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Provision #404: Avoid Superior Thinking

by Bob Tschannen-Moran

Laser Provision

When we are doing our best, and we know it, it is tempting to develop a superior attitude. "Hey! Look at me!" we want to shout to the world. But showing off and taking credit are not the way of true mastery. Even worse, they sow the seeds of our demise. They disengage us from the very things that brought us to the dance in the first place. So don't be that way! Stay humble. Stay engaged. Stay attentive. Stayed tuned.

LifeTrek Provision

As we discovered during our six-month series on coaching metaphors, in which we interviewed current and former clients about their experience of coaching, there are many ways to describe the coaching dynamic. At its core, however, coaching is a conversation about goals, passions, and possibilities (whereas therapy tends to be a conversation about wounds, problems, and pain).

There is a time and a place for both conversations indeed, some people choose to work with a therapist (to talk about their problems and pain) at the same time as they choose to work with a coach (to talk about their passions and possibilities) but the coaching conversation works best when people are more change-ready than change-resistant.

That's what makes coaching so much fun. We work with strong people who are ready to move forward in their life and work. They see beckoning glimmers of a new vision and they retain our services to assist them to make that vision a reality.

Another metaphor to describe what coaching does for people is that we assist clients to find flow in their life and work. Instead of struggling to make their dreams come true according to a prescribed success formula, we assist our clients to enjoy the process of discovering, learning, and mastering their own secrets for success.

For more than 30 years, University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described and studied the process of finding flow. Although he never thought of himself as writing a manifesto for the coaching profession, his words could well be taken as such.

"Psychotherapy relies primarily on recalling and then sharing past experience with a trained analyst," he writes in his book Finding Flow. "This process of guided reflection can be very useful, but the popularity of this form of therapy unfortunately leads many people to believe that by introspecting and ruminating upon their past they will solve their problems."

"This usually does not work, because the lenses through which we look at the past are distorted precisely by the kind of problems we want solved. It takes an expert therapist, or long practice, to benefit from such reflection. Moreover, the habit of rumination that our narcissistic society encourages actually might make things worse. Most people only think about themselves when things are not going well, and thereby they enter a vicious circle in which present anxiety colors the past, and then the painful memories make the present even more bleak."

"One way to break out of this circle," he notes, "is to invest psychic energy in goals and relationships that bring harmony to the self indirectly. After experiencing flow in a complex interaction, the feedback is concrete and objective, and we feel better about ourselves without having had to try."

"In order to experience flow, it helps to have clear goals not because it is achieving the goals that is necessarily important, but because without a goal it is difficult to concentrate and avoid distractions. Thus a mountain climber sets as her goal to reach the summit not because she has some deep desire to reach it, but because the goal makes the experience of climbing possible. If it were not for the summit, the climb would become pointless ambling that leaves one restless and apathetic."

Well, that is exactly what coaches work on with our clients. We get our clients to talk out loud about goals and relationships that might bring harmony to their life and work. We dance in the conversation through a series of steps that imitate and foreshadow the real thing, thereby giving our clients the creativity, confidence, courage, and craft to boldly go where they may never have gone before.

Coaching can therefore be described as a proleptic conversation: it anticipates experience so as to make the real thing more likely, easier, and more successful. Great sports coaches have long known about and employed the power of such prolepsis. They equip their athletes with images, mantras, and game plans in anticipation of the big day. They train, train, train until the sport becomes second nature. Then they go for it.

So too with business and life coaching. We get in the flow of the dance, during the conversation, so our clients can get in the flow of the dance, during the rest of the week.

But what is this thing called flow? Csikszentmihalyi describes it this way: "Flow is a metaphor used by many people to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as 'being in the zone,' religious mystics as being in 'ecstasy,' artists and musicians as aesthetic rapture. Athletes, mystics, and artists do very different things when they reach flow, yet their descriptions of the experience are remarkably similar."

I can relate to "being in the zone." Right now, running is that way for me. The challenges I set out for myself are perfectly matched to my level of skill, ability, and conditioning. I have no idea how long this will last, but I know it won't last forever. So I'm enjoying every minute of it. And I'm learning some important life-lessons in the process.

Csikszentmihalyi would not find my learning to be surprising since, he notes, flow is not limited to athletes, mystics, and artists (although it is easier to come by in goal-oriented activities that provide immediate feedback). Flow is available to just about anyone, in just about any station of life, in just about any activity, as long as "a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable."

The coaching conversation itself can, and often is, an occasion for finding flow. In the proleptic consideration of new goals and relationships, people can experience all the dimensions of real life. Over the course of a single coaching conversation, we can experience flow as well as many other ways of being. Masterful coaching moves with the client to make flow more likely.

Csikszentmihalyi's research indicates that we fail to experience flow when there is either imbalance or inadequacy as to the challenges we face and the skills we possess. Low challenge and low skills generates apathy. As our skills increase, but our challenges fail to keep up, we can experience boredom, relaxation, or control. As our challenges increase, but our skills fail to keep up, we can experience worry, anxiety, and arousal. Putting high challenge together with high skill generates flow.

