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Columns , COVID-19 , Leadership

Flow in uncertain times

Rather than being overwhelmed by a unique and daunting situation, practices and their owners seemed to tap into their inner reserves and resources and then meet the challenges with agility.

Flow in uncertain times
Discussing “flow” in the context of recent national and global events might seem odd, but there is a high degree of correlation between conditions of challenge and uncertainty and experiences of flow.

The last few months have been unique in their level of disruption of behavior patterns, norms and lives across the globe. It’s easy to occasionally become overwhelmed by both the magnitude and rapidity of the events that unfolded and continue to unfold.

So, discussing “flow” in the context of recent national and global events might seem odd. But perhaps ironically, there is a high degree of correlation between conditions of challenge and uncertainty and experiences of flow. Before looking at why that might be, here’s a reminder of what we’re referring to when we speak of “flow,” as well as a personal example.

The Basics of Flow

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe the state of consciousness associated with having an unusually high level of absorption in one’s activities.  In his book “Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning,” Csikszentmihalyi outlined some of these key elements of flow:

  • Goals are clear: True enjoyment comes from the steps one takes toward attaining a goal as opposed to the achievement of the goal itself.
  • Concentration deepens: Distractions are shed so that action and awareness can merge into a seamless wave of energy.
  • The present is what matters: Because the task at hand demands complete attention, events from the past or future cannot find room in consciousness. Instead, we are fully present.
  • Confidence, but not control: Being in control is not important. In the world of flow activity, we know that as long as we respect its challenges and develop the appropriate skills to meet the challenges, we stand a good chance of being able to cope with whatever situation. A sense of confidence then comes from surrendering to the requirements of the situation, which can be described as becoming a vessel, being inspired or of becoming possessed by the Muse.
  • The loss of ego: Self-consciousness disappears and one is momentarily relieved of his or her ambitions and defeats as well as one’s fears and desires. While immersed in the experience, one tends to forget not only one’s problems and surroundings, but one’s very self.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the key to happiness consists in how we invest our psychic energy. When we focus our attention on a consciously chosen goal, our psychic energy literally “flows” in the direction of that goal, resulting in a reordering and harmony within consciousness.

Soccer at Sunrise

While we admittedly have not experienced many pure flow states in our lives, one of us (Trey) vividly remembers his first such experience. Here is his description of experiencing flow as a child:

“When I was in sixth grade, a friend had several of us sleep over at his house for his birthday party one summer evening. Not surprisingly, we talked and laughed deeper and deeper into the night until we finally realized that it was starting to get light outside. We all loved to play soccer, and so somewhat spontaneously we began playing a game in the cool half-light of that peaceful and quiet morning.

“The effect was magical. We already were doing something together that we loved after bonding through the night. And the slightly altered state resulting from our sleep-deprivation coupled with the uncanny beauty of the early morning hour only enhanced the effect. Overall, I remember feeling deeply relaxed, which was not my normal state when I played sports due to my admittedly overdeveloped sense of competitiveness.

“And then I noticed that something had shifted. Instead of me playing the game, it felt as if the game was being played through my body while I got to observe and enjoy the experience fully. Rather than focusing on any particular outcome, such as the score, I marveled at the fluidity and control I felt as I was able to do virtually whatever I wanted with the ball. And while I was playing at a dramatically higher level than I had ever experienced, I was struck by the pure joy of sharing that moment with my friends.”

Increased Uncertainty and Flow

For many of us, flow has been an elusive condition that we’ve tasted but do not readily replicate in our day-to-day experiences. One silver lining in the dramatic level of uncertainty experienced in recent months is that crisis “can actually create the conditions — or triggers — that facilitate the flow state,” noted Dr. Tracy Brower, a sociologist and author whose career has been devoted to exploring perspectives on work-life and fulfillment.

Writing in a recent Forbes article [bit.ly/3hyCMhj], Dr. Brower pointed to work performed by Rian Doris and her team at the Flow Research Collective to explain how challenges such as COVID-19 can be triggers for flow in two ways:

  • Challenge and risk. “Situations of intense challenge or high risk are classic conditions for flow,” Doris says. Traditional examples of these might come through activities like rock climbing or alpine skiing, but today’s high-risk environment may create the conditions for flow as well.
  • Complexity and ambiguity. Doris says circumstances of uncertainty are ripe for flow opportunities. In fact, a VUCA world — one in which there is volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity and one very similar to today’s turbulence — might be just right to motivate a flow state.

The Veterinary Profession in Flow

And so, with those thoughts in mind, we turn to how the veterinary profession has responded to the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic. A few months ago and virtually overnight, most U.S. veterinary practices changed operating processes that had served them for decades. Their response to the threats and limitations imposed by the novel coronavirus involved a very high degree of uncertainty and very high stakes (the lives and well-being of staff and clients along with economic viability and the preservation of jobs).

As observers, we were fascinated to see so many veterinary practices modify and adapt to the circumstances almost instantaneously. Rather than being overwhelmed by a unique and daunting situation, practices and their owners seemed to tap into their inner reserves and resources and then meet the challenges with agility. To us, this felt very much like the essence of flow. In this key moment, the profession was not paralyzed or overly distracted by events of the past or fears of the future, and instead rose to meet the moment where it was.

So, we celebrate all of you who were able to make those monumental shifts, steady the ship and find your way to (hopefully) calmer waters. And we encourage all of you to pause a moment to say “Thank you” for all that feels right and good, even as you feel chaos swirling all around.

Thank you for the ability to bring relief to a suffering dog. Thank you for the ability to help shield a cat from disease. Thank you for the smile of a client who is so grateful that you’re there through thick and thin. Thank you for all the relationships that make those things possible. Thank you for the profession and how, day in and day out, it makes the world a better place. Thank you.

Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler is an attorney specializing in veterinary business matters. Co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is the founder of Gifted Leaders, a company offering leadership and coaching services. He serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.