Flow Doesn’t Lead to Mastery

The concept of flow, first introduced by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, is the enjoyable feeling that happens when you are totally immersed in an activity. You stop feeling self conscious, with your attention being completely absorbed by the task at hand.

Chances are you’ve felt flow many times before. Maybe during a game, sports or even your work. Often your performance is best during a flow state—you may have felt your best games or work come from the flow of effortless focus. But what about learning?

Anders Ericsson, the psychologist behind deliberate practice, argues that flow doesn’t lead to mastery:

“[T]he characteristics of flow are inconsistent with the demands of deliberate practice for monitoring explicit goals and feedback and opportunities for error correction. Hence, skilled performers may enjoy and seek out flow experiences as part of their domain-related activities, but such experiences would not occur during deliberate practice.”

Ericsson believes deliberate practice—a specific type of practice characterized by immediate feedback, focused improvement and mental strain—is the activity that produces mastery. Yet, he also argues that this is “inconsistent” with flow.

Graph comparing optimal enjoyment vs optimal learning

Effective Learning is Effortful

This idea, that learning is most effective when it as done at a level of mental strain above what would typically constitute enjoyment, is a big part of the logic motivating ultralearning.

It’s no surprise that people tend not to like mental strain. Contrary to the assumption that elite performers and experts are intrinsically driven to improve, Ericsson finds evidence that, “deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable, but individuals engage in it as an instrumental means to improve their performance to attain the highest levels.”

Comparing accomplished musicians with those of lesser achievement, Ericsson finds:

“[T]he best musicians spent very little time on playing music for fun and less time on leisure than other less accomplished expert musicians and nonmusicians of the same age.”

This drive to practice did not come from the best musicians simply enjoying deliberate practice more. Rather it came from their desire to get better.

With ultralearning, the idea is very similar: engage at a level of strain and mental difficulty that exceeds your comfort threshold. No, it’s not always the most fun, but that’s also why it works. Most people don’t see the same results from ultralearning in their self-motivated learning projects because, without strongly structured external motivation, most people don’t reach a high enough level of intensity.

Consider that most people, when looking for online classes, seek out good lectures and videos, rather than good problem sets and homework. Watching lectures is easy. It’s not deliberate practice. Actual mental strain working through the problems in question is hard, but it works.

Learning for Fun

This pursuit of uncomfortable intensity isn’t entirely without rewards. Long-distance runners also experience painful intensity in their sport, but this can come with a “runner’s high” that can be addictive. While I don’t know of any neurochemical basis for an “ultralearner’s high”, learning with such intensity often has a similar joy.

This doesn’t mean learning intensely is always a grim chore. Instead, I’m arguing that learning (like running) shouldn’t be expected to yield results at a level of intensity that feels like flow.

Setting ambitious learning goals and tight constraints, as I’ve tried to do in my own projects, is one way of regulating the environment to push the intensity higher than your comfort level. Another method, as Ericsson advises, is to get a coach to work with who can push you.

For some, the object of learning itself may be so compelling as to push the learner into a state of intensity, even if that spirit was never formalized as a goal. I think it’s likely that Albert Einstein’s quest to understand the universe or Bobby Fischer’s obsession to become the best chess player of all time, could have generated the required intensity.

However, I’m also agree with Ericsson that learning simply for fun, without any such constraints, is unlikely to lead to mastery.

  • דולב דובלון

    Hi Scott I have a very important question

    How do you deal with all the pressure of studies and depression it creates?

    I’m in high school, I learn a lot of hours because I chose to expand mathematics and physics, and I am very frustrated by this choice

    I keep seeing friends who enjoy not having chosen the same track as myself, or successful friends who also enjoy,
    And only I invest so much in my studies and in the end I get a passing grade

    The problem I expect is to get a good score, because at least it can give me some joy and that I do not achieve.

    i am not a native english speaker so that what google translate gave me , i think it represts the idea of the question

  • Hestia Edwards

    If I may reply,

    I am sorry you are struggling in your studies. 🙁 I had the same problem with my college studies in microbiology: I wanted to do well, but I earned low grades because of my depression. What I realized was that my depression was a spiritual issue. My spiritual issue was that I did not believe God is truly good, and it affected all aspects of my life. Only recently have I realized that God is good, that Jesus died on the cross to pay for my sins, and that He only did that because He is good enough to love a sinner like me. You can email me at hestia.edwards@gmail.com

  • Arthur Guerrero

    If you are certain that you want to continue to pursue mathematics and physics, then you should try to accept the rigors and hard work that will come along with it.

