I’ve started a Patreon page to provide limited edition artwork to patrons and with the goal to create a community. If you would like more information, you can read about it here: https://www.patreon.com/mikeshipman
I’m a collector of quotes. Sometimes I search for quotes of a certain theme, other times I come across them serendipitously. I began compiling them in a small notebook, just writing them in as I found them, in no particular order or category. They are mostly quotes about photography, and art in general. A lot of people collect quotes because they are inspiring. Most quotes collected are probably from someone who is admired or respected and what they’ve said strikes a certain chord within us; we can relate to it in some way. That’s how I started. But, along the way I discovered something else about the quotes in my notebook. Sometimes the quote would lead me to new information. Rather than simply stuffing quotes into a book like trophy heads on a wall or names on a birding life list, I’d search their name online and do a bit of a ‘background check’ to find out more about them, what they do/did, and also to confirm the quote actually belonged to that person. Sometimes, attribution is difficult to determine or is for the wrong person, yet the quote continues to persist, passed around forever in the aetherspace. More often than not, when I research a quote I meet a new person I didn’t know about before, learn a bit of history, a philosophy, a different concept, understand a bit of technology, it’s usually something interesting.
One interesting thing I uncovered, too, is what I’m going to call “quote reimagining” after the ongoing fad of reimagining older movies into newer movies, either to upgrade an aging film or topic or to completely alter the story for a new audience. After a while, I starting coming across quotes that I knew I saw before but thought it was attributed to a different person, or it just sounded really familiar. Since I don’t have my quotes in a database, I had to “scroll” through my notebook to find the “duplicate”. Sure enough, there are some quotes that appear to have been ‘reimagined’ or ‘recycled’, with a sprinkling of new words or phrases to be sure it’s not an exact copy. I do think some of these duplicates may have been coincidence. It’s not as if these concepts are proprietary, and the approach to some topics, like failure and observation/seeing, tends to breed similar sentiments.
So, here is a compilation of some reimagined quotes. The earliest (though maybe not the first) instance of the quote is listed first (1), then any similar are below (1A, 1B, etc.). You be the judge as to their similarity, coincidence, or copy.
1. You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus – Mark Twain (1875 – 1910)
1A. There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept – Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984)
2. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external name and detail, is the true reality – Aristotle (385 – 322 BC)
2A. Vision is the art of seeing things invisible – Jonathan Swift (1667 -1745)
2B. It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see – Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
2C. No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist – Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)
2D. Anything that excites me for any reason I will photograph; not searching for unusual subject matter, but making the commonplace unusual – Edward Weston (1886 – 1958)
2E. I didn’t want to tell the tree or weed what it was. I wanted it to tell me something and through me express its meaning in nature – Wynn Bullock (1902 – 1975)
2F. I am not interested in shooting new things; I am interested to see things new – Ernst Haas (1921 – 1986)
2G. To me, photographing is an act of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them – Elliott Erwitt (1928 – )
3. No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness – Aristotle (385 – 322 BC)
3A. Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish to the crowd – I Ching (200 BC)
3B. You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star – Friedrich Nietzche (1844 – 1900)
3C. What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art – Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848 – 1907)
3D. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric – Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)
3E. If at first an idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it – Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
3F. All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning – Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)
4. Art is not to be found by touring to Egypt, China, or Peru; if you cannot find it at your own door, you will never find it – Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)
4A. The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his door step – Paul Strand (1890 – 1976)
4B. If you do not see what is around you every day, what will you see when you go to Tangiers? – Freeman Patterson (1937 – )
4C. When one says, ‘Look, there is nothing out there’, what we are really saying is ‘I can’t see’ – Terry Tempest Williams (1955 – )
5. Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth – Rumi (1207 – 1273)
5A. If you’re out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it – Jay Maisel (1931 – )
5B. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take – Wayne Gretzky (1961 – )
6. It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation – Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)
6A. Failure after a long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure – George Eliot (1819 – 1880)
7. One must learn by doing the thing. For though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try – Sophocles (496 – 406 BC)
7A. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them – Aristotle (385 – 322 BC)
7B. We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way – John Holt (1923 – 1985)
7C. One of the things about the arts that is so important is that in the arts you discover the only way to learn how to do it is by doing it. You can’t write by reading a book about it. The only way to learn how to write a book is to sit down and try to write a book – David McCullough (1933 – )
I don’t usually do lists, but as I was working on a project and reading at the same time, this popped into my head. I’ve left off explanations for some and used minimal explanation for others. You should fill in your own blanks (that could be #11 or #12).