Masterful coaching assists clients to get into this zone. During the coaching conversation we listen for where our clients are in the challenge-skills matrix. We test one side and then the other to see whether we need to ramp up the challenge or the skill. By introducing another voice, the coach's voice, we generate new perspective, focus, dissonance, harmonies, challenges, goals, lessons, and movement.

Then, when all is said and done, the real test appears. The proleptic coaching conversation is over, becoming grist for the mill of life. That's when the dance steps, practiced in the safety of a coaching relationship, are tried out and modified with others.

Masterful coaches understand this dynamic of being dance partners and flow agents with our clients. At its best, coaching produces truly sensational results. Both the coach and the client may experience flow more often, on the way to even higher summits than either one had ever imagined possible. And that, finally, is the point of this Provision.

When you are in the flow zone, when you are fully engaged with your goals and relationships, avoid superior thinking. Flow is not a product as much as it is a byproduct of that engagement. It is not something we accomplish and take credit for as much as it is something we allow and notice. It is not something we insist upon as much as it is something we invite into our lives through attention, awareness, and inexhaustible curiosity.

My running again serves as a case in point. There are, of course, things that I have done to ratchet up both my challenges and my skills. That makes flow more likely but it does not guarantee flow nor does it make flow my doing. There is no way to predict whether any particular run will flow or not. I set the conditions, but it's not until I set my course and start running that I experience flow (or not, as the case may be).

True flow generates humility rather than superiority. I will never forget the moment, many years ago, when I was watching a basketball game with Michael Jordan who was definitely, on that occasion, in the flow zone. No matter what he did, it worked. If he shot the ball, it went in. If he passed the ball, it lead to a score. If he defended the ball, it led to a turnover. After a barrage of 3-point shots (and he was not known as a 3-point shooter), Jordan looked at the TV camera and shrugged as though to say, "Don't ask me. I have no idea what's going on."

That's what happens when we experience flow. We succeed beyond our wildest imagination, but without any sense of ego or effort. In his excellent book, The Inner Game of Work, Tim Gallwey suggests that flow takes place when we stop trying to force an outcome and start trying to enjoy the experience. This shift from outcome to experience, from achievement to enjoyment, from extrinsic to intrinsic rewards, is the inner game. And that is the game we have to win if we ever hope to experience flow.

So let superiority be your guide. It doesn't matter how great you are doing. If you are impressed with your own accomplishments, if you have the urge to say to the world, "Look at me! I'm the best!", if your goals and relationships are occasions for boasting and gloating rather than for rejoicing and serving, if you are fishing for compliments rather than for challenges, if you are more interested in getting the goods than in being good, then you are not in flow and your happiness is not secure.

Flow is most often experienced, notes Csikszentmihalyi, when people "do things for their own sake rather than in order to achieve some later external goal." This orientation and focus makes people "more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life" instead of just those things that are pleasurable or vested with self-interest.

Stimulating work, active hobbies, and meaningful social relationships are pursued vigorously not as means to an end but as ends in themselves. They are enjoyed for their own sake, not for the attention or benefits they may generate. In other words, the flow zone is less about self-concern than about concern for life itself. Csikszentmihalyi calls this "disinterested interest" because "it is not entirely at the service of one's own agenda."

Perhaps that's why so many spiritual traditions have urged people to avoid superior thinking as a prerequisite for spiritual wellness. We can hardly hope to sustain our zest for life if our only concern is to avoid threats or to reap rewards. "Only if attention is to a certain extent free of personal goals and ambitions," Csikszentmihalyi concludes, "do we have a chance of apprehending reality in its own terms." And, I would add, do we have a chance of dancing to its beat.

Coaching Inquiries: How often do you experience flow? Do you dance or slog your way through life? Are you more concerned with external recognition or internal inspiration? What goals and relationships could shift your life in a positive direction? How could you take action today?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers' Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor's Note: The LifeTrek Readers' Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..


Thank you so much for your excellent rendering of the gap between anxiety and ambition. Click It is exactly where I find myself lately, overwrought by extreme anxiety yet unwilling to engage in aimlessness. My life is committed to co-creating Transformation on the planet and that seems to call forth unceasing Vision, Intention, and Love coming forth to contribute.

I really enjoyed the description of your "Personal Bests" at the Birmingham Marathon and the Colonial Half Marathon. I especially appreciated your kind generosity in walking your buddy thru to the finish line......you're a GOOD guy!!!

Hi. I hope you can help me. Some time ago, you mentioned in one of your articles about a breathing pattern that could substitute for a Breathing Machine that would lower high blood pressure if used 2/3 time a week. Is it possible for me to access that article. I believe it was towards the end of 2004. Thank you for all your helpful articles. (Ed. Note: I described that pattern in Wellness Pathway #245, which is archived at our Web site. Click)

I was looking for Provision #392, but I couldn't find it. Is it available? (Ed. Note: Provision #392 was not a normal Provision, but our end of the year greeting with a theme poem for 2005. You can read the poem, Deep, along with other poems at our Web site. Click)

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers

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