The Flow State: A Means to Excel at Anything

The wind smashes against your face and the salt stings your eyes. As you move your arms through the water, carrying the weight your board and yourself with you, the sun slams its light onto your back. Your attention is unwavering, directed instead on the glistening mountains of blue in front of you. The right wave seems to be approaching from beyond, humming a low tune as it picks up speed. You time it just right, pivoting to the left and paddling to catch it. As you lift yourself onto the board, the wave pushes you forward with resilience. There’s no bailing now. Cool droplets of water race past your skin, and your gaze is stuck on the curling tunnel you’re about to conquer. You can barely make out the cries of gulls above, or the gazes of friends on the beach. You forget that you’ve been doing this for 4 hours straight, or that your knees have been torn from run-ins with coral. You just know that you’re floating on the tide again.

That feeling is called "Flow," and it doesn’t just apply to surfing.

It is a state of peak physical and mental performance in which a person is fully immersed in an activity. Colloquially, it is known as being in the zone.

So how is this at all applicable to you, or to learning math for that matter? How can surfing, writing, playing soccer, or meditating have anything to do with you studying for a test?

The common thread, and the key to optimizing your results, is Flow. The reason it applies to you is that you’ve probably felt it at some point in your life. Even if you’re young, you can probably remember those moments when you were so engaged in something that time just melted away. You felt absorbed and at your best. You were in Flow, but maybe just didn’t know it at the time.

But you should know about it now, because it’s something that you can learn to harness to improve your skill-sets and perhaps draw more out of life. And yes, it could improve your SAT score too.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a researcher at the University of Chicago, popularized the term "Flow" after publishing his seminal worked in 1990 called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Though research on the topic had been done before, he conducted extensive research after surveying many of the world’s top masters in a variety of fields. He described it as: 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.

Curious to learn more? Let’s dive into the background behind Flow, and how you may be able to implement it to improve your test-taking and overall experiences.

Background of Flow

Though the term was made famous by Csikszentmihalyi, Flow had not been scientifically analyzed to the degree it is now. Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, both interested in researching the topic, founded the Flow Genome Project to map the “sequencing” of Flow in the brain. Kotler has even written a book entitled The Rise of Superman that discusses the neurobiology of this state of optimal performance.

One of primary theories of Flow is that a part of the brain has to shut down, not light up, to make it possible. The scientific term for this is Transient Hypofrontality, which means that for a short time (transient), reduced activity (hypo-) occurs in the prefrontal cortex in the brain (-frontality). This part of the brain dictates a person’s sense of self and acts as like a CEO to process decisions. However, it can act as a filter during demanding activities and prevent a person from truly losing themselves. This is a huge barrier to overcome, because when a person is in Flow, he or she shouldn’t be second-guessing themselves. They should just perform, almost as if possessed.

According to Kotler, Flow causes the release of 5 hormones that improve output:

  1. Dopamine, which increases momentary pleasure.
  2. Norepinephrine, which gives you energy by increasing heart-rate and breathing.
  3. Anandamide, which reduces stress.
  4. Endorphins, which reduce physical pain.
  5. Serotonin, which increases the feeling of reward and keeps you wanting more.

In the process of his research on Flow, Kotler has cited some fascinating studies that add evidence to his claims. During a 10-year McKinsey study, high-level executives said that they performed 5 times better when in Flow.

DARPA scientists artificially induced Flow through transcranial stimulation to find that snipers improved their skills by 230%. Australian researchers used the same method to discover that 40% of participants could complete a brain-teasing puzzle when in Flow, whereas none of them could do so before.

As scientific attention on Flow increases, we may see even more compelling evidence and implications for this state of mind. For now though, let’s discuss how you can access this superpower yourself.

How to get into Flow

As you’ve seen in the research, one way to achieve flow is with transcranial magnetic stimulation. I don’t recommend this. Not only is it used more for medical purposes, but you’re not going bring an expensive machine with you when skiing down a mountain slope or sitting for an exam. Plus, you probably want to know how to induce the state naturally, so you can sustain it long-term.


The following are some basic criteria to achieving Flow on your own, taken from summaries of Kotler and Csikszentmihalyi’s works:

  1. Choose the right challenges for your skill level. As you can see in the figure above, you want to hit a sweet-spot in the battle between challenges and your skill-level. With math, this could mean doing more advanced algebraic equations once you’ve mastered the basics, or solving progressively harder word problems after getting a few down.
  2. Focus your entire self on the task at hand. This point has been well-established by your parents and teachers. If there’s no other reason to listen to them, at least trust that it will help you achieve this mystical Flow state.
  3. Give yourself enough time. Stay with a task for at least 15 to 20 minutes or longer before you can expect peak performance. It takes a while to get your mind in the right place. Long-term, this means sticking with a skill until it virtually becomes muscle-memory, then doing step 1 again.
  4. Take some deep breaths before you begin a task, or during the activity. This will help relax you and is a common practice in meditation, which is famous for inducing Flow.