1. Explore: internally (introspection) and externally (exteroception)
2. Experiment: Don’t follow convention (for too long). Blaze your own trail
3. Challenge yourself mentally and physically: Don’t bite off more than you can chew – work in increments you can accomplish yet have a need to push yourself beyond current limits
4. Challenge your skills
5. Share your progress in a way that is informative and interesting but not self-serving or bragging
6. Don’t care what others think about what you do or how you do it. They are not you and you are not them. You are you. Do what you love, create what you love
7. Set goals (see #3 & #4) but be flexible in how, when, and if you reach them. Don’t be afraid to coast, regain your bearings or your balance or to reassess and change course. They’re your goals, they don’t belong to anyone else
8. Don’t be afraid
9. Seek knowledge and experience wherever it can be found, in all areas. You never know when one thing will connect with another in an amazing way
10. Have fun
Ok, here’s an 11
11. Be a friend to other artists
This project, in part, has been an exploration of crowfunding and the various options and successes and failures.
My Kickstarter campaign is coming to a close on Monday morning. I’m about 1/3 funded, but if it’s not 100% at 11:00am Monday, unless there’s a furious and exciting rally this weekend, it won’t matter. I’ve set it up as an all-or-nothing campaign.
But, here’s round 2:
A day ago I launched a campaign on Indiegogo.com so it will be available once this campaign ends. I set it up using their flexible funding option which means I will receive whatever funds are submitted. It’s not all-or-nothing. I’ve reduced the funding goal and the number of reward levels to reflect the popularity of reward levels for this campaign. The items in each reward have not changed. If you’ve contributed to Kickstarter at a certain level, that level and reward (perk) is also on Indiegogo and you can choose it again.
When the kickstarter campaign ends on Monday, if you would like to continue to support this project, you can go to the Indiegogo campaign and renew your pledge at the level you would like and it will take effect. It’s also set up to be able to go over the $3000 goal. If that happens, the same upgrades apply – better paper, more pages, larger format book, depending on the amount over the goal. The deadline for that project is April 28. I’d like to point out that you will need to click on the perk level to “officially” contribute at that level and so I know which perks to create for you. There is a “Contribute Now” field at the top where you can contribute any amount, but that contribution is not associated with any perk items.
When you contribute to the campaign on Indiegogo, you can use a credit card through the gateway, Apple Pay (US card holders only) or PayPal (you can use the Guest checkout to avoid needing a PayPal account), or your PayPal balance. Your credit card or PayPal account will be charged immediately after you complete the checkout process, not at the end of the campaign.
I don’t want you to go there now if you’ve already pledged on Kickstarter, just in case there is a rally. I really don’t want you to be charged twice. So, wait until Monday after 12:00 to make any contributions at Indiegogo. Though I think you can cancel your pledge on Kickstarter prior to the end of the campaign if you want to make the leap earlier.
A second option is to directly contribute to the project through PayPal. This avoids the processing fee Indiegogo charges so your contribution is maximized. My PayPal account name is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you choose that option, please indicate your contribution is for Scotland and what reward level when you check out. I also recommend waiting for this direct contribution until after noon on Monday. Just in case.
Whichever option you choose, I thank you for your continued support.
Today I launched a Kickstarter project to create a photo book (and other rewards) about how our senses & perceptions influence our photography and art (not just for photographers), showcasing the stunning and mysterious landscape of Scotland, which I’ll be visiting this summer.
