How to Get into a Creative “Flow State”: A Short Masterclass

Is “flow state” the new mindfulness? The phrase has gained a lot of currency lately. You may have heard it spoken of in rarified terms that sound like you have to be a full-time artist, professional athlete, or Albert Einstein to access it. On the other hand, we have award-winning journalist, human performance expert, and Flow Research Collective founder Steven Kotler explaining in a video that we featured recently how to achieve a flow state on command. So, does flow require a little or a lot of us? It requires, first and foremost, a shift in consciousness.

In the field of positive psychology, flow is most associated with theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose Creativity: Flow the Psychology of Discovery and Invention provided key contemporary insights into the idea. For Csikszentmihalyi, directing our activity toward material notions of security sets us up for disappointment. Flow states are best understood as actualized creativity we can manifest in almost any conditions: we can be “happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside,’ just by changing the contents of consciousness,” he said.


For Taoists, flow means according with the nature of things as they are, which takes a lot of keeping still and letting be. Goethe used the phrase “effortless effort” to describe creative flow. Kotler’s definition is a bit more operational: Flow, he says in his Mindvalley talk above, is an “optimalized state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best.” One thing all notions of flow seem to share is a belief in the importance of what Kotler calls “non-time,” or what the Taoist calls “the doing of non-doing,” a pleasurable resting state without distraction. (Kotler takes his “non-time” between 4 and 7:30 in the morning.)

Kotler himself arrived at the flow state “through an unusual door” — which he illustrates in his talk with an MRI of a skull in profile and list titled “The Cost of Doing Business.” For an ambitious freelance journalist, that meant “2 fractured kneecaps, 2 shattered arms, 1 snapped wrist, 2 mangled ankles,” and the list goes on (including 5 concussions): a description of injuries incurred while following extreme athletes around the world. What he saw, he says, were people who had everything going against them — little education, little natural ability, and histories of “destroyed homes.”

The athletes he followed were traumatized people who would not necessarily be candidates for world-changing innovation. Yet here they were, “extending the limits of kinesthetic possibility” — doing the previously impossible by achieving flow states. Kotler’s descriptions of flow are often very Yang, we might say, focusing on “peak performance” and favoring sports examples. But his claims for flow also sound like deeply healing medicine. He talks about “triggering” flow states to “overcome PTSD, addiction, and heartbreak.” Like Csikszentmihalyi, he saw firsthand how flow states can heal trauma.

We can achieve this “altered state of consciousness” by surfing or skydiving. We can also achieve it while solving equations, translating foreign languages, or knitting scarves. As Csikszentmihalyi points out, it is not the content of an experience — or the expense in airline tickets and broken bones — that matters so much as our state of absorption in activities we love and practice regularly, which take us away from thoughts about our ever-present problems and open up the space for possibility.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Enter a ‘Flow State’ on Command: Peak Performance Mind Hack Explained in 7 Minutes

You can be forgiven for thinking the concept of “flow” was cooked up and popularized by yoga teachers. That word gets a lot of play when one is moving from Downward-Facing Dog on through Warrior One and Two.

Actually, flow – the state of  “effortless effort” – was coined by Goethe, from the German “rausch”, a dizzying sort of ecstasy.

Friedrich Nietzsche and psychologist William James both considered the flow state in depth, but social theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, is the true giant in the field. Here’s one of his definitions of flow:

Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

Author Steven Kotler, Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective, not only seems to spend a lot of time thinking about flow, as a leading expert on human performance, he inhabits the state on a fairly regular basis, too.


Chalk it up to good luck?

Good genes? (Some researchers, including retired NIH geneticist Dean Hamer and psychologist C. Robert Cloninger, think genetics play a part…)

As Kotler points out above, anyone can hedge their bets by clearing away distractions – all the usual baddies that interfere with sleep, performance, or productivity.

It’s also important to know thyself. Kotler’s an early bird, who gets crackin’ well before sunrise:

I don’t just open my eyes at 4:00 AM, I try to go from bed to desk before my brain even kicks out of its Alpha wave state. I don’t check any emails. I turn everything off at the end of the day including unplugging my phones and all that stuff so that the next morning there’s nobody jumping into my inbox or assaulting me emotionally with something, you know what I mean?… I really protect that early morning time.

