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  • Alexis Snelling

Flow State And Innovation

One of the topics that currently fascinates me when it comes to design leadership and innovation is the spiritual side of innovation and creativity. The main guiding question I have is how the spiritual aspect of reality can help with innovation? A couple of weeks ago I met with Floor Schmeitz for a coffee to talk about this question. She read my desire to dive deeper into the spiritual side of innovation in my last blog of 2019. In our conversation, she pointed me towards the concept of flow state. I recognized the concept of flow state or being in the zone from my creative work, sports, and synergetic conversations. I was aware of the concept and I recognized in hindsight that the ability to step into a flow state is something I have been working on for years. What I did not know is that the flow state is not only a spiritual topic but also a scientific one. So I decided to dive into the topic of flow state.

What I found so far is that there are 3 sides to flow state.

The spiritual dimension of flow state

The first is my initial angle: the spiritual dimension. In the spiritual world, being in a flow state means following the path that you are supposed to follow. From a Taoistic point of view, every soul has a purpose on this earth. Life is often visualized as a river that flows along curves and bends. The goal is to try to sense where your life is supposed to, what is supposed to happen and go with that. If you go with the current and the bends of your life river, life is good and when you against the current, you suffer and don’t reach your potential. So the flow state from a spiritual point of view is literally going with the flow of your life, your purpose.

A nice way to get into the Tao is the podcast The Tao Te Ching for everyday living.

From a spiritual point of view, to get into the flow state, you have to find out what direction your life should go in and follow that. If you let go and go with the direction your life is supposed to go, you are in the flow state. The challenge here is to sense in what direction your life is supposed to go, what your purpose is and how to manifest that. Achieving that requires two things: letting go of ego and sensing your future that wants to be born. You need an open mind and open will. If you are stuck in your own desires and goals, if you let your ego guide you, you are not open to the sensing of where your life is supposed to go. Your ego blinds you from the path.

Letting go of the ego is becoming a business topic. Even McKinsey recently published an article about the identity mind-trap.

In spiritual terms, you need to surrender, you need to let go of your personal will and surrender to the will of your soul, the universe, god, whatever you want to call it. Once you have surrendered your will, you can start to sense where your life needs to go. You sense this with your feelings, with emotions, with intuition if you like. The idea is that you can feel whether something is right, if you need to do something or not. Your emotions are the compass, your intuition gives you the directions.

Good things are written on sensing the future that wants to emerge in groups by Otto Scharmer in his seminal book Theory U.

Letting go of ego and developing intuition are the topics of spiritual development. Letting go of ego can be achieved with meditation and also by using psychedelic drugs. In meditative practice, letting go of the ego can be a long process that takes years. In his book How to change your mind, Michael Pollan describes the shortcut that can be taken with psychedelics. We’ll get back to that in the next part on the scientific view, the chemical part of the flow state.

The social part of the flow state

Flow state is not just about you personal state of consciousness. Flow state means aligning to the universe and also to other people. You can be in flow personally but it is also important to be in flow with your environment. If your soul is aligned to your spiritual path, you can be in personal flow but this can still feel problematic, disconnected. The people around you also have a role to play in your spiritual development. To keep growing, you need to be in sync with the people around you. There is a personal part of the flow state, a universe/cosmos part, and a social part. The ultimate flow state is about aligning all three levels.

A nice spiritual video about flow state is this one from Teal Swan: How to get into the flow state.

The scientific view of flow state

The two parts of the scientific view of flow state are the performance view and the happiness view. The performance view takes a more hard-core scientific approach to the flow state that dives into the chemical part of it and the happiness view takes a psychological view.

The performance view

The performance view is a “Silicon Valley’s take” on flow state, a technocratic view on the flow state. Flow state is a path of spiritual development. But the super-cool side effect of being in the flow state is that you perform better. You are more creative when you are in the flow state. You work faster when you are in the flow state. In the flow state, you can do things that seem impossible from the outside. All great achievements in art, science, and sports are the result of a flow state. In the flow state, you see the big picture, time slows down, you see more connections, you get better ideas, you become stronger. One of the ideas that enables this is the one that says we as humans only use a fraction of our potential. Flow state allows us to access the virtually limitless capacity of our bodies and minds. What might seem as superhuman performance and achievements are in fact done by people who have access to the potential that everyone can access to some degree. We can do so much more than we think. Flow might just be the largest driver of innovation.