Rewards for backing this project range from postcards mailed from Scotland, photographic prints, one-on-one photography instruction time with me, an 80+ page signed and numbered limited edition hardcover book, to a 4-day Idaho photo trip.
Please have a look at the project and support it if you can, at whatever level. If you can pass it on to your friends and any others who would be interested, I would appreciate it. Thank you!
Project Backers to date
A thank you to the supporters of this project. Unfortunately, it did not get fully funded. I initiated a second round at Indiegogo.com, and set it up to receive all funds contributed. I’ve detailed that effort in another post.
Betty and Ken Rodgers
Robert Vestal and Jyl Hoyt
Ben and Marcia Cartledge
Michael D. Margulies
James R Cummins
Clarence H King III
Leslie & Gary Green
Some time ago, I received an email from someone I didn’t know out-of-the-blue asking if I’d provide some feedback on an attached photo. I like to help out photographers by providing feedback on their work when I have the time. I had the time, so I looked at the photo and replied with some detailed comments.
Artists, regardless of the media worked in, need feedback to improve. It’s extremely difficult to know if your work is appreciated if nobody gives you feedback about it. It’s hard to improve your skill if others don’t comment on your style, technique, materials, and other aspects of your work. Artists put their work “out there” in art shows, galleries, informal and formal exhibits, contests, clubs, associations, on their personal websites and online forums like Flickr and Facebook. But, the feedback you receive from those outlets and forums is not always from qualified sources or of any real use. How many comments of “I Love It!” does it take for you to believe you’re the next Ansel Adams? So, it’s not unusual to seek out someone whose work you admire (or at least they appear to know what they’re doing) to ask their opinion.
The next day, I received a very gracious thank you email from the person. They greatly appreciated my thoughtful comments and wondered if I’d look at some other photos. Attached to the email were about 30 identical variations of the same photo previously sent.
My first reaction was, honestly, “Are you kidding me?” and a bit of a laugh. My next reaction was a little angry that this person thought I didn’t have anything better to do than look at a pile of similar photos of the same subject and compose an essay of critique for each of them. I wondered if they even comprehended what I wrote to them about the first photo (which was a better photo and the comments I wrote applied to this second set as well). I could have reacted like I’ve seen others do, in a condescending and overbearing, “holier-than-thou” response full of wisecracks and veiled (and not-so-veiled) put-downs, asking them in certain terms if they thought I sat around all day responding to requests for free reviews of buckets of similar photographs. Responding in such a way doesn’t do anyone any good, neither the reviewing photographer nor the requesting photographer. And, it furthers a stereotype of the condescending professional who thinks everyone “below” them is unworthy, even though that person started out on the lowest rung of the ladder sometime in their life. We tend to forget that. Even if I chose to ignore the request and just not respond, I would be essentially doing the same thing.
So, I composed a friendly reply explaining, that while I’m happy to provide feedback on the occasional photo, I have other duties required for maintaining my business and I’m unable to review and comment on such a large number of photos outside a formal, paid, session. As a professional artist I understand the desire for feedback, validation, a kind word, a helpful hint, etc. from someone who appears to know what they’re doing. I was there once and I’m sure most, if not all, artists of one stripe or another have been in the same boat….nervous and eager to approach the “local pro” to have them peer at your work and pronounce their judgment, either letting you pass through the “First Gate” or send you back to try again.
I hope I wasn’t a pest as I was starting out. Getting through that “First Gate”, the first time you have someone other than family or friend evaluate your work, is a first step to moving forward with your work. Asking a stranger to look at your work is a request for validation as much as it is for actual constructive feedback. “Am I good enough?” you’re asking. Am I good enough to keep trying?
