image by @annvi
- Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force. - Lao Tzu
I was lucky to take a couple of long swims last week. And mid-stroke (breaststroke that is), lots of wonderful story ideas surfaced in my mind. And the more I looked at the reflection of the sun’s rays at the bottom of the pool, the more I was pulled back to this particular story.
When I was little, maybe nine or 10, my family would regularly take road trips, mostly to France, to visit my great grandmother in Cannes. It was great to have an excuse to go to the Côte d’Azur. Mamée, as she was nicknamed, was as glamorous in her seventies and eighties as her city of Cannes when the film festival is on. Her makeup routine remained stuck in the sixties. Still, I never stopped admiring her signature look, which she sported wherever we went: a light blue eye shadow above slick black eyeliner and perfectly coiffed ice-blond hair.
On some occasions, although rarer, we’d stop on the way or visit some other family friend further afield. That’s when the fun began for me. An avid reader, I got interested early on in the only book my parents invariably brought along on our trips: le Guide Michelin!
A travel guide without pictures may not seem of much interest for a child. And yet, despite motion sickness and its unwanted side effects, I read on when I could, on long stretches of the autoroute. After a while, I started to share my opinions and read aloud the accommodation options in our chosen destination. Of course, I was choosing carefully the ones that interested me most.
But with no images, a couple of lines of copy, how do you think I was making my selection?
Simple! If the hotel had a pool, it was in!
I waited for the jury at the front of the car to return with the verdict, my little heart beating fast. Will I have a chance to go swimming??
The trouble was, I was the only one keen on taking a dip. I learned many years later, when my father was in his 80s, that (despite sailing) he had never learned how to swim. He never let on! Somehow, my brother and I never noticed.
Like the naiads of Greek mythology, you could barely coerce me out of the water long enough to have an ice lolly. My mother loved sunbathing. Meanwhile, my younger brother loved playing in the pool but had a tendency to turn blue after 30 minutes: that might explain why he left me to it most of the time.
My antics didn’t interest or amuse anyone in the car. After playing a license plate game with my brother, and other card games on the back seat, I picked up the Michelin guide again and declared proudly:
‘Moi, un jour, j’aurais une maison, et même si c’est une cabane, et ben elle aura une piscine!
Or in English:
‘When I have a house one day, even if it’s a 'cabane' (hut, little cabin), it will have a swimming pool.’
You can tell the house was the lesser important part of the statement, really what I was claiming for my future is: I will have a swimming pool one day…!
Okay so I don’t have one yet, but I love being in water. I love swimming. So, you’d be surprised how little I take myself to a pool these days.
But then last week, I went to Bavaria, Germany, for a short stay and a bit of fresh air. For unknown reasons, I seemed to be the only person interested in spending any time in the water, despite the idyllic surroundings - from the mountainous landscape to the beautifully manicured verdant lawn it was set upon. The warm start of September, despite the altitude, made it all the more attractive to me.
On my first day, with the sun shining, the first thing I did was rush to the warm (heated) basin. You should have seen the smile on my face when I entered the water. Sliding in, thinking: yeay, lucky me!
And so I started swimming. Admiring the light playing at the bottom of the pool, the sun’s rays created a bright, if thin, technicolour aura around my movements, as I swam another lap. How pretty, I remember thinking.
After many lengths, more than I regularly swim, it became obvious that something was different. I’d lost track of time. Whether breaststroke or practising my front crawl, my enjoyment of the experience was greater, more expanded, so much so that getting out of the water felt like a moot point.
By the time I noticed, I started paying attention to what was going on with me, to the sensations in my body: from the silky feeling of the water sliding around my hands, the extension of my arms, along the length of my side body, the undulation of my spine, to the synchronised movements of my limbs.
A whole week later, I finally put words to this experience. Right there, mostly underwater, I had found flow, a form of which I don’t think I had experienced in a pool despite my love of swimming, not for many years.
Of course, you may wonder: what changed and why now?
And those would be the right questions to ask.
I had changed something. Several things actually; small steps which added to this evolution of my enjoyment.
This summer I decided to reconnect with several activities that I hadn’t pursued in a while. A very long while; indeed, some 25 years. And I threw in a couple of things I’d never done before as well, for extra fun. And in so doing, I realised that if I were to do these things regularly, I may as well be ready - aka equipped. Knowing myself, I am also much more likely to commit, and less likely to quit, if I put skin in the game. Read spend money on it.