By contrast, his night owl wife doesn’t start clearing the cobwebs ’til early evening.

In the above video for Big Think, Kotler notes that 22 flow triggers have been discovered, pre-conditions that keep attention focused in the present moment.

His website lists many of those triggers:

  • Complete Concentration in the Present Moment
  • Immediate Feedback
  • Clear Goals
  • The Challenge-Skills Ratio (ie: the challenge should seem slightly out of reach
  • High consequences 
  • Deep Embodiment 
  • Rich Environment 
  • Creativity (specifically, pattern recognition, or the linking together of new ideas)

Kotler also shares University of North Carolina psychologist Keith Sawyer’s trigger list for groups hoping to flow like a well-oiled machine:

  • Shared Goals
  • Close Listening 
  • “Yes And” (additive, rather than combative conversations)
  • Complete Concentration (total focus in the right here, right now)
  • A sense of control (each member of the group feels in control, but still
  • Blending Egos (each person can submerge their ego needs into the group’s)
  • Equal Participation (skills levels are roughly equal everyone is involved)
  • Familiarity (people know one another and understand their tics and tendencies)
  • Constant Communication (a group version of immediate feedback)
  • Shared, Group Risk

One might think people in the flow state would be floating around with an expression of ecstatic bliss on their faces. Not so, according to Kotler. Rather, they tend to frown slightly. Good news for anyone with resting bitch face!

(We’ll thank you to refer to it as resting flow state face from here on out.)

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Psychology of Messiness & Creativity: Study Shows How a Messy Desk and Creative Work Go Hand in Hand

Image via Wikimedia Commons

You may have come into contact at some point with Tracey Emin’s My Bed, an art installation that reproduces her private space during a time when she spent four days as a shut-in in 1998, “heartbroken”: the bed’s unmade, the bedside strewn with cigarettes, moccasins, a bottle of booze, food, and “what appears to be a sixteen year old condom”…. If you were savvy enough to be Tracey Emin in 1998—and none of us were—you would have sold that messy room for over four million dollars last year at a Christie’s auction. I doubt another buyer of that caliber will come along for a knock-off, but this doesn’t mean the messes we make while slobbing around our own homes are without their own, intangible, value.

Those messes, in fact, may be seedbeds of creativity, confirming a cliché as persistent as the one about doctors’ handwriting, and perhaps as accurate. It seems a messy desk, room, or studio may genuinely be a mark of genius at work. Albert Einstein for example, writes Elite Daily, had a desk that “looked like a spiteful ex-girlfriend had a mission to destroy his workspace.” Einstein responded to criticism of his work habits by asking, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”


Mark Twain also had a messy desk, “perhaps even more cluttered than that of Albert Einstein.” To find out whether the messiness trait’s relation to creativity is simply an “urban legend” or not, Kathleen Vohs (a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management) and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments in both tidy and unruly spaces with 188 adults given tasks to choose from.

Vohs describes her findings in the New York Times, concluding that messiness and creativity are at least very strongly correlated, and that “while cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.” But there are trade-offs. Read about them in Vohs’ paper—“Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity.” And just above, see Vohs’ co-author Joe Redden, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, discuss the team’s fascinating results. If conducting such an experiment on yourself, it might be best to do so in a space that’s all your own, though, like the rest of us, you’re too late to creatively turn the mess you make into lucrative conceptual art.

Below, as a bonus, you can watch Tracey Emin talk about the dark emotional place from which My Bed emerged.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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Albert Einstein Tells His Son The Key to Learning & Happiness is Losing Yourself in Creativity (or “Finding Flow”)

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Origins of the Word “Gaslighting”: Scenes from the 1944 Film Gaslight

You’re not going out of your mind. You’re slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind. — Joseph Cotton to Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gaslight.

Remember when the word “gaslighting” elicited knowing nods from black and white film buffs… and blank stares from pretty much everyone else?