My first formal request for a review was to a local photography gallery owner. I’d been in the gallery a few times and the guy seemed to know what he was doing, so I gathered up my courage one day and asked him if he’d look at some of my photos. We set an appointment and I brought back a book with some prints and slides (back way before digital). His review, as I remember it, wasn’t detailed. He didn’t give me suggestions for improvement or tell me specifically what he liked or didn’t like. He did tell me he liked my work, though, which was enough incentive at the time to continue making an effort. At the time, I didn’t really know what I was doing with my work, didn’t know what I wanted my work to be (fine art or stock), or what to expect from the review. I figured this guy who had his own business would know what to tell me. He’d obviously reviewed other work, right? And, he was good at what he did so he must have some sense of what a good photograph is. That was my First Gate.
Some First Gates are large, ornate, sturdy, with an intricate lock; difficult to get through unless your work is the right “key”, and more like a “last gate” than a first. Others are similar to a rickety garden gate; most of the time propped partially open so you can walk through with little effort. The rest in between pose varying challenges. Your task is to select the First Gate that will do you the most good (at least how you perceive that to be at the time. You may actually pass through several First Gates throughout your artistic career, especially if you change your style, media, or artistic or professional focus. If you change from an editorial photographer to a commercial photographer, you might need to pass through a commercial First Gate to move forward. So, how do you get to, much less through, the First Gate?
How best is it to approach someone to ask for their feedback/review? It’s simple, really. I tried to do as much research as I could first. I found a photographer that did work similar to mine and lurked around his gallery for a while until I was more or less sure he was “qualified” and until I had enough guts to ask. Now, I would be more specific, and suggest you be, too.
Research the people you’re interested in getting feedback from. Do they do similar work? An architectural photographer might not be the best choice to review landscape or wedding photography. Is there any indication on their website or other materials that they’d be willing to review work? One indicator might be that they teach. Call, stop in, write a brief email, introducing yourself (briefly), get to know them if possible, and when you’re ready ask if they would be willing to review one or two (only) pieces of work before you dump a portfolio on them. Remember, this is your First Gate, not your 4th or 9th or 20th. You can always go back to them later and ask if you could arrange a more detailed review.
I must stress something here. If you’re going to seek out someone, a professional, to review your work, you must show the best work you’ve done to date. This is work you’ve spent time with, and used your equipment and skills to the best of your ability. I can honestly tell you if you aren’t presenting your best work you will likely only get a brief and perhaps brusk response, although only somewhat encouraging, to “keep trying”.
But, I must also stress something else. Don’t take unfavorable feedback (in your opinion) personally. You have to distance your attachment to your work to receive feedback properly, so that it’s beneficial to you. Because you’re going to get feedback you don’t want to hear, no matter how good you are. The feedback about your work is not about you, but about the work. Receive that feedback with the same enthusiasm you would receive praise because it will help you grow. Be respectful of the person’s time and willingness to help you. Don’t make excuses about your work. Don’t berate the reviewer or you won’t get any more help from them.
Getting through the First Gate is a big step. You’re announcing to yourself and the world your intention to be serious about your work. Challenge yourself and avoid the propped open garden gates.
I also encourage professionals who are asked to review work to do so (or decline to do so) with respect. If you aren’t comfortable giving feedback, tell the person. Recommend someone you know who might be willing. If you respond like an asshat, regardless if it makes you feel superior, it only makes you look like an asshat. And the world could do with less of those. Reviewers as well as reviewees learn from the experience. And the world could do with more quality art and artists.
This is part one of a two part discussion of scale in photography, starting with Space.
First, let’s define scale. For this discussion, scale refers to the relative size of things and the perception of detail. A pencil is a small scale object while a car is a relatively larger scale object and a tree on a larger scale still, etc. As with a map, small scale refers to a greater perception of detail (the stamens and pistils within a flower) while large scale refers to wider coverage and less detail (many flowers within a patch in a meadow).
When Space is mentioned and we’re talking about photography, we usually think of how elements are arranged relative to each other in a composition, and how that arrangement creates the illusion of depth. We might also consider negative and positive space. But space is more than what appears in our photograph and the methods we use to manipulate it in a two-dimensional image. Space encompasses us, our movements, our perceptions, our actions, and influences our photography. In this newsletter, I’m going to describe space in terms of our body and our senses.
