Finding the right balance of peak experience, effective practice, and flow states is essential for sustained gains in the long run.
People are needy. We want it all; we want it now; we want it to last forever; and we want it for free. This is the calculus of biology, but never confuse short-term appetites with lifelong strategy.
Real gains have a half-life. They’re perishable. Preserving them requires effort, intelligence, and a strategy. To make our efforts productive over the long haul, we need the right combination of peak experiences, effective regular practice habits, and the ability to create flow states to accelerate the process.
Let’s look at these one at a time, and then put it all together.
Peak experiences change us. We’re not the same afterwards. Figuratively, they get us out of our heads and loosen our grip on who we think we are, and what we believe is possible. They can dissolve our ego and blow up our world view, causing us to put life back together in novel ways or stretch for new heights. There can be deep “aha” moments, or an audible “click”, as new insights or connections are made for the first time, or with new intensity.
One extreme form is the psychedelic experience, where if the dose is high enough, there is real risk that we won’t be able to put ourselves back together ever again. High-dose psychedelic experiences can go seriously wrong, and should never be undertaken lightly, too frequently, or without expert supervision. Psychedelics should never be viewed as recreational toys, but as transformational tools, especially for lives that are stuck in a deep rut of some sort.
More sustainable peak experiences might include occasional trips to nature, motivational retreats, raves, community service, clinics, master classes, professional and athletic boot camps, temples or cathedrals, and so on. These kinds of experiences are less explosive than all out ego death, but they are nonetheless transformational, and they add up. We hope we are performing at our peak during tournaments, but we don’t compete tournaments every day.
I went to high school and college in the 1980’s. Peak experiences for me were watching Larry Bird and Michael Jordan play basketball, and Maradona play soccer. Just seeing what was possible changed by brain and my body. Grainy as that footage is, and creaky as my joints are now, it reminds me of sports before and sports after these peak experiences. Just by watching these guys, my game (and everyone else’s game) jumped to another level.
All peak experiences end. So now what?
What all peak experiences have in common is that they end. When they do, we must re-integrate the experience into regular life armed with new insights or gifts we received. Those gifts are not assets, unless they are put to work in the real world.
If peak experiences represent the tops of mountains we visit for a brief moment, regular practice occurs in the valleys between peaks. Most of our lives are spent in valleys. Regular practice builds and refines vocabulary, strength, flexibility, and dexterity, whether mentally, physically, spiritually, socially, financially, or professionally.
Meditation, visualization, self-hypnosis or self-improvement books, individual and group study, debate, physical exercise, social interaction, sex, and good diet are staples of any practice. Good regular practice should also purge toxic substances and thoughts from our bodies and minds, and replace them with physical and mental essential nutrients.
Peak experiences are the peaks. Regular practice happens in the valleys in between.
Creating Flow States
Flow states are force multipliers, and they are created. We create flow by doing something challenging enough to command our attention, while stretching our abilities—enough to stretch us and keep us engaged, but not enough to break us. Flow states make whatever we're doing seem experientially richer than usual, more effortless and timeless, while losing ourselves in the activity.
You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule to achieve mastery at something—but practicing your craft in a state of flow can cut the time to mastery down substantially. Flow is naturally created when your comfort level is exceeded by as little as 4%. If you are a musician practicing with a metronome at 90 BPM, don’t leap to 140 BPM at once causing you to crash and burn. Crank it to 93 BPM, until you can play confidently with expression, then crank it to 98 BPM, and so on.
Flow can be created when your comfort level is exceeded by as little as 4%.
When in flow, your Default Mode Network (DMN) quiets down while the experience itself takes over. In flow, you’re not thinking about the past or the future. It’s all happening right here and now. It isn’t about you. It’s all about what you’re creating or who you’re with.
Putting It All Together: The Optimal Balance
So what is the right balance of peak experience, regular practice and flow? You’ll have your own, but here is how I see it:
Over time, regular practice should be the foundation of getting what you want out of life and your relationships, becoming what you want to be, or performing at the levels you want to reach. No shortcuts here. But your practice should be punctuated with occasional peak experiences to challenge your status quo and inspire you and see the world in new ways. Finally, practice should be done in a flow state as much as possible, to make the most out of your time and effort, and accelerate your time to mastery.
Peak states can be addictive, but too many too often are actually counterproductive. To paraphrase the great Tony Rice: it’s great to hit the bluegrass festivals to hear the best pickers, but you’ll never play like they do. Spend time behind the woodshed practicing the licks you want to play, and make it your own.
Increase the effectiveness of your practice with flow states. You’ll enjoy it more, stick with it longer, and get better faster.