Then along came 2016, and gaslighting entered the lexicon in a big way.

Merriam-Webster defines it as the “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

Of course, you knew that already!


“Gaslighting” is unavoidable these days, five years after it was named 2016’s “most useful” and “likely to succeed” word by the American Dialect Society.

(“Normalize” was a runner up.)

As long as we’re playing word games, are you familiar with “denominalization”?

Also known as “verbing” or “verbification,” it’s the process whereby a noun is retooled as a verb.

Both figure prominently in Gaslight.

Have you seen the film?

Ingrid Bergman, playing opposite Charles Boyer, won an Academy award for her performance. A teenaged Angela Lansbury made her big screen debut.

In his reviewThe New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther steered clear of spoilers, while musing that the bulk of the theater-going public was probably already hip to the central conceit, following the successful Broadway run of Angel Street, the Patrick Hamilton thriller on which the film was based:

We can at least slip the information that the study is wholly concerned with the obvious endeavors of a husband to drive his wife slowly mad. And with Mr. Boyer doing the driving in his best dead-pan hypnotic style, while the flames flicker strangely in the gas-jets and the mood music bongs with heavy threats, it is no wonder that Miss Bergman goes to pieces in the most distressing way.

In the same review, Crowther sniped that Gaslight was “a no more illuminating title” than Angel Street.

Maybe that was true in 1944. Not anymore!

(Cunning linguists that we are, had the film retained the play’s title, 2022 may well have found us complaining that some villain tried to Angel Street us…)

In a column on production design for The Film Experience, critic Daniel Walber points out how Boyer destabilizes Bergman by fooling with their gas-powered lamps, and also how the film’s Academy Award-winning design team used the “constricting temporality” of a Victorian London lit by gas to set a foreboding mood:

Between the streetlights outside and the fixtures within, the mood is forever dimmed. The heaviness of the atmosphere brings us even closer to Paula’s mental state, trapping us with her. The detail is so precise, so committed that every flicker crawls under the skin, projecting terrible uncertainty and fear to the audience.

Readers who’ve yet to see the film may want to skip the below clip, as it does contain something close to a spoiler.

Those who’ve been on the receiving end of a vigorous gaslighting campaign?

Pass the popcorn.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Jon Hamm Narrates a Modernized Version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Helping to Diagnose Our Social Media-Induced Narcissism

The Matrix gave a generation or two reason to reconsider, or indeed first to consider, Plato’s allegory of the cave. That era-defining blockbuster’s cavalcade of slick visual effects came delivered atop a plot about humanity’s having been enslaved — plugged into a colossal machine, as I recall, like an array of living batteries — while convinced by a direct-to-brain simulation that it wasn’t. Here in real life, about two and a half millennia earlier, one of Plato’s dialogues had conjured up a not-dissimilar scenario. You can see it retold in the video above, a clip drawn from a form as representative of the early 21st century as The Matrix‘s was of the late 20th: Legion, a dramatic television series based on a comic book.

“Imagine a cave, where those inside never see the outside world,” says narrator Jon Hamm (himself an icon of our Golden Age of Television, thanks to his lead performance in Mad Men). “Instead, they see shadows of that world projected on the cave wall. The world they see in the shadows is not the real world, but it’s real to them. If you were to show them the world as it actually is, they would reject it as incomprehensible.” Then, Hamm suggests transposing this relationship to reality into life as we know it — or rather, as we two-dimensionally perceive it on the screens of our phones. But “unlike the allegory of the cave, where the people are real and the shadows are false, here other people are the shadows.”


This propagates “the delusion of the narcissist, who believes that they alone are real. Their feelings are the only feelings that matter, because other people are just shadows, and shadows don’t feel.” And “if everyone lived in caves, then no one would be real. Not even you.” With the rise of digital communication in general and social media in particular, a great many of us have ensconced ourselves, by degrees and for the most part unconsciously, inside caves of our own. Over the past decade or so, increasingly sobering glimpses of the outside world have motivated some of us to seek diagnoses of our collective condition from thinkers of the past, such as social theorist Christopher Lasch.