We generally live within a small space (our individual body, our house, neighborhood, city) relative to all possible spaces (our state, country, continent, planet, solar system.). The activities of our lives are also contained within a certain space, with more specific activities (more influence) occurring at the smaller scale (body, family, home) and becoming more general and less specific (less influence) at larger scales (city, state, country, world). It’s easier to contemplate a smaller space because there are fewer and more familiar elements and interactions to consider. Though, think about some specialists, like physicists, architects, and astronomers who look at and understand their (our) world differently from most people because of their familiarity, knowledge, and experience with spatial scales very different from everyday life. These specialists even view the world differently from other specialists, based on the space occupied by their subject of interest; physicists with subjects measured in billionths of an inch, architects in hundreds or thousands of linear, square, or cubic feet, astronomers in millions and trillions of miles. Our understanding and perception of our personal relationship to the space around us, often called our environment, helps influence how we create our photography.
Two types of spatial perception are proprioception and exteroception, terms defined in 1909 by Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, a Nobel laureate neurophysiologist, histologist, bacteriologist, and pathologist. Proprioception, which means “one’s own individual perception”, is the small scale awareness of our body movement from the actions of muscles, tendons, and joints, the sense of the relative position of the various parts of our body, and their position/orientation in space; whether your body is moving or still, which body parts are moving or still, where your body parts are in relation to one another, and the strength of effort necessary to move or be still. Our brain constantly monitors our muscles consciously and unconsciously (mostly unconsciously and automatically), adjusting their position, tone, and motion to maintain balance, grip, support, and movement. One example of proprioception, or body awareness, is learning to drive a manual transmission car. At first, we are very conscious of our body position – feet, legs, hands, ears, eyes, arms, head – as we try to coordinate the movements of clutch, gas, gear shift, with our ears listening to the engine and/or eyes looking at the speedometer or tachometer, while maintaining awareness of the road ahead. At first, the operation is clumsy and we wonder how we’ll ever be proficient. But, after practice we eventually perform the relatively complex movements automatically. Our body is aware of its position and the actions needed to perform the task. We reach for and move the gear shift without looking at it, and our feet find the right position on the gas and clutch pedals and know how to operate them in sequence, often even in cars we’ve never driven before.
Exteroception, meaning external perception, is the large scale awareness and perception of the outside world through stimuli originating outside the body. Exteroception is accomplished through our primary receptive senses such as sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Through these senses we gain awareness, understanding, and experience of the environment around us – the temperature of the air, the texture of the ground, the smell of a marketplace, the colors of fabric, the metallic taste of ozone in the air during a thunderstorm.
An example of proprioception and exteroception working together, using the car example, is how we’re able to know where the boundaries of our car are, even when we can’t see them. We instinctively know where the front bumper or rear bumper are relative to our position in the driver’s seat, how long our car is and how wide, even its maneuverability. We visualize the space it occupies on the road and can judge fairly accurately whether it will fit between two lines or two objects or not. We’re able to manipulate the controls of the car easily without thinking of hand and foot positions, and maneuver the car through sensing it’s position in space. This type of awareness is sometimes referred to as body thinking.
How does this apply to your photography? Increasing your awareness beyond your immediate surroundings, beyond just what you’re looking at, beyond the elements you’ve selected to compose into a photograph, you stop simply viewing and begin experiencing. You begin purposefully monitoring where you are in space, in your environment, instead of cruising through on autopilot. As with the car example, your body awareness and external awareness merge, you know how to manipulate the camera controls instinctively, you’re aware of your surroundings, you stop being a photographer documenting a scene separate from what is occurring and become part of the composition itself. Photographer Sebastio Salgado describes it as “There comes a moment when it is no longer you who takes the photograph, but receives the way to do it quite naturally and fully.” Zen and Taoist practice calls this a part of Great Understanding, which is different from, but related to, other “modes” I’ve covered such as Flow and Being in the Zone.
