Keep Calm and Come Alive at Work

Sometimes I experience what civil rights leader Howard Thurman meant when he said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Like this morning, when I was working with a group of people on their influence skills, and a beautiful mix of confidence, focus and abandonment came over me. As I coached, the voice of my inner critic grew quiet, and I knew I was on fire.

Male skier on downhill freeride with sun and mountain view

It reminded me of the feeling I had several years ago alpine skiing with one of my best friends who is an incredible skier. It was the morning after a snowstorm, and as we floated through powder, my standard set of awkward and inhibited thoughts faded to silence as I shadowed his movements down the hill.

I’ve been thinking about how to foster this feeling, so I dove into research on the topic (thanks to my friend Tom Patterson).

In the book The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler fascinatingly explains how our brains reach this state of suppressed inner critic and truly come alive. According to their research at the Flow Genome Project, here are the phases:

  1. Struggle. First, we are awkward, anxious, confused and pressed on all sides. Our brain waves are in beta, which means they are fast and loud. Our nervous system releases adrenaline to fuel fight or flight.
  2. Release. Ideally, we persist and breathe. Nitric oxide starts flowing, and we quiet our mind, calm our body, and enter alpha brain state.
  3. Flow. Eventually, dopamine and other awesome neurotransmitters flood our system as our brain waves move to theta/gamma state. Normally when our brain gets to this state, we are on the brink of sleep.
  4. Recovery. Finally, serotonin and oxytocin heal and restore the mind as it produces delta waves. Here we strengthen, learn and remember.

How do we foster this process in an organizational context? In the November 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review, Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats have some answers. In “Why Organizations Don’t Learn,” they describe the four common biases that get in the way of reaching this “Flow” state at work.

First, they say, we focus too much on success rather than the value of struggle. We over-value success and under-value potential. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and author of Creativity, Inc., said, “When people are struggling, help them to feel safe and embrace failure.” This mindset allows us to enter into the struggles of fear and insecurity and move to the Release stage.

Second, we have a bias toward action. Gino and Staats reference an incredible study by Michael Bar-Eli showing that soccer goalies that stay in the center of the goal on penalty kicks (rather than jumping right or left) have the highest chance of success at 33.3%. Nevertheless, goalies stay in the center only 6.3% of the time—because they think doing something is better than doing nothing. Kotler’s research suggests that we should actually do and think less to improve performance. Standing still might be our best bet.

Third, we desperately want to fit in. Following social and organizational norms provides tangible benefit throughout life. It also provides a steady diet of voices from the inner critic. Shoulds stiff-arm us away from our unique gifts and strengths. Imagine if we understood and pursued what makes us come alive more than the expectations others place on us.

Finally, our bias is toward experts. We look out rather than in and around us for answers. Sometimes consultants (I am one) and online publications (I have one) can give us the answers we need, but many times we just need to take a walk, lie down and stop striving. In fact, research from Kotler and others shows that we cement our learning when we are… sleeping.

It turns out stillness and calm make you more effective and accelerate your improvement.

So, how can you get into your the flow state this week?



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