Proving Grounds For Hacking Flow

Halfway up the small mountain side, I pause to check in on my body. Around 15 minutes in, this is the point where I turned back just one month ago. Shockingly, I feel completely fine. In fact, maybe too fine for the experience to even begin to make sense. The temperature is topping out at -12C, and I'm the only one on the mountain wearing nothing but trainers and shorts. The extremely rare individual who passes by on this normally popular hiking trail looks like they're dressed for exploring antarctica.

Clearly, there's no time for a wandering mind in states like these.

Each time the effects of the cold ramp up, I focus a little deeper, feeling the frosty impact fully, and my internal thermostat kicks in. Heat seems to rush through my veins right when I need it most.

Two things are keeping my mind silent and focused: motivation and survival. Motivation to get to the top, to go beyond my overly rational view of the world, and maybe to confirm what I've always hoped, that we can do more than we think. That's what the top symbolizes for me.

Then there's the case of surviving. Either out of confidence or sheer foolishness, I decided to leave behind any spare clothing or emergency gear. It feels like one of the few times in my life that I've burned my ships. And it feels good. Full commitment. I have to survive. I have to keep my limbs. I have to stay calm. I have to know that I can do this. I have to adapt right now, not tomorrow or next week.

Each abnormally heavy breath, which I adapted from Wim Hof (known around the world as the “Iceman”), sends a shroud of arctic air in front of me.

Following one breath and one step at a time, I manage to reach the top. This reality seemed like an impossible task a month ago, yet here I am, gazing out at snow-caked peaks in the distance.

At this point, I can't help but wonder how such adaptation and strengthening of willpower could happen so quickly. It looks like I'll reach the bottom at around the 1-hour mark. Using this timeframe, the simple math shows that my body is nearly 4 times more effective at dealing with the cold than just one month earlier.

A sense of pride burns within. It seems my ego has finally arrived at the scene.

Before setting off back down, one guy rushes out from the warmth of the top visitor center. “Hey! Are you okay?” he cries. It's all I can do to not shout back with, “Do I look like I'm okay?”

In another time and place, something similar is going on. Tonight, though, I happen to be sitting on a bed in my pajamas—in a heated apartment—with a musical instrument across my knee.

My right and left hands correlate in seamless unison across eight strings of a mandolin. It's 1am, and I still can't stop. Playing music right now is more nourishing than sleep.

For musicians, the terms “Bach” and “easy” usually don't belong in the same sentence. The intricate Bach passage I'm playing feels like I've know it inside-and-out all along. The reality is, I just learned it some hours ago.

When moving from one clear-struck note to another, the back of my mind is filled with a certain sense of awe. It almost seems like I'm playing mandolin for the first time again after 15 years. And what's funny is I don't feel like “I” am doing anything. Music is happening while “I,” or my ego, is sitting back, just listening and taking it all in.

A year ago, or more like a couple of months ago, learning a Bach passage so quickly would have seemed insurmountable, let alone the ability to execute it at this level.


When I finally come back to reality, the late night feeling starts sinking in.

Before drifting off to sleep, I run through a mental review of the experience and find one thought particularly interesting: I could no more describe how I was doing it anymore than I could describe how I am able to walk. In terms of playing the mandolin, much of how I play is the same as in the past. My left-hand technique is still frankly average at best, and my right-hand technique hasn't been adjusted in years.

So, what's going on? What happened?

As someone who has always been a seeker, these two recent apparently unrelated events have weighed my mind with questions ever since. Did they somehow feed off of each other? Is there an obscure connection? Is everything I thought I knew about learning and evolving wrong?

Based on the activities themselves, these two experiences couldn't be further apart. The striking similarities of how they feel internally, though, are too prominent to ignore.

Both times, there is an immersive focus. The only thing largely occupying my mind is the experience itself.

There's also a certain level of risk in each instant. In the case of the cold, the risk is primarily physical. In performing music, whether for yourself or for an audience, the risk is primarily mental and emotional.

But one of the more obvious commonalities between these scenes is the idea of merging with obstacles. In other words, taking on challenges that go beyond our perceived limits bring out the best in us, and in a way, they then become part of our identity, as long as they don't break us first.

