How to solve your most painful problems with flow

Written by
Steven Kotler

How to solve your most painful problems with flow

Written by
Steven Kotler

How to solve your most painful problems with flow

Written by
Steven Kotler

You’ve probably heard me describe flow as a state where we feel our best and perform our best.

But do these short-term peaks help us solve real-world problems?

That’s the question I want to tackle today.

It brings us back to 2013 when I was involved with the Red Bull Hacking Creativity project.

It was a joint effort involving scientists at the MIT Media Lab, a group of TED Fellows, and the namesake energy drink company.

Conceived by Dr. Andy Walshe, Red Bull’s director of high performance, the project was the largest meta-analysis of creativity research ever conducted.

Reviewing more than thirty thousand research papers and interviewing hundreds of other subject-matter experts, from break-dancers and circus performers to poets and rock stars.

“It was an impossible goal” Walshe explained, “but I figured if we could crack something as hard to pin down as creativity, we could figure out almost anything after that.”

As of late 2016, with the initial phases of the research completed, the study came to two overarching conclusions.

First, creativity is essential for solving complex problems—the kinds we often face in a fast-paced world.

Second, we have very little success training people to be more creative.

And there’s a pretty simple explanation for this failure that you’ve likely heard me mention before:

We’re trying to train a skill, but what we really need to be training is a state of mind.

Here’s the thing…

Conventional logic works really well for solving discrete problems with definite answers.

But the “wicked problems” of today require more creative responses.

These challenges defy singular stable solutions: issues as serious as war or poverty, or as banal as traffic and trends.

Throw money, people, or time at any of these, and you may fix a symptom, but you create additional problems.

Financial aid to the developing world, for example, often breeds corruption in addition to its intended relief.

Adding more lanes to the highway encourages more drivers and more gridlock.

Fighting wars to make the world safer can make it more dangerous than ever.

Point is, that solving wicked problems requires more than a direct assault on obvious symptoms.

Roger Martin of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management conducted a lengthy study of exceptional leaders stretching from Procter & Gamble’s then-CEO A. G. Lafley to choreographer Martha Graham and discovered that their ability to find solutions required holding conflicting perspectives and using that friction to synthesize a new idea.

“The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas,” Martin writes in his book The Opposable Mind, “. . . is the only way to address this kind of complexity.”

But developing Martin’s “opposable mind” isn’t easy.

You must give up exclusively identifying with your own, singular point of view.

If you want to train this kind of creativity and problem solving, what the research shows is that the either/or logic of normal consciousness is simply the wrong tool for the job.

Scientists have discovered a better tool.

The amplified information processing and perspective that non-ordinary states such as flow provide can help solve these types of complex problems, and they can often do so faster than more conventional approaches.

Wicked problems are those without easy answers—where our rational, binary logic breaks down and our normal tools fail us.

But the information richness of a flow state affords us perspective and allows us to make connections where none may have existed before.

So, the next time you find yourself up against a wicked problem, do your best to drop into the flow.

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