliberately) and the practicing mindset should not apply. Vice versa, if you’re practicing, then the performance mindset should not apply, hence a state of flow would be a hindrance.

    Deliberate practice from performance environments comes via feedback AFTER the performance, not during. This is why coaches use video, to use in deliberate practice scenarios in the appropriate mindset after a game or the following week. I’ve never seen a coach call a timeout, rewind a tape, and show a player a mistake, that would be counterproductive to performance. As would trying to achieve a state of flow during deliberate practice.

  39. I realize I’m coming in WAY late on this thread, but I just came across it and I just wanted to say that I think Jeff really nailed it with his comment.
    Most of the comments here are based on a typical western dualistic way of thinking, and the truth is it’s not a matter of putting the two things in two neat separate boxes.

    In fact if you go to some other world cultures, like West Africa, you have musicians who play on a very highly sophisticated level and there is no separation between flow and deliberate practice for them. They basically live inside the music and the process of developing is totally a natural combination of both. There’s no need to think about flow or deliberate practice, it all just happens in one organic continuum.

    We have a hard time grasping that in the west because we’re conditioned from day one to live in our rational brain. This far too often cuts us off from the amazing things our instinctive brain can do for us when we let go of trying to rationalize everything to death. There’s a lot of literature on this now and more and more businesses, especially in the tech world, have policies that totally embrace this concept with amazing results.

  40. So I asked both Csikszentmihalyi and K. Anders Ericsson what they thought about the compatibility of flow and deliberate practice. Here are their answers:

    Csikszentmihalyi (when I told him that K. Anders Ericsson sees flow as “incompatible” with deliberate practice):

    “Wonder why it would be incompatible . . . As far as I know, there are several people who are training young musicians using flow, and their rationals is that this will increase their willingness to practice (e.g. Andreas Burdick, in Germany).”

    Ericsson (in response to a question of mine regarding Kellogg’s “Professional Writing Expertise,” where flow is mentioned as a possible motivator):

    “I think that flow is a genuine experience where individuals perform without effort and awareness of themselves. Even Czikszentmahalyi agrees that you cannot enjoy flow consciously because you are not aware of yourself and your feelings when it happens, only after it is over.

    I think that flow is the opposite from deliberate practice where you are trying to intentionally to attain particular goals by monitoring your performance and make adjustments. I have not written about how the motivation from flow might motivate continued practice on improving one’s performance. It is also possible that for individuals reaching very high levels of performance they can get into a productive mode where they are just producing text for long periods, but evidence from Nobel-prize level authors suggest that they find writing very effortful and can only continue for 3-4 hours per day.”


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