Flow State vs Passion

Instead of finding your passion – learn how to consistently cultivate a flow state

Yesterday, I wrote about business and marketing gurus foisting complexity on us. Here’s one idea foisted 1000 times a day:

You have to “find your passion” in life.

(Other words we swap into this phrase – seek, follow, bliss, calling, vocation.)

When people say they have found their passion or vocation, whatever that means, they seem happy. And that makes me happy.

I suspect it means they tend to get into a “flow state” on most days. That is, they get deep into whatever they’re up to on that day.

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Author Elizabeth Gilbert talks about Hobbies, Jobs, Careers, and Vocation. It’s worth watching.

She’s right that you don’t have to love your job – but that we all need one.

Her take on hobbies is spot on. She’s also right that if you hate your career,  take that career and shove it.

And her “find your passion” concept of a vocation fascinates me. I think she found her flow state early and often. Maybe that’s why she has written so many compelling books. She bursts with positive energy, helpful ideas, artful output.


But don’t “find your passion”. 

Here’s an alternative: find, cultivate, and fiercely defend, your flow state.

Maybe this is semantics and these are two ways of describing the same thing.

But “finding your passion in life” feels a hell of a lot harder and more stressful than finding a flow state. 

The latter is a commitment to today, not to thousands of future days. And while that commitment part is not easy, it’s doable. Once you get into the zone, the flywheel of energized focus spins up and ensnares you for the day – and for the next day as well. And on and on.

The concept may sound woo woo. New age types do love it. But it’s not woo woo; it’s an accepted psychological phenomenon. It comes from psychologist and prolific author Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. He describes it in Flow as a mental state in which: 

people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

No wonder some want unretirement.

It’s a mysteriously pleasing state of immersion in a specific activity. It lets you find contentment in even menial labor, such as washing dishes. My hope is that it offers a reprieve to the billions of humans forced to toil in robotic repetitiveness. Especially to the segment thereof who must be creative geniuses by nature.

It also reduces stress and anxiety by taking time and other pressures away from your mind.

But it’s important for a knowledge workers such as you in a special way. As Csikszentmihalyi explores in Creativity, a flow state can enable creative ideation.

Thus, it makes you more of an expert by letting you incorporate new ideas into your work. Special bonus: finding a flow state can help free you from relying on brainstorming meetings (ugh) to get new ideas. The two approaches complement one another.

But careful not to slip out of the flow and into merely getting stuff done “on cruise control”.

Productive Rhythm vs Creative Flow

Being in a creative flow state isn’t about mindlessness, randomness, or silliness. Nor is it a general prescription for happiness which Csikszentmihalyi views as a  personalized undertaking:

happiness is, in fact, a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person

Similarly, a creative flow state must be cultivated and protected. How? By deliberately challenging yourself intellectually. By doing something that’s mentally hard almost every day. 

Compare this to the “productive rhythm” state of control, where your skills outweigh the challenges.

As with a creative flow state, Csikszentmihalyi describes both this “productivity rhythm” state as a feeling of control over your mind.

Here you’re content and efficient – but you don’t exploit your creativity. This is where you expertly “copy-paste” your thoughts and your work, maybe for hours.  The simple coding task. The drying of the dishes at warp speed. The 37-holiday cards mailed out with efficiency. When you’re done you say, “Wow, I knocked that out in two-and-a-half hours?!”.

If you find yourself saying that about your work too often, there’s a problem. For many people, productivity rhythms don’t sustain. But the bigger problem is that you’re not ideating, you’re not building up expertise, you’re not cultivating convictions.

Not to mention you’re probably not creating valuable assets for your business.

How to level up into a flow state? Challenge yourself. With research, mental exploration, the feedback of others, etc.

James Webb Young offers a glimpse of what the mental exploration part of the flow state can look like:

What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and you feel them, as it were, with the tentacles of the minds. You take one fact, and turn it this way and that, look at is in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit.

To activate your tentacles of the mind, you must attempt something difficult:

  • Scripting a webinar
  • Writing an article
  • Designing a proposal
  • Creating your best case study yet

Which are the happy (and maybe lucrative) byproducts of entering deep into your flow-state, not the end goal. The end goal is the state of mind itself.

Awkward question: what’s your passion in life?

Better question: what activities put you into your flow state?

– Rowan