Peak Performance: How to Achieve Ultimate Flow

Hey guys! Blogger’s husband here.

I wanted to write my own post because something amazing happened the other day. I was playing soccer and our team had a corner kick. I did a near post run and my teammate sent me a pass, and then – something happened. I don’t know what. All I know was that the ball went in the goal, the entire field (other team included) gasped, and after the game everyone told me that play was one of if not the best plays they’ve ever seen.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know what I did. I remember making the run and the ball being passed to me, then I remember seeing the ball hit the back of the net; I don’t remember anything in between. My mind blanked, instinct took over. But it was more than instinct, it was peak performance.

What is Peak Performance?

Peak performance (also known as the zone of optimal functioning, or flow) is defined as the maximum enhancement of all mental, emotional, physical, and situational elements that let us reach our optimal level. Peak performance goes beyond instinct; in peak performance your instinct takes over so strongly that your conscious brain, your decision-making brain, shuts down. Time stops, distractions and doubt cease, and all that remains is your unhindered and unlimited (unlimited by yourself at least) action.

ballet, ballerina, on pointe, arabesque, peak performance, flow, deliberate practice

The results of peak performance are amazing. The quality of your work skyrockets. Difficult things become easy. You push the boundaries of your own (and all human) capability. And peak performance feels great too; operating at peak performance is the best feeling in the world. Here is a Ted Talk from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a positive psychologist who is one of the pioneers of the concept of “flow”:

The Catch

So, peak performance is great, but there must be a catch, right? Turns out there is, two actually:

Catch number one: Achieving peak performance is hard. Really hard. I’ve played soccer for 25 years and can only remember achieving it a dozen times (or less). I also write fiction, and every once in a while, I write something that is so much better than anything else I’ve written; I am transported to a different world where doubt and resistance don’t exist, where everything comes together and the words flow through me. But this only happens sometimes, not nearly as often as I’d like.

Catch number two: peak performance is elusive. Why do I achieve it when I do and not when I don’t? Why can’t I always play soccer at my peak performance level (I would have gone a lot further in the sport if I did)? Why can’t all my writing be as good as my peak performance writing? The honest answer is: I don’t know. Peak performance just happens, and when it does, it’s like the Gods are with you.

Except the second catch isn’t quite true. In recent years, peak performance has been studied tremendously. Certain professions (performance artists, athletes, filmmakers, public speakers, elite salesmen, entrepreneurs, law enforcement, fighter pilots) require peak performance to succeed. Lots can and have been learned from these people.

science, testing, lab, human trial

And that brings me to the meat of this post, the steps you must take to achieve peak performance (opinion differ on this, but the steps below are a general consensus). Doing these things doesn’t guarantee peak performance, but not doing them pretty much guarantees you won’t achieve peak performance.

How to Achieve Peak Performance

First, you must unlock your peak performance abilities. This requires a lot of work. You must:

“I do believe in pushing yourself. If you actually take the idea of practice seriously—to me, practice should not be about enjoyment. Some people think of practice as “You do what you’re good at, and that’s naturally fun.” True practice is actually about just doing what you’re bad at, and working on it, and that’s not fun. Practice is about beating your head against the wall.”

  • Train smart – Read Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and its discussion on deep practice (also known as deliberate practice). Deep practice is what allows you to develop your skills to peak performance levels, training without deep practice simply won’t do it.
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare – Peak performance only comes to those who want it, those who work for it, and those who are ready for it. You must have the right tools, put yourself in the right position, become an expert on yourself, and become an expert on your field. And you must do everything it takes to do all these things. Mindy Kaling has a great writeup on this in the last chapter of Why Not Me?.

After unlocking your abilities, you must foster an environment where peak performance will strike. To do this, you must:

teddy roosevelt, critics, speech

“NASA has this phrase that they like, “Failure is not an option.” But failure has to be an option. In art and exploration, failure has to be an option. Because it is a leap of faith. And no important endeavor that required innovation was done without risk. You have to be willing to take those risks. … In whatever you are doing, failure is an option. But fear is not.”
– James Cameron, filmmaker/inventor/engineer/explorer

  • Always be learning – Peak performance is performance you unlock from inside. The more developed you are, the better you’ll be able to do this.
  • Develop a routine that unlocks your best abilities. This is common with athletes, but it is also done by performance artists/public speakers/businessmen/teachers…
  • Relax when you need it – Achieving peak performance is exhausting! Because of this, you must recharge your body. Meditate, go for a walk, do yoga, or even simple deep breathing goes a long way towards allowing you to be the best you can be.

Lastly, and very counter-intuitively, to achieve peak performance you cannot try to achieve peak performance. Peak performance comes when you reach it, not because you want it. It comes through preparation, through environment, through hard work, positive thinking, and effective routines. Work on these and the result will be peak performance; go for peak performance directly and you’ll never achieve it.

Jesse Owens, winning

Finally, here are some additional peak performance resources:

  • An Actor Prepares, the seminal book on acting, is basically a what-is and how-to for peak performance acting.
  • The Artist’s Way is a 12-week course (also in book form) designed to unlock and develop peak performance creativity.
  • Writing Down The Bones, for achieving peak performance writing (the book explores other writing topics as well).
  • The movies Black Swan, about a dancer’s quest to achieve peak performance dancing, and Whiplash, about a drummer’s quest to achieve peak performance drumming. The Matrix is also about achieving peak performance, both in an allegorical and extremely literal way.

And that brings us to the end of my peak performance post. Thank you for letting me put my thoughts out here, and next time my wife will be back with another amazing post!

Featured image by Hampton University 2012 

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6 thoughts on “Peak Performance: How to Achieve Ultimate Flow

  1. Great post! I agree that achieving flow is really hard and even more difficult to stay in. I liked how you tied in being unapologetically optimistic as negativity is a very draining force and can easily block us from getting in the zone. And part of being in the zone requires us to push us out of our comfort zone every so often. There are a lot of great things in this post that I feel like I’m just reiterating, so I’ll stop now, and let others enjoy the article! Great job!

  2. This is such a great post! So many things I didn’t know about peak performance. I totally agree with you – your have to train really hard and really smart. I also love this one: “Be unapologetically optimistic”! Love it! 🙂

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