Making mistakes matters: part 1

“flow” a delightful state on the cusp of success and failure that is critical to peak performance

My Dad losing his leg stump to one of the greatest fast bowlers, Wes Hall.

My Dad losing his leg stump to one of the greatest fast bowlers, Wes Hall.

Changing our attitude to failure is critical to achieving peak performance.

“Je ne regrette rien” was famously sung by the genius that was Édith Piaf. It shows a great attitude to dealing with whatever life throws at you, something we can all learn from. Why is this important? A common factor amongst top performers is their ability to deal with setbacks and out and out failures.

I am republishing and updating four articles I wrote a year ago, whilst still at DMW. This is to celebrate the launching of my new company PeakFlow.Zone and the first anniversary of the publishing of a book I had a hand in writing: Enabling Genius: a mindset for success in the 21st century.  Recent experimental evidence shows that those that can deal with failure are ultimately more successful.

This first article discusses “flow” a delightful state achieved right on the cusp of success and failure, that is critical to peak performance.  The second will cover the organisational benefit of embracing mistakes. Thirdly, I will discuss arguably the greatest contributor to human progress, the scientific process. This is based on falsifiability, the idea that useful science must generate testable ideas, that can potentially be proved wrong.  Finally, I will discuss the personal qualities of ‘grit’ and mindset, measures of how well we respond to failure.

On a personal level, when we are pushed beyond our capability, we feel failure.  However if we embrace this and learn from it, we can enter a wonderful state called flow.  This is on the cusp of success and failure, where we fully meet our current potential.  This is a key to enabling our own peak performance.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a positive psychologist and originator of the term flow. He described flow as: “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.  The ego falls away.  Time flies.  Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.  Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”.  His research and those of many others now points to people performing more effectively and being more fulfilled if they are often in this state.

Enabling flow is a skill and to achieve it, we have to be constantly stretched.  Flow is only achieved when we are on the edge of our capabilities, where we just succeed.  With this comes a flow of endorphins and a feeling of euphoria.  The saying ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ now has a scientific basis.  When people are in flow, studies have shown they do not notice the passage of time.  We all know the opposite feeling when we are bored, when the task is too easy, and time ticks by slowly.  However, we can’t be in flow all of the time.  By definition, if we are stretching ourselves, we will sometimes fail.  The key is not to be disheartened, but to learn from this failure, so that next time this new adaptation increases our capability above our previous level and we are back in flow.

There are conditions defined that are required to be in flow: 1. We know what to do, the goal is clear. 2. We have the potential to reach the goal. 3. We have feedback telling us how well we are doing and this is immediate. 4. There is a perceived high level of challenge to the task. 5. There is a perceived high level of skill required and finally, 6. We are freed from distractions.

So flow is a state we should all desire and enables our genius.  It should be a mantra for life.  When we notice our flow levels decreasing, we are not being stretched and are probably bored.  I would also hazard a guess that ensuring high levels of flow staves off the decline in brain function associated with dementia, something that might help one of our major health challenges in the 21st century.