“The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety,” Lasch writes The Culture of Narcissism. “Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence” — wonders, in other words, whether he isn’t one of the shadows himself. Nevertheless, he remains “facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it,” and dependent on “constant infusions of approval and admiration.” Social media has revealed traces of this personality, belonging to one who “sees the world as a mirror of himself and has no interest in external events except as they throw back a reflection of his own image,” in us all. It thus gives us pause to remember that Lasch was writing all this in the 1970s; but then, Plato was writing in the fifth century B.C.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Drugs Used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Many of us living in the parts of the world where marijuana has recently been legalized may regard ourselves as partaking of a highly modern pleasure. And given the ever-increasing sophistication of the growing and processing techniques that underlie what has become a formidable cannabis industry, perhaps, on some level, we are. But as intellectually avid enthusiasts of psychoactive substances won’t hesitate to tell you, their use stretches farther back in time than history itself. “For as long as there has been civilization, there have been mind-altering drugs,” writes Science‘s Andrew Lawler. But was anyone using them in the predecessors to western civilization as we know it today?

For quite some time, scholars believed that unlike, say, Mesoamerica or north Africa, “the ancient Near East had seemed curiously drug-free.” But now, “new techniques for analyzing residues in excavated jars and identifying tiny amounts of plant material suggest that ancient Near Easterners indulged in a range of psychoactive substances.”


The latest evidence suggests that, already three millennia ago, “drugs like cannabis had arrived in Mesopotamia, while people from Turkey to Egypt experimented with local substances such as blue water lily.” That these habits seem to have continued in ancient Greece and Rome is suggested by archaeological evidence summarized in the video above.

In 2019, archaeologists unearthed a few precious artifacts from a fourth-century Scythian burial mound near Stavropol in Russia. There were “golden armbands, golden cups, a heavy gold ring, and the greatest treasure of all, two spectacular golden vessels,” says narrator Garrett Ryan, who earned a PhD in Greek and Roman History from the University of Michigan. The interiors of those last “were coated with a sticky black residue,” confirmed in the lab to be opium with traces of marijuana. “The Scythians, in other words, got high” — as did “their Greek and Roman neighbors.” Ryan, author of Naked Statues, Fat Gladiators, and War Elephants: Frequently Asked Questions about the Ancient Greeks and Romans, goes on to make intriguing connections between scattered but relevant pieces of archaeological and textual evidence. We know that some of our civilizational forebears got high; how many, and how high, are questions for future scholastic inquiry.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The 10 Paradoxical Traits of Creative People, According to Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (RIP)

Despite decades of research, scientists still know little about the source of creativity. Nonetheless, humans continue to create things. Or, at least, we continue to be fascinated by creativity; now more than ever, it seems. There may be as many best-selling books on creativity as there are on dieting or relationships. The current focus on creativity isn’t always a net positive. Anyone who does creative work may be labeled a “Creative” (used as a noun) at some point in their career. The term lumps all working artists together, as though their work were interchangeable deliverables measured in billable hours. The word suggests that those who don’t work as “Creatives” have no business in the area of creativity. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it:

Not so long ago, it was acceptable to be an amateur poet…. Nowadays if one does not make some money (however pitifully little) out of writing, it’s considered to be a waste of time. It is taken as downright shameful for a man past twenty to indulge in versification unless he receives a check to show for it.

Csikszentmihalyi, who passed away this month, deplored the instrumentalization of creativity. He wrote, Austin Kleon notes, “about the joys of being an amateur” — which, in its literal sense, means being a devoted lover. Like Carl Jung, Csikszentmihalyi believed that creation proceeds, in a sense, from falling in love with an activity and losing ourselves in a state beyond our preoccupations with self, others, or the past and future. He called this state “flow” and wrote a national bestseller about it while founding the discipline of positive psychology and co-directing the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University .


You can see an animated summary of Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience above (including a pronunciation of Csikszentmihalyi’s name). Creativity should not only refer to skills we sell to our employers. It is the practice of doing things that make us happy, not the things that make us money, whether or not those two things are the same. This is a subject close to Austin Kleon’s heart. The writer and designer has been offering tips for training and honing creativity for years, in books like Show Your Work, a guide “not just for ‘creatives’!” but for anyone who wants to create. Like Csikszentmihalyi, he refutes the idea that there’s such a thing as a “creative type.”

