Something about flow.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been working with an executive coach for several years. Our work together and the relationship that has grown through that work, continue to bring brightness, clarity, calm, wonder, and warmth to my work at Kindred Place and more broadly in my life. It was through this work that I decided to investigate what things might be like on the other side of the coaching relationship and to embark on training of my own. That story is for another day, but the piece of it that I’ll carry forward here, now, is that self-development work is, to put it colloquially, good stuff.

In that mix of “good stuff” is the experience of getting to know another person, to connect in surprising and meaningful ways. One of the surprising discovery areas in my work with this wonderful coach has had to do with cooking.

I arrived at one of our bi-weekly Zoom sessions still wearing my apron because I was making a Sunday afternoon batch of something (fresh tomato sauce, I think) that would need attending to after our call, so I left the apron on.

“You’ve been cooking!” she announced, as we both settled into our respective screens. I told her yes, I had been cooking, and I explained that it was one of my favorite ways to unwind and separate from work.

She is a pathologically terrible cook. She’s almost burned down her house (twice!) while attempting to cook. She once tried to puree dried black beans because the recipe did not specify (at least in her reading of it) that the beans had to be cooked before pouring them into the blender.

When I told her of my love for cooking, she was stupefied. Cooking, for her, was the equivalent of playing basketball for me. I’m utterly unsuited for basketball in every way. I have no desire ever to explore how much of that deficiency is lack of effort as opposed to lack of talent. Truly, ask anyone who knew me in grade school gym class and they’ll attest: I’m laughably bad at basketball, which is precisely how she feels about cooking.

She was curious to know more about why cooking was enjoyable for me. Did I use recipes? Did I cook every day? Did I make the same things or enjoy trying new ideas? When I told her my very favorite way of cooking (which is to have no recipe, no plan, a crew of hungry people, and an array of random ingredients in the pantry/refrigerator), she said: Ah. Flow.

In case you’ve missed out on the concept, “flow state,” a term coined decades ago by the late Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the sweet-spot confluence of challenge and skill, applied in a discrete endeavor. When athletes, musicians, artists, writers, or scientists are “in the zone,” they are experiencing flow state. My son, during his elementary school years, was often in flow state when he built Lego sets.

Just jumping into an activity that brings challenge+skill into play does not automatically ensure flow. Despite years of research and study on the topic, there is no hard and fast process to follow that guarantees entering a flow state. When an athlete is “on fire” during a game, when a performer is “playing out of her mind,” that’s the rarity of the flow experience.

A tennis teacher friend uses the phrase “relaxed intensity” to describe this ideal state of being. For me, flow is the right kind of mindlessness. It’s like autopilot on steroids: an egoless, hyper-aware, fluidity.

When I have to prepare food for someone else (most often my children), under time pressure, without advance planning, making every decision in the moment and relying on both mental and physical muscle memory to guide me, I enter a state I might describe as “flow light.” It’s not a full flow state, but a cousin to it.

And this is why, taking us back to the top of this post, my coach was curious to know more about the process. What combination of circumstance, skill, and psychological state came together for me when it was time to cook on the fly? What could I learn, she wondered, about myself and my work in other areas from exploring the idea? Digging deeper, what happened afterward? What occurred after being in that state of flow that might not have happened otherwise? How is it different from, say, taking a walk or other forms of detaching from stress?

It was a great discussion (coaching session…), and the insights have helped me in ways I wouldn’t have predicted.

And now I’m curious to know what “flow” looks like for you? If you routinely experience flow state, do you have a ritual or standard practice that helps you get there? How does flow state relate to creativity, for you?

One day soon, but not today, I’m going to take that last question and go deeper into the realm of creativity, in general, and writing, in particular. Today, though, I’m going to sign off and spend time with my kiddos. My son is home from college for Easter weekend. I asked if he had any requests for dinner while he’s here, and he replied, “Anything home-cooked; I haven’t had a decent home-cooked meal since the last time I was here.”

What I’ll actually prepare remains to be known (because, flow…), but here are a few things that I’m reading about for inspiration, before I head to the market and see what looks good today.

See you tomorrow? I think so.


Things I’m considering cooking this weekend:

Quick chicken and dumplings (NYT Cooking/Alexa Weibel)

Chicken pot pie (Food Network/Ina Garten)

Split pea soup with bacon (Alison Roman)

Cacio e pepe broccolini with crispy white beans and burrata (Food & Wine/Hetty McKinnon)

3 thoughts on “Something about flow.

  1. You wanna know about flow do you? This is the house of flow. First, when I was work on my thesis I got to talk to the great man himself. Yes. M.C. He was kind, generous and enlightening. Afterward I felt like I sat at the feet of Einstein.

    There are two of us in the us who use rituals to attempt to get to that place of pure flow. Attempt is a key word. You just live with it if you don’t achieve it.

    For me, when I am going to photograph something important on my own — no assistants, fixers or ADs looking over my shoulder — like a second line. I have a leisurely breakfast with a double espresso , I stretch, meditate a little ands take a shower, This very important even thought I might be going into July’s heat and humidity. I make second espresso for the road or the walk.

    If I’ve been successful, I’m in a Zen-like state. I do not remember what I did, who I bumped into or what scenes I photographed. That’s for when I return home. Usually, the pictures are much better than if I’d thought about them.

    And, without further ado…

    nojo here. in between sound check and the first set ray and i go for a long walk. usually we eat a light meal. sometimes we talk, mostly we don’t. when we return i go to the dressing room or bus and take a shower. i borrowed that from ray. i meditate and ray escorts me to stage right where i step on the stage. nobody gets near me. ray has the school teachers glare. you know the one. if i’m lucky i’m in a zone which is why i rarely talk on stage except to introduce band members or say thank you. sometimes a fan will break into my zone. once when i started playing the first notes to i don’t know why a fan did a wolf whistle. i laughed and said i know what you think it means. once, when we were in india i really got angry because whatever i was in was broken because a fan screamed out come away with me just as the audience went so quiet you could hear a pin drop. we know from fan mail that it is a marriage proposal song. i looked into the audience and said if you aren’t getting ready to get down on your knees and ask someone to marry you right now shut up. i’ll get to it. i shouldn’t have done that. i thought the rest of the show sucked.

    i didn’t even know that flow or zones were a thing until we talked about it.

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