Let’s talk about growing wise and the impact flow states can have on your life and performance.
The question that inspires me here at the Collective is this:
Can recurring access to flow states really “nurture what is best within ourselves?”
Oddly, in the history of adult psychology, the idea that we could cultivate anything over time was considered suspect.
After adolescence, the thinking went, adults were pretty much fully baked.
Sure, we could learn technical skills, like going to business school or picking up a musical instrument, but our ability to add psychological capacities—like gratitude and empathy—was believed to be pretty much over and done with by the time we’d graduated from college.
But Bob Kegan, a Harvard psychologist, upended that assumption by doing something psychologists before hadn’t done too much of longitudinal research.
Kegan tracked a group of adults as they aged.
His goal was simple:
To understand how they changed and grew over time, and determine if, in fact, there were upper limits to who we can become.
Kegan spent three decades tracking this group, seeing what happened to their psychological maturity and capacity along the way.
He discovered that while some adults remained frozen in time, a select few achieved meaningful growth.
Right around middle age, for example, Kegan noticed that some people moved beyond generally well-adjusted adulthood, or what he called “Self-Authoring,” into a different stage entirely: “Self-Transforming.”
Defined by heightened empathy, an expanded capacity to hold differing and even conflicting perspectives, and general flexibility in how you think of yourself, self-transforming is the developmental stage we tend to associate with wisdom.
But not everyone gets to be wise.
While it usually takes three to five years for adults to move through a given stage of development, Kegan found that the further you go up that pyramid, the fewer people make it to the next step.
The move from self-authoring to self-transforming for example?
Fewer than 5 percent of us ever make that jump.
But in all of this developmental research, buried in the footnotes about those self-transcending 5 percenters, lay a curious fact:
A disproportionate number of them had dabbled with flow states. They made state-shifting practices and activities a central part of their lives.
Many of them described their frequent access to flow states as the “turbo-button” for their development.
And this isn’t an isolated finding.
Fifty years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow noticed that the more peak experiences a person had, the closer they came to self-actualization, his term for the upper stages of adult development.
A 2012 study published in Cognitive Processing took it further.
When examining the relationship between peak experiences and performance in Olympic athletes and corporate managers, researchers found that the highest performers didn’t just have more frequent peak experiences; they also made more ethical and empathetic decisions.
Boston College’s Bill Torbert found that those at the top of the developmental pyramid not only were more ethical and empathetic; they performed better in the workplace as well.
In a survey of nearly five hundred managers in different industries, he found that 80 percent of those who scored in the upper two stages of development held senior management roles despite only making up 10 percent of the broader population.
The most developed leaders, as Torbert noted in the Harvard Business Review, “succeeded in generating one or more organizational transformations over a four-year period, [and] their companies’ profitability, market share, and reputation all improved.”
Consciousness, it turns out, goes straight to the bottom line.
By bridging the gap between peak states and personal growth, these discoveries validate flow as a tool for self-discovery and self-development.
So while flow states (which are brief and transitory) aren’t the same as developmental stages (which are stable and long-lasting), it appears that having more of the former can, under the right conditions, help accelerate the latter.
In short, altered states can lead to altered traits.