Challenges of nearly any type can literally force us into a new approach, as it becomes very clear very quickly that business as usual doesn't cut it. That's when a desire to adapt and change takes root. That's when a merging with obstacles happens.

Behind both scenarios is an identical, clear-driven purpose and goal. The purpose is to show myself and others that we are all capable of doing more than we think. The goal is to reach a new level of personal understanding, awareness, and performance. Such clarity provides a deep will to make it happen.

When there's a boundary-pushing task that we're passionate about, we can finally push aside most of our troubles and worries and just let life flow.

In fact, it appears that the true underlying current connecting these two experiences is what modern society refers to as “flow.”

Steven Kotler, co-founder of the Human Flow Genome Project, refers to flow as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best,”....In flow, every action, every decision, arises seamlessly from the last. In this state, we are so focused on the task at hand that all else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self vanishes. Our sense of time distorts. And performance goes through the roof.”

One of many revolutionary aspects of flow is it's ability to potentially improve every single area of our lives. Many who consistently experience flow states see radical increases in creativity, learning, and of course, performance. As a result, cultivating flow benefits treks into the cold in shorts as much as it does playing music in a heated den.

We hear, perhaps too often, the old clique, “less is more.” But sometimes cliques catch on for a reason. In flow, instead of an expected increase in brain activity, there's actually a decrease. This shows that there's a fine line between rest and relaxation and high energy output.

Interestingly, this mirrors my minimalist approach to the obstacles at the beginning of the article. Rather than exhausting energy by taking practice and obsession to extreme levels, as in past instances, I sought out ways to delegate energy more efficiently. In other words, the practice rate didn't increase past normal levels. If anything, it decreased.

The extra time left over was put into activities such as mindfulness, focus, conscious breathing, physical exercise, and traveling. With the help of all of these techniques, I was somewhat unknowingly searching for the ability to tap into flow.

If we spend less time on something, though, then we lose effectiveness, right?

It turns out, research suggests flow can enhance human effectiveness and productivity up to at least five times more than normal levels. The number sounds strikingly familiar. If flow really was at the center of my cold hike, it's no wonder that I found myself up to 4 times more effective at adapting to the cold than just one month prior. And I haven't even scratched the 5x surface yet.

Imagine the enormous implications of a work culture where 3 days a week results in much more activity and productivity than the normal 5 day 9 to 5.

Another intriguing aspect surrounding the nature of flow states is its ability to speed up the learning and adaptive processes. It doesn't matter if it's golf, painting, chess, or human relations. Name it, and flow brings about a new level of ease and understanding, even in instances where we're complete beginners.

It's as if flow sits somewhere near the heart of learning and evolution itself.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to know why we naturally excel in some areas of learning but struggle in others. What's more, it can be frustrating when lessons acquired in one subject don't seem to carry over across the board.

An education that gravitates around flow strikes at the core of learning. It connects the dots. It not only helps us to discover our passions and ace school subjects, but it also equips us to deal more effectively with the changes life throws at us outside of the classroom.

With so many potentially tremendous benefits, some of the world's leading organizations, companies and individuals are already making flow an integral point of focus. These include one of the world's most effective task forces, the Navy Seals (who call the ability to tap into flow “flipping the switch”), innovative companies Google, Pixar, and Facebook, and individual success giants Richard Branson and Larry Page.

Flow is a revolutionary framework modeled to decrease our workload and optimize productivity at the same time. It's what might allow us to effectively deal with the information overload and frantic pace of modern society. If we are able to 5x our output, we can spend less energy and less time while getting more done. And honestly, 5x feels like a modest number to describe the potential.

As a matter of first-hand experience, the more we push our limits physically, mentally, and spiritually, merging with challenges and personal goals that connect with us individually and collectively, the more we cultivate flow and find what we are truly capable of. Happiness, creativity, and health naturally rise when we efficiently delegate our time and energy in ways that matter to us.

When we continually become aware of just how far we can take it, momentary flow “states” start turning into lingering flow “traits”, as Jamie Wheal puts it. Flow traits ultimately lead to an expansion of consciousness and a transformation of character.