That’s how I came to buy myself new swimming goggles, a silver Speedo swimming cap (it was the least ugly on the rack but my head looks a bit like a silver bullet) and, in a good instinctive move, a pair of swimming earplugs. I did look at flippers for laps but left them. Maybe for next summer.
Using the gear didn’t feel natural. The goggles were fine because everyone else seems wearing them, but putting a swimming cap on when no one else was wearing one felt weird. Like I was taking myself more seriously or something. But I have important reasons to want to use it: my (very long) hair get painfully caught in the elastic of the googles, so there's annoying moments of trying to tear it off from the rubber bands, it's painful, you get the gist. And there is a secondary reason, which is the management of the autoimmune condition that I was diagnosed with a few years ago (a story for another time). So the earplugs were like a genius move, or so I discovered a couple of days later when I tried them: no more water in my eardrums after a long swim.
What I did not do is change my swimwear. I like my bikinis, and as long as I don't attempt a butterfly stroke they are mostly fine.
So I went beyond the discomfort of looking ‘serious’ with my kit and swam away. Major aha moment: by removing distractions, or frictions rather, I had created ease in my swimming practice. More ease, fewer issues, led to the increased time spent in the pool, and more joy. HA!
To top it all off, shortly afterwards, I treated myself to a 30-minute swimming training session. My tall Argentinian coach was perhaps assuming someone asking for a swimming lesson would be a total newbie; he certainly seemed surprised to find me a rather good swimmer. His support however was invaluable. In the space of 15 minutes, he had picked up on a couple of small things I could better. He promptly offered me the relevant adjustments, some great tips about spinal movement in both crawl and breaststroke, and it changed everything! Including making my swimming WAY more of a cardio exercise than it had been before.
Swimming in that beautiful mountain pool, I pondered on the importance of being equipped, of having the right tools, and someone to coach us through our blind spots.
I certainly wouldn’t have figured out the corrections to make, not unless maybe I’d bought a book on swimming (my friends say the Art of Swimming is excellent). And while that’s great, that wasn’t what I was looking for. Maybe that could be the next step, to further improve. No, I wanted feedback and a bit of guidance.
Now I was suitably equipped, faster, more aligned, no wonder I was finding my swimming laps such a different experience, and finding flow in this beloved activity for the first time.
The thing that I did find a little surprising, when I think back is:
how did I not notice what I needed before?
Why did I not try to find the right resources?
If anything, my earlier story about the Guide Michelin showed that when I have resolve, I am incredibly resourceful.
Looking back, it’s almost like I was setting myself up for mediocre experiences by not seeking how to improve them.
Was I simply feeling a bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing, with maybe a touch of self-judgement on the side?
Was it just indifference, and why, when you consider how much this activity brings me joy?
LANGUISHING AND ITS COUNTERPART
Shortly after, I got on a group Zoom call with some friends and the overwhelming mood of our group that week was ‘not caring’.
The sentiment pervading was one of being ‘blah’, or things being ‘meh’, and the overall mood of our group that week was 'not caring' about work stuff. Now that I think about it, it feels very French - before ‘meh’ became a significant word in English (a nod to my friend Lupe here who loves to use ‘meh’), there was always ‘bof’ which is a marker of the French ‘j’en foutisme’, a form of bored indifference they call ‘le spleen’.
So we explored our feelings together. We talked about our energy - or how to become more energised. We discussed teaching and sharing; the importance of play, purpose, joy and humour. Somehow, our chat reminded me ofthis new talk given by Wharton professor and organisational psychologist Adam Grant at TED Monterey earlier this summer. TED has now gone hybrid so I was delighted to attend online and I vividly remember adoring this talk, itself follow-up study to the now-famous piece he penned for the New York Times this Spring, the one that helped us collectively name our current state - languishing.
So in the talk, Grant goes over the symptoms of languishing; a term Emory University sociologist Corey Keyes coined to describe ‘showing up for life, but living without purpose or aim.’ As he went on, languishing isn’t unique to 2021; it’s part of our human condition, and it hides perniciously in plain sight: but as he points out, it’s serious, it can disrupt our focus, our motivation, and is a risk factor for depression because we become indifferent to our own indifference.