    It’s possible that it’s not for you, which is okay since you are still very young.

    Also, even though you need to study a lot for those areas, make sure that you still make time to do things that you enjoy.

    Preferably everyday, and, at least, on the weekends. Schedule in at least 30 mins to 1 hour to do something you enjoy, whether that means playing a video game or getting lunch with a good friend.

    Becoming distant from other humans is a sure way to become depressed (Depression can also be the result of a bad diet).

  • Kofi A

    Keep in mind that after you’ve gone through the rigors of your field fyou will become one of the few masters of your field and thus have a natural unique selling proposition. Use this thought as a reminder and motivation when things get tough

  • albritz

    The fact that deliberate practice is uniquely distinctive of the path of mastery does not mean that flow-phases are not required.

    Example: in fiction writing, the professional advice about the first draft is “just finish it, as soon as possible”, “take it out of your head”. Dissecting word by word is reserved to further drafts. Writers such as Stephen Pressfield, S.King and countless others say this.
    Now, taking out of your head the first draft in a few weeks/months is a typically flow-inducing phase, which seems to be required in the creative process, even at the highest level.

  • Stephen Ray

    Could you think of the flow state as being one of the rewards of mastery?

    For instance, a programmer may push himself to learn new techniques and increase his mastery. However, for parts of his day job, he’s required to do things that are below his level of mastery. He gets into flow, which is both an enjoyable and highly productive state.

  • Marvin John Towler

    Glad I read this post before I enrolled in the “Flow Fundamentals” course! Thanks Scott!

  • Bjarke Tan

    What helped me was to focus more intensely (without distractions) but for maybe 20 minutes and 10 minuts break for about 2 hours. If I remember right the more intensely you focus the more you should be able to get more done in a shorter period if time. Cal newport have written some on this 🙂
    Hope you can use it 🙂

  • Joshua

    The way I read it, you can get into a flow state at whatever ‘level’ of mastery you are currently at. Someone in grade school can get into flow, as can the PhD.

    That being said, I don’t necessarily thing one should be pursued to the exclusion of the other. It’s my understanding that in Steven Kotler’s book he profiles people who use flow to push the boundaries of their domain. They turn off the “thinking about it” part of their brain and can do some super human things that have a very tonic effect on the person’s brain.

    So in that sense, yes, I think flow can be viewed as a reward. But if they want to continue to push the watermark of ‘mastery’ up, the programmer will have to regularly return to deep practice.

  • gookusa99

    great post, fully agree

  • Mosbie Chiweza

    From what I’m understanding. Flow is finding something that keeps you hooked and interested and absorbed where everything is easy right?

    Then in a way I agree.

    Only doing easy things doesn’t necessarily lead you to mastery as most people’s ideas of ‘easy’ things that can get them absorbed aren’t enough to get them to be experts. The difficult non flow things when accomplished often are the ones that take you a step higher and let you progress.

    However on reading the psychologist on deliberate practice’s ideas. I’d like to put up a slightly different view in that the flow itself could be used as a means to mastery rather than a hindrance and in the spirit of soundness I held a light ultralearning experiment.

    I’m learning piano and the usual ways taught to progress is through often uncomfortable and (for a beginner) definitely unflow moments of practice, practice and more practice till your fingers get used to moving in sync.