It all comes down to being more than a spectator, more than simply an observer or recorder of things we find in front of us, more than the knowledge of aperture and shutter speed, depth of field and perfect exposure. It’s the combination of all these things not in a confined bubble closely surrounding our body, but in a limitless space in which we move and think freely and are aware of our environment. When I’m standing in the forest looking for a subject to photograph, I sense the ground under my feet, the air moving across my skin, the light entering my eyes, the sounds coming from near and far, the movement of trees, grass, shrubs, the texture of mountains and clouds, the sound of water in a stream or river. I imagine how the trees and rocks are rooted into the ground. I sense the distance between myself and my car, other people I’m with, the nearest town or city, and road. I may not see anything interesting right away, but I might hear something interesting in the nearby stream or river, the rushing of rapids or banging of rocks, and go investigate.
Everything exists in space. We continually expand and contract our awareness of what exists in the space around us, sometimes contracting space to the point of becoming completely unaware. Through practice, you will arrive at a comfortable awareness space you can maintain all the time, and expand or contract it at will. I’m pretty certain when you become more body and world aware, you’ll experience more enjoyment in your photography (even if you aren’t “successful” in getting that great shot) and get better shots. Try it.
When I started my research, blogging, and posting about Creativity a few years ago, I jumped head first into a very deep and broad pool. We often think of creativity in terms of its definition; the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. But, the definition only describes what we think creativity is, not where it comes from, how it manifests itself in our daily activities, whether we can call it up at will, whether it actually exists, or what, if any, the related aspects of creativity are.
One aspect of creativity is what is commonly called The Zone. It’s the mental state we adopt when we’re fully immersed and engaged in an activity we’re passionate about. It’s a heightened state of consciousness and completely focused motivation where our emotions are channeled and positively aligned in the service of performing or learning. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe this mental state, and I’ll use this term from now on. Other philosophies that could be related to or incorporate flow are Chi (China), Prana (India), Mana (Polynesian culture), rLung (Tibetan Buddhism), and Humors/Vital Energy (western culture).
Flow is more studied and researched in sports than in the arts, though flow transcends disciplines as well as cultures. Individuals from all walks of life have experienced instances of flow, described as being on autopilot, the outside world diminishes, the senses are focused, you know what to do and how to do it without thinking about it, there is a feeling of selflessness and timelessness, of being outside reality, hours seem to pass by in minutes or minutes expand, passing slowly.
But, what actually is flow? Csikszentmihalyi determined the human nervous system is only capable of processing information at about 110 bits/second. To hear and understand one person speaking requires about 60 bits/second. When there are three people speaking to you at once, you generally have a difficult time separating out who is talking about what because your brain is having trouble processing all that information (180 bits/second is 70 bits/second more than your brain can handle). So, Csikszentmihalyi theorizes when you’re fully engaged in creating something new, or immersed in working on a task or learning, you’re using all your attention bandwidth and don’t have enough left over to do well at that task and, at the same time, monitor how your body feels, or to address your issues at home, or even realize if you’re tired or hungry. Your brain stops recognizing these things – your body and everything non-essential to the task at hand disappears from your conscious thought processes – your existence in space and time is temporarily suspended.
It’s recognized that flow, similar to inspiration, can’t be called up at will. It simply happens when the conditions are right. Research has shown those conditions to be when a person is experienced in the skill being exercised, physically relaxed, mentally calm, experiencing low anxiety, is energized, optimistic, mentally focused, self-confident, and in control. Flow is temporary, involuntary, and not necessarily associated with a successful performance outcome (winning, for example), although mastery of the basic skills necessary for the task seems to be a pre-condition for the occurrence of flow. Cskikszentmihalyi says a truism of creativity is you can’t create anything new with less than 10 years of technical knowledge and immersion in a particular field; that it takes that long to begin to change something in a way that’s better than what existed before. Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers also stated it generally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient in any task (20-hours a week [3 hrs/day] for 10 years). Of course, if you spend more time practicing, you’ll shorten the 10-year estimate. Does it take 10 years of practice at something to be able to engage in flow? It helps, probably, but I think it’s not a requirement. However, the more skilled you are at what you do, the easier and more frequent flow occurs. I suspect individuals who have the ability to engage in deep concentration probably experience flow even when they are working on relatively unskilled tasks. So, I think the ability to focus your attention is a key component to flow. I experience flow, in various degrees, when I’m photographing, writing, teaching, listening to music, taking a walk, and I certainly did when I was actively rock climbing and skiing as well as back in the day competing in sports in high school.
