Living in Flow: How Music Entrepreneurs Achieve Optimal Performance

Creative people know the feeling of being “in the zone”, the state of effortless concentration and joy where:

  • You have a goal and know what you want to achieve;
  • You are receiving the feedback on how well you are doing;
  • You are really good at what you are doing and you feel true joyful;
  • Your skill level meets the challenge at hand;
  • You are thus inspired and challenged to continue increasing your level of performance;
  • Time goes by and you are so engrossed in what you are doing that you do not even notice; and
  • You can control the experience since you have the ability to cultivate and master the skill through training and discipline.

Known as Flow, this elevated state of performance was coined by positive psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990). Flow is especially prevalent among professional musicians whose work involves creativity and performance at the highest levels. That’s why in my music career entrepreneurship class at Yale, I start off my semester by introducing my students to the concept of Flow and then have them cultivate Flow throughout the semester as a way to build confidence and inspire optimal performance.

Photo by Allansiew/Flickr

Photo by Allansiew/Flickr

Flow is an essential element of the mindset of positivity. It means that you believe in yourself and your vision and you are committed to taking the steps that will make your vision a reality.

How do you develop the positive attitude that can help you to succeed?

It starts with examining your thoughts and being aware of how these thoughts affect your feelings and your consequent behavior.

For example, if you think that creating a successful career is hopeless, you probably feel apathetic and scared. If you are a musician with those thoughts and feelings and you walk on stage feeling fearful, you are not likely to give a good performance.

On the other hand, if you are in the flow of your music and your thoughts are positive–“I am sharing my music with people who mean a lot to me.” or “I am excited about making music and I feel at my best when I am doing so”—you feel empowered and excited. With these thoughts and feelings, your performance is likely to be much more powerful and successful.

The good news is that you have a choice: you can choose to change your thoughts and tap into your Flow self. Let’s take a closer look.

As Csikszentmihalyi explained in Finding Flow (1997), there are many steps you can take to cultivate Flow and bring more of it into your life. The trick is to harness the positive energy and to enhance the Flow experience, rather than having the work around performing and composing become dull, routine or terrifying. The process is something that we can all use to maximize our Flow experience and bring more joy and fulfillment into our lives. Let’s take a closer look at how it works.

Cultivating Flow is a process that breaks down as follows:

Define who you are at Flow

The first step in the process is to know what you are like when you are in the flow and at your peak. This means drawing on an experience when you were in Flow, selecting the words that represent you at your best and creating an affirmation that defines your best self.

The following 3-step process will guide you through how to create a definition of yourself at your best:

1. Identify 3-5 situations when you were totally in Flow, doing what you do best, feeling incredibly confident and joyful. These situations can be drawn from your career, your relationships, your leadership experiences, your creative life or any other area where you feel at the top of your game.

2. List all of the qualities of you at when you are in the flow, as well as your attitudes and behaviors.

Here is a sample of the words that musicians use to describe themselves at Flow:

Relaxed Excited
Energized Artistic
Connected Your senses are sharp
Having an outer body experience  Fearless
Inspiring Of service
Inspired Generous
Confident Feeling a sense of community
Joyful Trusting
Unstoppable Positive
Passionate Prepared
Spontaneous Happy
Invincible On cruise control

3. Once you have your list, pick the 3-5 words that represent you at your absolute, authentic best.

I am _________, ___________, ____________, __________ and _____________.

Photo Wjlonien/Flickr

Photo Wjlonien/Flickr

Cultivate awareness of when you are in Flow

Now that you know what you are like at Flow, the next step is to become aware of when you are in Flow.

Flow can happen in moments, as well as in extended periods of time. The trick is to start paying attention to those special moments.

Perhaps this happens when you spend time with particular friends or loved ones. Maybe it happens in rehearsals or performances.

How about when you exercise, write, compose, volunteer or help out a friend?

Take notes or journal about the times when you are in flow in order to become aware of the circumstances that give rise to this elevated state.

Take action steps to live in Flow

Now it’s time to start living more in the Flow!

Notice the situations in which you experience Flow. Pick your favorite Flow activities and every day, look for opportunities to replicate Flow. This may include playing your favorite piece a few times, having coffee or dinner with a friend, going to the gym or reading an inspirational work and journaling about it.

Another way is to use your Flow Affirmation as a goal-setting device.

Every day, select one or two words from your Flow Affirmation and make a choice to embody that word and be that person. This is a way to make your Flow self come alive on a daily basis and show you how helpful it is to envision yourself at your best, especially when challenges arise.

Answer your Inner Critic

Perhaps as you read this, you are thinking,

“Are you kidding? I’m just not that great.”

Welcome to your Inner Critic.

This is a perennial problem that plagues many high-achieving musicians, the voice that says, “I am not good enough.”

Is this a true statement?

Not if you are a music entrepreneur committed to success. It’s a perception or passing thought. Your job is to provide an answer and not allow the Inner Critic to shut you down. Here are a few things that you can do.

1. Have an answer for your inner critic

When you hear the voice that says, “I am not good enough”, make a choice to respond with your Flow Affirmation. Remember that this affirmation is based on your actual experience of Flow. That is a true experience and you will no doubt feel a lot better tapping into that positive experience. Then, take one action to show that you really are the person embodied in your Flow Affirmation. That can be something as simple as continuing to perform. It can also mean slowing down to savor the feeling of Flow. This is a change to exercise your creativity!

2. Reframe the experience of performing

Instead of feeling that you have to give a perfect performance, look for the opportunity in the challenge. Think about how the performance is an opportunity to share your love of the music, to be your best self and to practice non-judgment and learn how to overcome your fears.

3. Be of service

Another way to overcome the Inner Critic is to get outside of yourself and look for ways to be of service. Not only does it make you feel great but it is also a mechanism for overcoming fear. Here are a few ways that musicians can be of service.

  • Think of the people whom you want to touch when you perform.
  • Dedicate your performance to a loved one, to your teacher, mentor or coach.
  • Visualize your ideal audience member and play for him or her.
  • Consider how you can help your fellow performers to shine.
  • Be of service to audience members who are new to music and change their world by introducing them to the wonders of music.
  • Think about the composer and commit yourself to making your performance worthy of that composer’s genius.

So now is the time to begin cultivating your sense of Flow so that you can live in the zone and achieve the state of optimal performance.