Thursday, December 3, 2009

The competitor

I have been thinking lately about Flow and how I personally seem to achieve it.  In this sense I mean flow as the author of the book Flow meant it, which is largely the idea of complete absorption in a task.  It is the mental state of being totally involved in something that you are excellent at and pursuing a challenging goal.  Nearly everyone can understand this state, though how and where people get there varies dramatically.  To understand what it is you need to imagine yourself doing something very difficult in a field where you are very experienced.  Imagine you are working on a project and time and world around you slip away as you become 100% immersed in what you are doing.  Afterwards you would look up at the clock and wonder where the time went, and if someone wandered by while you were working you might not even notice they were there.

I tend to most easily slip into this state when in a competitive situation.  When I am by myself it is certainly possible for me to get into flow, but it is never as fully absorbing or as complete as when I am competing against a person or other challenging benchmark.  Interestingly enough the times most recently when I have gotten into flow are when I was writing my first two blog entries, which is a good sign for the future I think.  That said, I certainly find that when I am trying to best another person in a contest my ability to jump right into flow is much greater.

For example, while playing World Of Warcraft (hereafter WOW) with a group of my friends I normally run a damage meter.  This is basically a special game modification that tells me all kinds of statistics about how my group is performing and what we are doing.  Some of the people in our 10 man group focus on keeping us all alive, but the majority focus on killing the monsters we are fighting, so the primary thing that I have this damage meter tell me is how much damage everyone has done.  This is certainly a competitive thing because everyone wants to be the person doing the most damage over the course of a given battle or evening, and if not the best then each player wants to be as high up on the charts as possible.  Back in the spring when my group was first starting out I was virtually always the top of the meters.  Part of it was my particular character being fairly powerful, but the majority of it was my sheer over the top aggressiveness.

One day we recruited a new player to our group and went to clear out the dungeon of monsters as normal.  About 1/4 of the way through the run I look at my damage meter expecting to see myself on top as usual, and I see that our new guy is beating me by a solid 15%.  Alarm bells, lions roaring and red blinking lights go off everywhere and something very deep, very primal in my brain says


For the next 2 hours I was absolutely, totally immersed.  I desperately tried to shave 1/10th of a second off of my ability timers, I used every single trick and strategy I had ever come up with and had the kind of focus and determination you can only achieve when you are deep in flow.  I lost track of time and the world, focusing being absolutely perfect.  I won't suggest that it is strictly impossible to perform better than I did that night, but I think nearly anyone would find it a tall order indeed.  By the end of the raid I was in the lead on the meter again by a good 10% over everyone else.

The interesting thing about all of this is I am not a bad loser generally speaking.  I have been defeated and will be defeated again and it doesn't bother me.  Of course, if I lose over and over again I do become frustrated, as anyone does.  When faced with a challenging opponent though I go into this incredible competitive state of flow and absolutely pour myself into the task of crushing them. Lately I have been considering a few specific things about this, namely:

One, how could I have this incredible, immersive feeling more in my life?  Where else and how else can I introduce a state of flow in the things that I do that are not competitive games?  I considered things like my yoga routine, and came to the conclusion that going to classes for all of my yoga would be overly expensive but that only in the classes where the instructor sets benchmarks that are not quite achieveable for me do I become really involved.  My daily home yoga routine is beneficial but does not engage me the way the classes do.  Perhaps I need to find some kind of sport or exercise that allows me this competitive outlet to increase my enjoyment of physical activity.  (Note:  My evenings are full and daytime sports leagues are ... rare.)  I even thought about attempting to achieve flow from cooking and am actively working on becoming better at it to allow this to happen.  It isn't something I really expect to work, but it seems worth a try.

Secondly, can I achieve flow in a competitive situation and yet be completely unmoved if I do lose at the end?  How much total absorption in the task of winning can there be without any feeling of loss or unhappiness upon failing at the task?  I do know that in the past when I have competed but not been at all interested in the game I was able to be the perfect gentleman and not resent losing in the slightest. (I am remembering a game of Euchre and coin flipping in particular...) Achieving that is much more difficult when I am invested in the outcome of course, so the question becomes how far can I take it?  Is it possible for me to ever arrive at the state where I can enter a state of flow in a competitive situation, lose, and still take just as much joy from the experience as if I had won?

Certainly the old saying "Its not whether you win or lose, it' how you play the game" is applicable here.  Nearly all people can be good losers when the result isn't a big deal to them and most people can act like a good loser when the result is important and not offend anyone.  But how many can be truly, completely unmoved by losing a competition they gave their all in?  Is the mental state of taking incredible joy in competition and giving your all compatible with winning and losing equally?  Or is it possible that when you refuse to feel bad about losing that some reward centre in your brain simply isn't going to stimulate you enough to compete at the top of your game?  I don't really know the answers to these questions yet, but I think I have found a good New Year's Resolution.

I will achieve flow in competition and yet refuse to be demoralized in the slightest by failure!

I have a history of ridiculous and over the top resolutions like "Achieve mental invulnerability" and "Achieve total self mastery" so this new one isn't really anything outrageous.  I never succeed at my New Year's Resolutions, but I do do my damndest to make them work.  Maybe I am working on my newest one already...


  1. I weigh the phychological effects of watching sports in kind of this way.

    I can choose to get really excited about the Toronto Raptors but I must deal with enjoying the wins and rueing the losses. I can also decide to watch but not care that much. Sadly, I haven't been able to decide to really enjoy the victories but not care about the losses much. I have to be emotionally invested in winning AND losing, or not invested at all. Must be something about my primate brain...

  2. Trying to enjoy winning and not mind losing might be like trying to enjoy the high heroin gives you without feeling the crash after. Feelings are a real sine wave.