This makes flow state an interesting business topic. If people can perform better if they are in the flow state, then flow state drives profit. So if we think in Silicon Valley terms and we can “hack” flow state, we can put more people in the flow state and achieve greater things. This idea and the business benefits have sparked more research into the flow state. People like Steven Kotler have researched top-performing athletes to try to reverse engineer what happens when top performers get into the flow state, in order to hack flow state. Kotler states that the flow state is hack-able. He identified triggers that lead to more flow. The most important aspect he identified is focus. Flow follows focus.

And (also very Silicon Valley) we can also use technology to get easier access to flow state. By measuring heart rate variability (HRV) or brain waves, we can create a direct feedback loop that tells us if we are in flow state or not. This allows us to identify actions that put us in flow state and events that take us out. We can use this to design our lives to live as much as possible in flow state.

In the research, they recognize the meditation road to flow state. But they also try to find different routes, short cuts. One of those routes is the psychedelic route. But instead of using psychedelics to detach from the ego, to surrender, to create a spiritual experience, they explore micro-dosing as a way to improve performance by accessing flow state chemically. This is very appealing in a Silicon-Valley-type-of context in which innovation and performance is the name of the game. Microdosing psychedelics like LSD is quite the trend in Silicon Valley right now.

A nice podcast to dive into the performance aspect of flow state is the interview with Jamie Wheal (co-author of Stealing Fire) on the Impact Theory podcast or this Mind Valley presentation from Steven Kotler.

The happiness view

The third way to look at flow state is through the research of psychologists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his research into happiness, he discovered that flow state is what makes people happy regardless of their circumstances. The more people are in the flow state. The happier they are. He discovered that the flow state depends on two factors: skill level and difficulty of the challenge. He created a diagram that explains where the flow state is:

People can get into flow states if their skill level matches their challenge level. If the challenge is too large for your skill level, you become anxious. If your skill level is higher than the challenge you face, you get bored. What’s interesting about this is that the highest level of flow state exists at the highest skill level that faces the highest challenge. So getting to higher states of flow is about constantly upping your skill level and constantly finding more difficult challenges. Finding flow is about discovering what you are good at and become great at it. Flow = high skill * high challenge. People that do extraordinary things are at the peak of flow level with the highest skill in front of the biggest challenge. You have to surf the edge of chaos. If you are “in control” you drop out of flow state. To achieve the level of mastery that is required to reach the highest levels of flow state, you need to fall in love with the process, not the result, you have to abandon social norms, you have to let go of the limits that people perceive of what is possible.

Jay Shetty has a nice episode about the flow state idea of Csikszentmihalyi that links it to a more spiritual outlook.


I think there is lots to be discovered but this is what I learned so far:

Flow is an important driver of innovation, creativity, performance so it’s super interesting from a business point of view.

  • Flow state has three dimensions: spiritual, psychological and chemical/scientific.

  • In the spiritual view of flow state, it’s about surrendering, letting go of your ego and training your sensibility to your path, training your intuition. You are in flow state if you are on the right path of your life.

  • The flow state also has a social component: you also have to align with your social environment.

  • Flow state is hackable and there are shortcuts to the traditional method of meditative practices.

  • Flow state is influenced by drive, your sense of purpose (you see that both in the scientific analysis and the spiritual view).

  • Flow state is the happiest state.

  • Flow has to do with mastery: the higher your skill level and the challenge you face, the higher your flow state.

  • People can perform at higher levels than they think and flow state is the way to do it.

Reposted Article From:


Dennis Hambeukers

Strategic UX Design Consultant @ Zuiderlicht / Design Leadership Forum Member @InVision / Design Thinker / State Secretary of Integration @ Ministry of Design

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