Getting to a state of flow is a balance between skill and challenge, between the point when you’re excited about something but not over-challenged by it (stimulation), and when you feel comfortable but not really excited or challenged (control). If you are pushed beyond your comfort zone at the stimulation level you can move into flow with a small increase in skill level (i.e. learning something new). If you are comfortable but not excited, you can move into flow by increasing challenge in the control area (i.e. driving) – see chart below. The mean level of challenge and skill (the central point on the chart) is different for each individual and changes for each individual throughout their life. Csikszentmihalyi says, though, if the mean level is known, a person could accurately predict when they will be in flow.
The seven characteristics of being in flow:
1. Focused concentration – being completely involved in what you are doing, there are clear goals and feedback
2. A sense of ecstasy (ecstasy means to “stand beside” or to be in “a state beyond reason and self control”), a balance is reached between challenge and skill
3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well you are doing, action and awareness merge
4. Knowing the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task, we have control
5. A sense of serenity – there are no worries about oneself, there is a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego, a loss of self-consciousness
6. Timelessness – being thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes or minutes are expanded, passing slowly
7. Intrinsic motivation – flow is a self-rewarding experience
Flow is a fragile thing. It comes and goes only under certain conditions and can easily be interrupted if you become distracted. A sound, a touch, a thought not related to the task can put an end to your run of creativity. Your self-consciousness about your activity and how you look or are perceived by others is a barrier to flow; if you think you’ll look ridiculous to others or be judged negatively in any way, you won’t be able to get into flow. Flow is a fleeting thing, like inspiration. You have to take advantage of it while it’s there.
How can you encourage flow?
1. Choose an enjoyable, challenging activity. Do something you love that challenges your skill level
2. Eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone, TV, email, social media. Find a location without distractions and where you are not likely to be interrupted
3. Think before you do. Do your research and preparation before you engage in the task. Stopping to do research or other unrelated tasks will knock you out of flow
4. Let go. Give up expectations about yourself and the results of the activity. You’ll be distracted by comparing what you’re doing to what you expect to achieve and risk narrowing your focus too much, removing any flexibility to change if your flow takes you down a different path. Don’t second guess what you’re doing. Go with the flow
5. Forget time. Placing a time limit sets expectations. Once you’re in flow, time will melt away, anyway. Once you think about how much time you’re spending on a task, other issues of the day will intrude and kick you out of flow
6. Control/ignore fear. Leave your ego at the door. Your self-consciousness will sabotage your flow.
7. Practice. The more practiced you are in your activity, the easier it will be to enter a flow state.
But, flow (being in The Zone) is not a magic bullet. It’s only a state of focused concentration. While being in flow can help your creativity and productivity, it is not necessarily a solution to a problem or will lead to the creation of great work. And, if you think about it too much, or try too hard to enter a flow state, it won’t likely happen. So, there’s the paradox; when you’re in flow you can’t think about it and when you’re not in flow you can’t think about it. Usually, you recognize flow once you’re on the other side of it. While you’re in flow, you experience that sense of being “in the moment”; it’s very pleasurable and you feel very productive. It is a good place to be. As more research is done on this elusive mental state, perhaps one day we’ll be able to harness it and use it in a more productive way. Until then, enjoy the ride.
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Young, J.A. 1999. Professional tennis players in flow: flow theory and reversal theory perspectives. Unpubl. PhD. Thesis, Monash University, Melbourne, AU.