To simplify with numbers, building a life around flow means this: 1 hour is as nourishing as 5 normal hours. 1 day is as effective as 5 normal days. 1 week amounts to 5 weeks. 1 year amounts to 5 years. 10 years amounts to an incredible 50 years.

Did I mention that flow can improve our lives? Find out. Flip the switch.








10,000 Hours And Counting

Driving over empty roads at 12:30am in rural country has that unique ability to bring lurking emotions out of the shadows. As usual, it's after the gig. Sometimes I feel high and inspired on these late night road trips, reflecting on how me and the audience synchronized through the simple act of producing and receiving sound. Other nights, it's negativity that grabs the reigns, and I feel as helpless as a horse in the hands of a skilled rider. This time, it happens to be one of those nights.

Inside a heated cab, frustrating memories from earlier in the evening flash through my mind like the brightest stars streaking above my windshield. I'm driving 70mph, but my mind's driving angrier and racing faster. Earlier, my band once again found ourselves battling background music, dealing with disinterest, receiving small appreciation, and even smaller tips. We were the featured entertainment for the evening, but we couldn't compete with the large muted screens, let alone the tiny ones. Unfortunately, it's not an anomaly. The feeling is all too familiar.

The performance sets an underlying tone to the week, but if there's one bit of relief I can squeeze out of the situation, it's that at least I have a steady-ish gig—a place where I can often literally take the stage and express myself. Many musicians would find that to be a win despite everything else. But on the weekend, I get a call from my band leader. He usually texts. Yes, the last positive disappears. 20 years of dedication to my craft doesn't even earn an explanation or personal conversation with the employer. Come to think of it, what has it earned? But I'm not sure if I'm really surprised, considering similar occurrences have happened multiple times over. Regardless, as it sinks in, fuel is added to the fire. Confidence wobbles. The downward spiral is in full swing.

When events like these take place, they always seem to follow a nearly identical pattern: resentment forms, aimed at the outside circumstances, but before long, the blame turns inward. Emotions run their course, and disempowering questions surface like unwanted side effects. "Why am I not better? When will I succeed? What do I mean, when? "'If'" is more like it. Will I ever succeed at all? And what does success even mean?" Then, there it is, the one question that always seems to cut through the rest: "Was 10,000 hours worth it?" No, it's not the first time this thought has paid a visit, nor the second or third. In fact, this question or various permutations of it has impacted me so many times that I actually gave it it's very own name: naturally, the "10,000 hour question." Why 10,000? It's the basically arbitrary, but common, number of hours that society thinks is necessary to master a skill. For me, including the mental practice over a 20-year span, it almost feels more like 20,000 hours. Ironically though, in this moment, I feel further away from mastery than ever. Each time the "10,000 hour question" visits, the sting swells up a little more than the last.

In the days immediately after, it is so easy to find reasons to answer this seemingly important question with an emphatic "no." 10,000 hours for what? Only to be drowned by excessive conversation time and time again? Only to feel less relevant than the twice-told joke three tables down? Only to be constantly dealt with as an outsider in "the band?" Only to be found indispensable at the highest branches of power? Only to find the art failing to connect with people? I have no choice but to let it simmer—for days.

And it does take some days later, on a walk in familiar places, when I finally feel a slight change in the wind. For me, nature has always had a way of healing a bruised ego, perhaps by its subtle hint of perspective, or maybe because it listens. Today, nature has my mind seeing clearly, and I keep receiving a thought that negativity implies positivity. As an artist, I'm ever-so-slowly learning to accept and recognize these negative states. Just because some feelings are dark and gloomy doesn't mean they are any less right or important than the positive ones.

Often I forget that all forms of feeling are beautiful in their own way. Intense reactions, like frustration and loss, provide bridges to insight. In a single evening, I gained more respect than ever for those who continue to make art, despite the setbacks. In a single evening, I learned that a genuine show of appreciation can mean the world to someone. In a single evening, I learned that one's insecurities and vulnerabilities can be powerful driving forces. And yet, it was these negative feelings, the "wrong" feelings, that helped me see the world a little differently from the day before.