    However because ultralearning projects often mean lots of feedback looking back to what you were doing wrong. I thought instead that perhaps instead of focusing on uncomfortable (but effective) ways of progress, could there possibly be ways that are more of a flow but equally effective. An example is getting my fingers to press on the right keys. The non flow way was teaching my fingers to move one after the other and then training them to move in the different positions. This was effective as it got me instinctively reaching several finger positions higher than previous. So then was there a ‘Flow’ way? I tried incorporating something that all ready gets me in a flow which is listening to music, each and every beat and note. I could do that for hours. Only difference was I incorporated something already well known, visualisation. In other words I just imagined my fingers hitting those notes. I did that for a week and pretty soon I was intuitively tapping to most songs on the radio and a few Mozart with the same finger after finger motion. A little time spent listening to each note on the piano and I could easily place them with my fingers. Measuring progress for each method and progress was reached roughly the same time with the flow one being slightly faster. (By a day)

    Therefore perhaps rather than condemning flow we could look at the flow practises perhaps? I’ve tried to make it as clear as possible but I realise some aspects may need a little research here and there. This was just an idea presented

  • Yeah, I think this is a valid question. You can look at motivation two ways, push and pull. So many students feel a lot of pressure because they’re getting pushed into a certain field (usually by their parents, but occasionally by a misguided idea of their own aptitude).

    What you should be looking for is pull, where the more you get exposed to a field of study, the more it interests you and the more you’re motivated to pursue it. That doesn’t mean you don’t feel pressure about tests, etc., but your motivation becomes internal, rather than external, and so you are much less prone to feel like a victim of circumstances.

    Many people at your age think they’ve found their calling, but have only found one aspect of it. You see that a lot in the performing arts – high schoolers who are sure they’re going to be performing musicians, ballet dancers, whatever. Same thing with athletes. There are only so many jobs in these fields, and the competition intensifies tremendously every step up the ladder.

    But there are a lot more jobs that have, for example, music as an aspect of the work. The same thing with physics – it’s used in engineering, materials science, even game programming nowadays. So don’t narrow your field of study too quickly. Even if you aren’t a talented enough physicist to be the next Einstein, you could still have above-average skill in physics compared to most engineers.

    To sum up, if you’re only in high school and already pressuring yourself to the point of depression, you need to re-examine your options. Maybe physics is right for you, but why do you say that? Because you think it, or because someone else told you? Consider math, engineering, computer science, or maybe even a non-technical field.

    When you do find the right field for you, you’ll be doing it for fun, not just for the test. That’s what Einstein did.

  • Xin Tang

    I think Mihalyi will agree with you two. Please look at the conditions of the flow. Only in high challenge level with your high skill level, he called as flow. The low challenge situation called as relaxation or boredom from him.

  • Oscar

    Flow is not “leissure practice”, MIhalyi never says that flow is achieved through confy practice, please quote him exactly where he does state that.

    There is even a phase in flow theory described as “struggle phase”. I don’t know you guys, but in my dictionary, struggle doesn’t remembrance remotely the word “fun”.

    What i think this is about is just a way to glorify your “ultralearning” term and then make us get into your funnel for future purchase of a product (which is a cool strategy bussines speaking, and props to that), but “ultralearning” is not proposing nothing new, it has no empirical base meaning that you have not done first, a proper logical proposition of it, and second, you haven’t tested it … and even worse! you are not putting those mental strains in your own work, otherwise, you would have noticed that major misunderstanding about flow, i mean dude! it’s the first phase c’mon!

    We also have to take into account that Anders Ericsson does not adress that everyone that follows his deliberate practice method ends up mastering whatever subject they are into. Many other factors are put into play, and no, ultralearning is neither merging them or magically bypassing them. Anyone interested can found the research here: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/deliberate-practice-necessary-but-not-sufficient.html#.WPEqLtI1-H8

    I think we should be more serious about our work if we want to help others.

  • As a Montessorian, I would like to add something which i can feel in my school. When a child is in ‘flow’, he is usually in the ‘challenge zone’, stretching a bit, but not too much. When a child is given something above the challenge zone, he first refuses to even take it. But he musters courage to take it sooner or later, if his earlier ‘similar experiences’ have been good. Working above his challenge zone is increasing his ‘learning difficulty’ akin to deliberate practice ( but not the same)

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