It took me listening to that two four or five times before understanding how important that particular piece was: indifferent to our indifference.
As he says:
‘You might not notice when your drive is dwindling, or when your delight is going. You are indifferent to your own indifference. Which means you don’t seek help, and you might not even do anything to help yourself.’
Meh. ‘J’m’en foutisme’. Don’t care mode.
Covering it up, which I feel we are normally inclined to do, hiding the shame of not feeling that we are thriving or living our best life, is something we collectively have let go of, at least more than usual, in these pandemic times. I know I still feel pressure (read the piece about being truthful) in saying ‘sure, I’m doing great', when I am not. It’s uncomfortable sometimes to name our feelings. So you know, be kind to yourself, and take it one step at a time.
I recognised myself in some of Grant’s languishing behaviours, in particular, what he aptly named ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’. Do you get the meaning? That moment when you realise you are stuck, or glued on the sofa (or wherever that is for you), refusing to get yourself to bed, to offer yourself proper rest, for no apparent reason. Childish and definitely feeling like some kind of revenge on the day.
And the massive lack of concentration I had for months, especially when it came to reading.
My ears perked up though when I heard Grant explain that scientists found that the best predictor of well-being wasn’t optimism. It was flow.
FROM LANGUISHING TO FLOW
The famed professor offered his own analysis of how he surprisingly found his flow, playing a cartoon car in the Nintendo game Mario Kart. Not unlike how I decided to reconnect with things I used to love doing as a kid, at the start of the pandemic, Grant and his sister reminisced about how they used to love to play Mario Kart when they were growing up. And they started a daily family ritual of playing Mario Kart, and he found himself living the ‘Zen and the art of Mario Kart’ lifestyle.
He experimented, as you'd imagine an organisational psychologist would do, and offered a three-part breakdown of how to find peak flow:
Let’s turn to master first.
It turns out that in our western society, we are known to thrive when we can feel that we make incremental progress. But we don’t feel so concerned by the work achieved yesterday.
No wonder that we all sought to find some small satisfaction in daily achievements, whether that was baking sourdough, gardening, or for others, stacking M&M’s. Thankfully, I decided to attempt progress in something other than my cooking skills (which by the way are too good, my hips don’t lie, sadly). And indeed that’s what I experienced in my swimming practice, enhanced of course by the tweaks offered by a little coaching, and my new gadgets.
‘If languishing is stagnation, flow involves momentum.’ Adam Grant
Thankfully, after having spent so much of my time indoors, my summer resolution was directly linked to external activities, those involving my body first and foremost. I'm already way too comfortable in my cocoon; it was time to shake things off.
There is great beauty that can be found when moving and exercising our bodies, especially outside. It’s an invitation to explore a different sense of self, of our limits, of our presence.
I am incredibly grateful for these moments, especially as someone who has a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Perhaps that’s why I felt so mesmerised by my water antics. I don't take for granted the ability to move my body.
As I write this, the words fail me, but the joy and those feelings are now etched in my body and mind.
I was also mindful. It’s more or less my default setting now, though, like everyone else, I sometimes find myself locked in the mental control tower, forgetting the existence of my body, its needs and its cues.
So what about the final stage - mattering, or meaning? Grant argues that it is what can turn flow into a peak experience: knowing that we make a difference to other people.
The time I spent in the pool initially wasn’t serving anyone else but myself. Not until I started to analyse my experience, while in the pool, and think of the story I was going to tell, write about, talk about with friends, and share with you here.
When we know that what we do matters, when people give feedback to that extent, and we find meaningful purpose, we can find flow in projects and activities that benefit our people.
My swimming story offers plenty of metaphors for how we can reach a state of mastery, mindfulness, meaning and of course, that desired peak state of being in the zone.
There is certainly something to be said about getting better equipped to deal with challenges, removing friction (internal or external) and seeking coaching when we feel ‘meh’ for too long.
When flow feels absent from our lives, when things feel stagnant, instead of trying to “follow our bliss”, as Joseph Campbell offered (perhaps too much of a challenge right now), we can ‘‘follow the joy”. Try it and see what happens.
However small the sparks, let’s not settle for indifference.