I'm starting to see the pin of light, and a pin is enough to provide much-needed guidance. When revisiting my age-old "10,000 hour question," a surprising thought develops. What happens is that the question itself feels flawed. This time, from a place of macro, big-picture thinking, I simply don't see a relevant or useful answer. The whole experience begins to remind me of what author James P. Carse calls "finite" and "infinite" games.

As artists, when facing the inner art critic from an emotionally compromised state, we tend to get trapped in the finite game. Those playing the finite game see their lives through a lens of results, constantly judging experiences, emotions, and feelings as a win or a loss. In this way, it is not good to feel negatively, or to experience melancholy states, as they aren't a desired result. A loss implies that we can't reach our goals. But still, there is always some place to get to, and if we finally arrive, then there's a new place just around the corner. One who asks the "10,000 hour question" while playing a finite game will likely be met with core-rocking anxiety and resentment.

Luckily, there is another side to the coin, and it's called the infinite game. Those who start playing this game begin to see existence as a continuous process. It's a state where we see that every experience, emotion, thought, and feeling matters. Playing the infinite game is a realization that life is an opportunity for endless growth. It's not about results as much as it is a process of constant learning, or of molding and shaping who we are as individuals and who we are as a society.

For musicians or artists in the modern age, there are times when we feel like we're becoming fixtures of the past, or that the deck is already stacked against us economically. The 10,000 hours of time that we put in might feel more like a badge of sheer madness than honor. However, when the ever-present inner art critic wonders whether to keep going, or excessively ruminates over seemingly persistent negative results, we can choose to focus and reflect on what empowers us.

As futurist and digital visionary Kevin Kelly eloquently expresses: "There are two kinds of games in the universe: finite games and infinite games. A finite game is played to win...An infinite game, on the other hand, is played to keep the game explore every way to play the game, to include all games, all possible players, to widen what is meant by playing, to spend all, to hoard nothing, to seed the universe with improbable plays, and if possible to surpass everything that has come before." If we play the finite game, we tend to see 10,000 hours as evidence of our own insanity. If we play the infinite game, we see our major usage of time as evidence of who we are, and who we might be able to become. So, instead of struggling to answer the "10,000 hour question," or one of its close cousins, it could be time to start openly asking better questions altogether. In other words, what game will we choose to play?

Stravinsky's Prediction

With an extensive history of music already in place, one might wonder, what more could possibly be accomplished? Are there really any musical components left for radical exploration? Here is how Igor Stravinsky, one of music's most historically celebrated composers, decisively answered a similarly posed question:

Yes, pitch. I even risk a prediction that pitch will comprise the main difference between the “music of the future” and our music.
— Igor Stravinsky, Memories and Commentaries

Why would Stravinsky say that the transformation of pitch is the future of music?

If we look at the components of a single musical tone, whether it be from the voice or any instrument in the world, we see an endless series of pitches, many of which have still never been heard consciously in isolation, let alone heard in a musical or harmonic context. These sounds within one sound, or pitches inside one tone, which I will now refer to as partials, could be the music of the future that Stravinsky predicted. Partials work with largely different rules and principles than those that have already been established.

One reason for the discovery of additional partials, along with the expansion of what pitches are deemed acceptable, is modern technology. In Stravinsky's time, along with all the ages before, there was not an efficient way of isolating, and thereby hearing and discovering, complex partials. Only with relatively recent advancements in science and technology are we able to bring the more complex and higher partials into our listening experience.

With further advancements in technology, modern instruments can play nearly any combination of tones and partials that can be conceived. As in many areas of life, the modern era is a unique time for musicians to be alive due to the contemporary opportunities and changes that only this period has yet been able to provide. Certainly, a number of musical creators from the past would be envious of our current circumstances, for many of those prominent composers and players felt limited by the constraints of their generation. Even Arnold Schoenberg, a true innovator in his time, articulated:

We ought never to forget that the tempered system was only a truce, which should not last any longer than the imperfection of our instruments requires. I think, then, contrary to the point of view of those who take indolent pride in the attainments of others and hold our system to be the ultimate, the definitive musical system—contrary to that point of view, I think we stand only at the Beginning. We must go ahead!
— Arnold Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony

Perhaps we are entering that age where imperfection need not last any longer.