As you can tell, getting into Flow is more a matter of calming yourself down than it is building your energy up. And it doesn’t have to just be with math. Take what you find in some of your most engaging activities and apply that to others. Certain tasks that you thought were boring might appear deeply engaging after some practice (maybe even Calculus).

As a piece of general advice, Flow is not only a state for maximal performance in a single activity, but possibly the best way to spend your time. Even your leisure hobbies can be turned into methods of self-improvement instead of repetitiveness or boredom. It will help you see work as an end in itself, rather than a means to one. As Csikszentmihalyi said:

...It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”


Should You Go To College? The Pros and Cons

Going to college is viewed as a natural step for most aspiring young adults. It has almost become a cultural norm for the middle and upper classes, shielded from harsh questioning by its promise of better career opportunities, higher salaries, and more respect.

Yet with access to rapidly increasing resources for online learning and discussion, a lot of high-schoolers may be skeptical of the true value of attending college. This is definitely warranted, given the investment of time and money required for an undergraduate degree. And if anything, the questioning should be encouraged by parents, friends, and teachers. Four years of a young person’s life should not be approached lightly.

In this article, I hope to spark more thought regarding college attendance, present the advantages and disadvantages of attendance, and offer advice on how to approach the decision. It is directed to an audience of students approaching the college-decision process, but contains valuable information for younger students, current college-goers, teachers, and parents.

Whether you decide to attend college or not, you will have to make decisions about your future that will feel forced at such a young age. Just don’t let it cloud your judgment. This process will be one of many that mature you.

And even if you can’t map a confident course for your future career (whether that entails college or not), you should at least decide what skill-sets to explore and their viability in the long-term. By strengthening your instinct with research, you’ll soon develop a rudimentary plan for the next few years of your life. Just keep in mind that a bad plan is better than no plan, because having no plan can is a recipe for stagnation. 

Why You Might Not Want To Go

This section is in place to verbalize what you are likely thinking when you doubt the value of a college education. It may help clarify your own opinions as well as set the stage for topics we’ll explore later in the article.

One reason dominates the conversation: saving money. The total tuition cost can range from $30-200k or more after four years. And the average college graduate in 2017 has $37,172 in debt, which increases each year. No matter how much you may value a college degree, those costs speak for themselves. You might be able to find ways around the cost, such as financial aid, scholarships, or attending an in-state school, but it can be a difficult barrier to overcome.

You might have another reason: you already know what you’re going to do, and it doesn’t require a degree. This is rare, but can be the case for surefooted prospective entrepreneurs, particular laborers, artists, software developers with extensive coding experience, or folks inheriting a family business. If you fall into one of these categories and aren’t currently making money in that endeavor, try to ascertain an idea of your projected income and weigh that opportunity cost against tuition and the knowledge you'll gain while at university.

Finally, you might be in the camp that doesn’t know exactly what you want to do, but just feel that college isn’t the right move. This is a more dangerous opinion than the last one, because it can lead to an irrational or hasty decision, but it is still an understandable one.

In all these cases and ones I may have missed, you should research, think, and discuss with others as much as possible in order to make a good decision. You’re doing that now by stumbling upon this article, and you should form that level of analysis into a habit. This process of meticulous decision-making will serve you well for any future crossroads.

Possible Advantages of Not Attending College

An advantage of abstaining from college that’s often overlooked is that many high-paying jobs don’t require a college degree. This can include transportation-related jobs, supervisor positions, mechanics, and even nuclear-power-reactor operators. Business Insider has a useful ranking of these positions here. The median annual income for these jobs hovers between $50k-80k, which is pretty solid in comparison to the median U.S. household income of close to $56k in 2016.

The downside to these positions is that they have a higher potential of career-stagnation, meaning that there’s not much room for you to advance. This is because upper-level management positions tend to recruit from a pool of college-educated candidates, sometimes outside of the company itself. Moreover, a lot of these roles require non-transferable skills, or ones that may soon become obsolete (which is a topic discussed later). These positions may also require college degrees in the near future, simply because of the trend towards degrees as a new minimum standard for employment.

