image edited by Web Investigator – The Spanish National Dance Company perform during rehearsals for Don Quixote. Photo by Quim Llenas/Getty
In the myth of flow, the performer soars when the music starts. But it’s grit and self-analysis until the very last bar
When I was a student at the San Francisco Ballet School, I loved watching the advanced dancers in the class before mine. Their soaring leaps, their whirlwind turns, their command over everything from the sweep of their arms to the delicate placement of their heels – so easy did they make it all seem that I sometimes wondered if these beauteous creatures were made, not out of flesh and blood, but from dance itself.
I was therefore surprised one day to come upon a member of the class, facing the barre, working diligently on her battement tendus. A tendu is one of the first exercises you learn as a child taking ballet. It’s simple: starting from a standing position, you move one leg out to the side, point the foot on the floor, then bring it back to your starting position. Why did this supernal being need to practise such an easy step? What could possibly be improved?
Years later I realised that the answer to this question is: everything. There can be more articulation of the toes; rotation can be made more extreme; even that ineffable quality of artistry can be developed. It’s often thought that the greater your prowess, the easier your performance becomes. However, as I progressed upward through the ranks of the ballet world, I saw that this wasn’t the case. Rather, as my dancing improved, I developed both higher standards for what counts as excellence and an enhanced ability to evaluate my technique. What was once facile became difficult; what was once flawless revealed myriad imperfections; and, in certain instances, what was once enjoyable turned into a nightmarish trial.
That under the appearance of grace lies an abundance of grit is a hard-won truth running counter to the popular concept of ‘flow’: the seductive idea that when it’s time to perform – be it on stage or green, in the operating theatre or around the boardroom table – the true virtuoso leaves all striving behind. On this model of expertise, there is no intervention of conscious control, let alone doubt or indecision. Performance simply occurs, one movement after the other, with the inevitability of water running downstream. There is no need to search for ideas, because the ideas find you; there is no need to try, instead you just do.
One of the high priests of contemporary flow-speak is the writer Malcolm Gladwell. In a piece in The New Yorker in 2000, he describes how the tennis superstar Jana Novotná ‘choked’ during a match at Wimbledon in 1993, supposedly after she started thinking too much about her performance:
She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person – playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner – because, in a sense, she was a beginner again; she was relying on a learning system that she hadn’t used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child.
But missing from Gladwell’s account is Novotná’s own perspective on what caused her to crumble; without that, it is difficult to know if overthinking was the culprit. What might have been going on in her mind instead? Perhaps some comments by the former Major League Baseball pitcher Steve Blass provide a clue. In the middle of a stunning career, he inexplicably lost his ability to control his pitches. As Blass writes in his memoir, A Pirate for Life (2012):
Before my control problem, I had the ability to just concentrate on the immediate task at hand, which is a wonderful thing for an athlete. I could block out family, world hunger, or anything that was going on, because of that focus. That focus all went away, and everything was occurring in my mind. I was like an antenna.
Although Blass claims that his loss of skill is mysterious, this description makes it sound as if the problem wasn’t that he was thinking too much about his actions, but rather that he was unable to think about them enough. Novotná, though her problem was thankfully short-lived, might have found herself similarly unable to focus on what mattered.
What’s more, in contrast to Gladwell’s account, it’s not clear that young beginners do proceed with cautious deliberation. In their 1987 study of children’s writing skills, the education researchers Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia found that ‘the paragons of effortless performance were fifth-graders who, given a simple topic, would start writing in seconds and would produce copy as fast as their little fingers could move the pencil.’
Those fifth-graders are in flow. The young tennis player’s game is fun, and the child’s tendu is easy. It’s the experts’ technique that becomes difficult; not to the outside world, but to themselves. Just as in Plato’s dialogue the Apology, where Socrates is wise because he knows he is ignorant, it’s the capacity to recognise where there’s room for improvement that leads us to the highest levels of human achievement. In other words, the idea that expert actions are in a placid state of flow – a state in which things seem to fall into place on their own – is a myth…