In Search of (Healthy, Productive) Flow

After 15 years of failing to live up to others’ ideas of peak performance, I found my salvation in an unlikely place – hacking into my beautiful, dark, twisted mind.

Backing up – a few weeks ago I read an awesome book called Stealing Fire, which distilled the dilemma I’ve faced for over a decade:

Scientists have known about the relationship between flow and peak performance for more than a century, but a real understanding of this relationship has been slow in coming. The main problem was conflicting motivations. The people really good at finding flow, mostly artists and athletes, were rarely interested in studying it. And the people interested in studying flow, primarily academics, were rarely good at finding it.

My problem was that when I was studying music, I wasn’t especially good at finding flow, but I’d gotten enough of a taste of it to feel starved once I switched to academia. The past two years have been me (with increasingly levels of desperation) trying to find a middle path between the two.

First, I had to let go of others’ standards and expectations – that took a good decade. Second, I had to define my own vision of peak performance (not perfection) and reverse-engineer it through (healthy, productive) flow-states. The latter’s taken a few weeks of dedicated work – proof that emotional work takes way longer than its logistical counterpart.

This lead to an insight: a lot of my past problems stemmed from the fact that I had few models for how to enter healthy, productive flow states. I mention “healthy” and “productive” because there are many flow-inducing activities – say, playing video games for 15 hours straight – which are neither.

I was lucky enough to start my formal musical education in supportive, flow-inducing environments. All this changed once I went off to college at a highly competitive music school. If I could write a letter to my 19-year-old-self at her absolute low-point, it would be this:

Honey, right now you’re depressed and scared because you’ve been put in a situation specifically designed to make you simultaneously stressed and bored (i.e. anti-flow). You feel like an outcast for being one of the few female jazz instrumentalists in your program, compounded by the fact that you’re dealing with an undiagnosed and unacknowledged psychiatric disorder (which you’ll continue to think of as a “woman’s problem” until you watch all the people in your life who (almost) succumb to suicide be men).

Know this: you are not broken – the system is. Industrial-era education uses a “one-size-fits-all” approach which is outdated, ineffective, and harmful. 50 years ago, when many music programs started, they didn’t even know about flow-states, much less how to train people to get into them. They used a refinery-like system to “burn off” the “waste” because they could eliminate everyone except those who were already able to enter musical flow-states.

50 years ago, very few people knew how to hack into flow and peak performance – but that’s no longer the case. Over the next 10-14 years, you’re going to discover yoga, meditation, minimalism, clean eating, interval training, accelerated learning, and countless other things that are slow, step by step, going to allow you to develop your own brand of extraordinariness.

So what do you do in the meantime? You persist – through breakdowns, breakups, heartaches, health crises, and weight fluctuations. More importantly, you learn from your experiences and develop a kick-ass skill-set. Most importantly, you enjoy your time with your fellow outcasts – the people who will get you through the bad times and help you celebrate the good; who you’ll love, miss, and cherish for the rest of your life.

As I write this, Hurricane Irma has just made landfall in the US – not far from my family. It’s a scary time of unprecedented political dysfunction and environmental catastrophe. But the glimmer of hope is that these crises will help others realize what I (and many others before me) have realized: peak performance isn’t a marker of status, it’s the only hope for solving the incredibly complex problems currently facing our world.

Before this, I made something of a name for myself researching and critiquing gender inequality in jazz. I still recognize the numerous injustices in the world, and have a big ol’ middle finger for “The Man,” but this is no longer my primary concern.

The “old boys” clubs – with their fancy glass ceilings and feeder educational-refineries – are crumbling. I have no wish to stay angry with their members, nor delight in their downfall. Instead, I’m grateful I was never accepted into the club and had to find my own, often thorny path to peak performance. My goal now is to help others find and navigate their own path – even if it means first pulling them out of the burning wreckage of an unfair system which they benefited from and helped to maintain.

I found my own vision of peak performance and healthy, productive flow-states. Now it’s time to help others do the same.

Author: Leah Pogwizd

Bassist and Instructor

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