Theoretical Music - A Definition

           Those who have discussed the subject of music with myself recently know that I prefer to use the term "theoretical music" (TM) when describing musical functions. Naturally, this phrase is met with slight confusion, as I am currently unaware of its usage anywhere else.

Theoretical Music: 
            A division of music that uses cognitive processing, mathematics, and aspects of the scientific method to understand and explain musical phenomena.

            Along with the simple definition above, theoretical music attempts to examine music from alternate systems and perspectives. For example, approaching certain musical concepts in a mathematical, physical, or even philosophical way can provide new insights. It's not just intellectual comprehension that these multiple perspectives provide. They also present ways to enhance and progress the practical, creative musical landscape. See my post titled M=m for a more in-depth look at how mathematical operations support music, and vice versa.

            A theoretical musician studies how music works with a scientific and evidence-based, while at the same time open, mindset. She forms ideas from creative thinking, then tests and validates these theories through reasoning and experimentation. Curiosity is vital, and with the consistent practice of theoretical music, she continually questions and shapes the existing musical understanding found in modern society.

            Other terms that deal with explaining musical functions are often rigidly entrenched and settled through years of cultivation and tradition. Theoretical music offers a chance to doodle and muse about the workings of music with a "clean slate," where the ideas therein carry no offense to any establishment. In other words, TM is its own practice with unique skills and interests. Being a theoretical musician is as simple as applying and utilizing the definition above. If these principles already come naturally to you, it is surely already adding to our understanding of how music works. If this is the first time hearing about these ideas, welcome to the world of theoretical music!

Going Around in Circles (Of Fifths)

     Many ideas in the world are superficial constructions created to simplify and avoid the complexities of life. What's more, some of these ideas go largely unexplored and unquestioned. A concept in music known as the circle of fifths (COF) could qualify as one of these ideas. Indeed, a number of musical theorists elegantly simplify music into this single circle, and it has become a foundational symbol of most modern music and theory. While the COF has been useful to a degree, like most complexity-simplifying concepts, might it stifle deeper understanding?

      First off, what is the circle of fifths? It is a repeated cycle of one of the most, or if not the most, important musical intervals known as the "perfect fifth." Musicians throughout history have analyzed where, and how, fifths shed light on music. In modern music theory, when the fifth of every tone is taken consecutively, it circles back around to the same tone. At least, it seems that way. Curiously, it takes twelve successive fifths to complete a circle. Hence, the result is the twelve-tone scale found in most modern music. This, in theory, makes music more understandable and practical, because any musical pattern or song can then be taken through only twelve permutations (keys) before returning to square one.

      While the COF makes sense conceptually, the subject in question is this: does a consecutive series of fifths actually make a perfect circle? Surprisingly, mathematics shows otherwise. A true fifth originates from the third harmonic of a tone, which is measured at 702 cents. If a cycle of twelve true fifths is taken when measured at 702 cents, it very nearly shuts into a circle. The key word in the last immediate sentence is: nearly. When fully calculated, it is off from a perfect circle by a mere 23.46 cents, an interval that baffled Greek musicians over two thousand years ago. This seemingly minute difference is so important that the infamous circle symbol associated with the fifth completely depends on it.

       Consequently, if the math doesn't hold up to support the circle of fifths theory, then what symbol might best represent the concept of a series of fifths? If a closer look into nature is taken, one eventually finds a perfect fit: the spiral. A spiral always remains open, as do successive fifths. A spiral can expand or contract, as can successive fifths. A spiral can theoretically extend indefinitely, as can successive fifths. The parallels are clear.

       Symbols are powerful due to humanity living largely visual-based lives. With a simple change of musical imagery, the very nature of music becomes dramatically more mysterious and complex. When the spiral starts to symbolize the musical fifth, society may begin to visualize music in its true, boundless form. Indeed, the spiral can lead musicians away from circles, and straight into the unknown, spiraling as deep as the imagination allows.

Spiral of Fifths

Spiral of Fifths