Another option to learn and grow for folks deciding to either pass on college or simply delay the journey is to live at home while self-educating. Self-education is something worth engaging in even while in college, but it can also be a route to bypass school entirely. Resources such as Udemy, Coursera, Udacity, and Khan Academy can help you gain useful skills or knowledge in your spare time that are directly related to building a business or launching a new career path.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 10.10.04 AM

Contrary to popular belief, it is definitely possible for people to develop general intelligence independently so long as you possess the requisite motivation and work ethic. It can be difficult at a young age to push yourself individually, but certain personalities might benefit from such an approach. The following quote offers great perspective on universities and how students spend a great deal of time while in school: 

Arum, whose book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective. Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called "higher order" thinking skills. Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

This leads to the last advantage, which is that a portfolio of projects can be more valuable in attaining a job than just a degree. In the fields of graphic design, web design, and art, a portfolio is the most important, and arguably the only tangible thing you need, to get hired. I’ll refer you to two articles (here and here) that better explain the relationship between portfolios and jobs.

The beauty of developing a portfolio early-on, whether you attend college or not, is that you’ll gain valuable skills in that field and learn if you want to explore it further. Even if you make an art portfolio, but decide instead to go into art related consulting, then at the very least you will develop a creative acumen and impress employers with your initiative. 

Possible Disadvantages of Not Attending College

I already hinted towards one disadvantage, which is that your options for career paths may be limited. This might be harder to understand in the present, especially if you haven’t worked in the industry yet, but can make sense when observing future job-availability projections. For example, a study done by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute showed that by 2020, 65% of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school, and 35% of the job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree. The lack of a degree may not be as concrete a barrier as people make it out to be, but could be restrictive. In fields such as medicine and law especially, it’s almost impossible to attain a position without one.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 10.10.29 AM

Another study done by the Pew Research Center concluded the following: among 25- to 32-year-olds with a college degree, the jobless rate as of March 2013 was 3.8 percent. At 8.1 percent, the rate was more than twice as high for those with a two-year degree or some college, and it was more than three times as high for those with only a high school diploma at 12.2 percent.

This does not mean that you will be unemployed without a degree, but again hints toward the general benefits of having a degree for the population at large.

And as mentioned, even you get a stable position at a company without a degree, you might find it difficult to shift to another industry or move up in the company without a degree. Just keep in mind that college could be an investment you’ll make for a return that’s four years or more down the road, even if you would otherwise be fine without it now.

Another disadvantage is that you may miss out on the exploration and growth that’s possible in college. Certain experiences are definitely available without attending college, but there are several unknown variables to consider. For example, colleges can provide access to other intelligent people in your class, contact with alumni, school prestige, new courses of study you would otherwise not have pursued, clubs, team projects, a certain type of social life, a good transition to living on your own, job fairs, and potential mentors.

Finally, and perhaps the most fascinating potential disadvantage of skipping college, is the supposed health difference between college grads and non-college grads. The National Bureau of Economic Research had the following to say about it: The magnitude of the relationship between education and health varies across conditions, but is generally large...Four more years of schooling lowers the probability of reporting oneself in fair or poor health by 6 percentage points and reduces lost days of work to sickness by 2.3 each year. Although the effects of gender and race are not shown, the magnitude of four years of schooling is roughly comparable in size to being female or being African American. These are not trivial effects.

Correlation does not necessarily imply causation in any of the cases mentioned, but the data presented is worth thinking about and investigating further.

What you should do now

So what happens if you’ve thought hard about your decision and know that you want to attend college? You should prepare yourself by choosing the right school, then committing completely to the program. It may sound contradictory, but if you set that aim in your mind and later decide that college isn’t right for you, then at least you’ll have made the most of your experiences up to that point.

And what happens if you’ve decided not to go? Just continue to do what you’ve been doing and research your current options. Just be confident in your choice, because you will likely have to begin making an income or figuring out a specific path sooner than college-bound peers.

After having read this article, you may still feel confused about your decision (or maybe more confused than you were before). That’s okay, because there was and will continue to be a lot of information on this topic. There is no single yes/no answer I can give you. However, a good framework to follow is that you should aim to gain marketable skills in an area that peaks your interest. Even if you attend college, you’ll find that developing yourself outside of school is essential, as is having a vision for how to apply that education. The following website may provide some help, as it has well-researched information on various career paths and their impacts on the world.

Also, be mindful of the automation of jobs, and which ones will be eliminated in a 5 to 10-year time frame. Technological development accelerates, and has predictably accelerated for decades, so the world could be noticeably different when you graduate. This article has a cool interface to learn about the probability of different jobs becoming automated, and this one explains the topic in more general depth. Be mindful that you don’t have to pursue the careers least likely to be automated only, but rather have an understanding of the skill-sets involved so that you don’t find yourself becoming obsolete.

So here’s a quick summary:

  • Possible Advantages: saving money, self-educating at a faster pace than a degree program, developing a project portfolio on your own
  • Possible Disadvantages: large number of projected jobs that will require degree, higher chance of unemployment, difficulties in career advancement, not having the social and developmental benefits of college atmosphere