Instead, in his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikszentmihalyi notes that people who spend their time creating exhibit a list of 10 “paradoxical traits.”

  1. Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they’re also often quiet and at rest.
  2. Creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time.
  3. Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.
  4. Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality.
  5. Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted.
  6. Creative people are humble and proud at the same time.
  7. Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping.
  8. Creative people are both rebellious and conservative.
  9. Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.
  10. Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment.

We may well be reminded of Walt Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself,” and perhaps it is to Whitman we should turn to resolve the paradox. Creativity involves the willingness and courage to become “large,” the poet wrote, to get weird and messy and “contain multitudes.” Maybe the best way to become a more creative person, to lose oneself fully in the act of making, is to heed Bertrand Russell’s guidance for facing death:

[M]ake your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea… 

This eloquent passage — Csikszentmihalyi might have agreed — expresses the very essence of creative “flow.”

via Austin Kleon

Related Content: 

Creativity, Not Money, is the Key to Happiness: Discover Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Theory of “Flow”

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Slavoj Žižek: What Fullfils You Creatively Isn’t What Makes You Happy

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

“The Hippie Temptation”: An Angst-Ridden CBS TV Show Warns of the Risks of LSD (1976)

To lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, we owe much of what has endured from Western popular culture of the mid-20th century: consider, for instance, the latter half of the Beatles’ oeuvre. In Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald describes LSD as “a powerful hallucinogen whose function is temporarily to dismiss the brain’s neural concierge, leaving the mind to cope as it can with sensory information which meanwhile enters without prior arrangement — an uncensored experience of reality which profoundly alters one’s outlook on it.”

So profound is that alteration that some came to believe in a utopia achievable through universal ingestion of the drug: “If there be necessary revolution in America,” declared Allen Ginsberg, “it will come this way.” But most Americans didn’t see it quite the same way. It was for them that CBS made its broadcast “The Hippie Temptation.” Aired in August 1967, three months after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, it constitutes an exposé of LSD-fueled youth culture as it effervesced at the time in and around San Francisco’s countercultural mecca of Haight-Ashbury.


“The hippies present a strange problem,” says correspondent Harry Reasoner, later known as the host of 60 Minutes. “Our society has produced them. There they are, in rapidly increasing numbers. And yet there seem to be very few definite ideas behind the superficial glitter of their dress and behavior.” In search of the core of the hippie ideology, which seems outwardly to involve “standing apart from society by means of mutual help and love,” Reasoner and his collaborators delve into the nature of LSD, whose users “may see a wild complexity of images, hear a multiplicity of sounds. This is called ‘taking an acid trip.'”

Alas, “for many, the price of taking the shortcut to discovery the hippies put forward turns out to be very high.” A young doctor from UCLA’s neuropsychiatric institute named Duke Fisher argues that most LSD users “talk about loving humanity in general, an all-encompassing love of the world, but they have a great deal of difficulty loving one other person, or loving that specific thing.” Also included in “The Hippie Temptation” are interviews with young people (albeit ones cleaner-cut than the average denizen of late-60s Haight-Ashbury) placed into medical facilities due to hallucinogen-related mishaps, including suicide attempts.

“There is the real danger that more and more young people may follow the call to turn on, tune in, drop out,” Reasoner declares, in keeping with the broadcast’s portentous tone. Even then there were signs of what MacDonald calls “the hippie counterculture’s incipient commercialization and impending decline into hard drugs.” But to this day, “that there was indeed something unusual in the air can still be heard from many of the records of the period: a light, joyous optimism with a tangible spiritual aura and a thrillingly fresh informality” — a quality MacDonald finds concentrated in the work of not just The Beatles but the Grateful Dead, who sit for an interview in “The Hippie Temptation.” LSD may no longer be as tempting as it was half a century ago, but many of the creations it inspired then still have us hooked today.

via Laughing Squid

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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