Rambles | Flow
By Steve Faulkner - Wednesday, May 6, 2020
In 2018, and three hours into my first ever snowboarding holiday, I managed to fracture five ribs and my shoulder. I found myself in a hospital with a doctor deciding whether to operate to avoid a punctured lung. Suffering from what I'll optimistically describe as mild health anxiety, and the fact that the assessment was made through cigarette smoke, with the level of hygiene I'll optimistically describe the 'charmingly relaxed', I was terrified. Especially as the doctor then informed me that there was a good chance of having to operate and that he would come and let me know when the x-ray results came back a couple of hours.
After about four hours, I could bear the suspense no more. So I enquired and was told that the doctor had forgotten and left for the night. Perfect. To avoid a night of visualising medieval surgery, resulting in my untimely death - due to paranoia, and not reality - I needed something to take my mind off it all. Luckily, my brother had packed my bag for the hospital, and even more lucky, I had a couple of decks of cards and a copy of Daryl's Secrets of a Puerto Rican Gambler. Due to some Facebook rambling, I'd also received lots of messages, and two of them probably changed the course of my life.
Both Richard Mcdougall and Michael Vincent had sent me messages that reminded me why I had fallen in love with Magic, and importantly, why I had fallen out of love with it. Though I loved performing, the initial joy I had experienced with Magic, my why was in the learning and doing of it, and not necessarily the showing of it. I had become a magic factory worker, repeating the same five routines over and over again to fulfil a professional obligation. For years.
Over the next few, luckily operation-free days and weeks, I learned to become what we usually label a 'hobbyist' again. I disappeared into that book and deck of cards and learned for the sake of learning. Reconnecting with the mental state that, for me, only learning and practising a skill can achieve. Time vanished, focus increased and thoughts drifted in and out without distracting me from the task at hand: which was learning something that I may or may not ever perform. What had driven every learning decision for the last ten years - whether a routine was 'commercial' enough to fit into my professional repertoire - was now irrelevant. It was all about the moment. This is a state that is known in psychology as 'Flow', and it could well be the key to helping us get through this, or any other, challenging time. In fact, it could well be the key to happiness itself.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Author of groundbreaking book Flow - The Psychology of Happiness, describes Flow as
- "a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to complete absorption in an activity, and results in the achievement of a perfect state of happiness."*
For those who have spent many hours learning a sleight, perfecting a routine, brainstorming ideas, researching the history of a trick or having a session alone or with friends, this may sound familiar. Of course, all of these Flow activities can be frustrating and even unpleasant at times, but as long as they fulfil specific criteria, they will, if you go with the theory, contribute to your general happiness.
So what ingredients does an activity need to be classed as a Flow activity? Again according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, it needs to fulfil, among a few others, the following criteria:
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback; Seeing, after a time, some improvement.
- It s an autotelic experience - The goal is found in the experience itself, and not for an external purpose, though there may still be another longer-term benefit, i.e. being a more knowledgeable, skilled magician.
- There is a balance between challenge and skills. Not too easy, not impossible.
So why is this so important in, and out of the current situation? If we don't consciously incorporate flow activities onto our lives, many of us will be less happy. And at the moment, less happy can have a profound effect on our day to day life. We want more happy, so we want more Flow. This sometimes has to be a conscious decision because our brains will often take the path of least resistance, convincing us that we will be more comfortable doing things that are…well…more comfortable (criteria 3)
I had become bored with Magic because it was no longer a Flow activity. It was a practical activity to find the next commercial routine that would elevate my show. This is, of course still important, but for me, often a little joyless until the physical practice begins. The criteria above have helped me reconnect with why I love Magic so much, and why it can be dangerous to follow so much advice that I see on forums and in books. There are plenty of people advising what we should and shouldn't do when all that matters is what we love to do. Yes, it's essential in our performances to find routines that work commercially, but we can also, alongside the practical considerations, do what we do just for the sake of doing it. (Criteria 2). To sit and practise, session or maybe just think, can often provide enough joy without any practical reasoning. This is why I love learning flourishes so much. They're useless, but for me, fun because they fulfil all of the criteria. Criteria 3 also provided the answer to why I was getting bored even when I did decide to practise. I would usually fall into old practice routines that I could already do easily or practice commercial effects that provided no challenge. Again, all part of the job, but no Flow.
The paradox here is that once I made the decision to be a hobbyist again, and treat Magic as a flow activity as well as a professional obligation, my skill level and knowledge has improved. The bi-product of this being better, fresher and more enjoyable performances. It was also the motivation for starting my Real Magic Review show. I didn't want to stop learning and become jaded again. Will I perform all of these tricks and use all of the routines from the books I read? No. will reading them and learning the tricks make me a happier and better magician? Yes! And is learning Magic, purely for the joy of it helping me stay sane and providing a purpose through this crisis, making me a better parent and more fulfilled human being? Sounds a bit grand, but without a doubt.
So if you are ever feeling despondent, demotivated and overwhelmed, don't make the mistake of seeing your magic practice, whatever that means to you, as trivial. We work, study and sometimes struggle in order to be able to do the things that make us happy, that provide Flow. So in these times, and in all other times, it may be worth checking in to make sure you're ticking those Flow boxes and making the most of it all. Learning a move, routine or flourish may seem ion the outside pointless, but the best things in life are. The dancer pirouettes across the stage, when it would be way more practical to walk.
My deck of cards and the Daryl book got me through a lonely, painful and scary time in Bulgaria, and my deck of cards is getting through this sometimes lonely, painful and scary times in my home. You may not find your Flow in the same activities as me, and that's not the point. Find whatever works and remember to check in with it every now and then Reconnect with your why and the rest will fall into place.
And a video of Steve's snowboarding accident experience can be found here:
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