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Guest Blog Post – Go For Flow

Throughout this school year, we will feature guest bloggers to share different perspectives on or experiences with boys education on our Head of School blog. Our next guest blogger is Dr. Alex Russell, Ph.D., C.Psych and author of Drop the Worry Ball. Dr. Russell will be joining us on Tuesday, September 17 at 6:00PM for a lecture and discussion. You can RSVP for that event here.

Recently I had a chance to catch up with my old friend Steve and his son, Trevor. I’ve known Trevor since he was born, so it was a real pleasure to see him now at twenty-two years old, a recent college graduate, and so much like his dad – fun-loving, thoughtful and kind.   With him was a friend he had met at school, both of them having majored in History. 

Now, I’m a pretty huge history nerd, so I was particularly excited to hear about their studies. Who had they read? What time-periods had they focused on? What had they got into?  But my questions were met with blank stares. Finally, sensing he was somehow disappointing me, Trevor said, “Well the French revolution was kind of cool I guess.”

Kind of cool??

My three favorite subjects are the French revolution, hockey, and the French revolution.

Actually, the more we spoke, the clearer it became that neither of them had particularly enjoyed or got into their college experience.  Or, rather, their academic college experience: They had had the time of their lives socially. But when it came to their courses, they had clearly worked hard and got “good grades.”  And that was about the extent of it.  It was as if it had never occurred to them to “get into it,” to become personally curious, and develop their own thoughts and ideas about the material.  Instead, they talked about the “work load”, and how they had managed to get accepted into the Honors Program at the end of their first year (a very competitive undertaking) and how, in their final year, they had both been named to the Dean’s List.

Neither had any subject area they were curious to explore further.  Trevor’s plans for the future were still unclear, and it was impossible to mistake the note of dissatisfaction in his voice on this topic.  There was no immediate job or clear next step for him, and although he was too polite to say it, you could see he felt somewhat cheated. As if he’d been led down a garden path only to find there was no open door at the end.  He’d certainly done all that was asked of him.

There is a term for what Trevor and his friend failed to find at school: Flow. 

Flow is a concept that has been studied in the social sciences for over 50 years, with conceptual roots much older and deeper than that. It refers to a particular psychological state in which a person is deeply engaged in what he or she is doing.  In a deep flow state you might fail to notice your surroundings – that the sun has gone down, that you’re hungry.  Key is that, when in flow, you are engaged in what you are doing for intrinsic reasons.  The activity itself keeps you focused and engaged, because of the inherent interest it holds, and the sense of mastery, satisfaction and competence it affords.  There may be extrinsic rewards for your efforts, such as getting a good mark or getting paid; but in a flow state it is the thing itself that keeps you focused. 

No flow – no fun. Or to be more exact – no happiness. The research in this area tells us that having flow is essential to human happiness. And this is actually intuitively obvious. Think about your hopes for your child. You want them to have a happy life, with a “good job”. But what is a good job? One that makes some decent money, of course. But no doubt you want them to have something else as well – a focus for their life and work that brings them a sense of satisfaction, purpose and meaning: A job with flow. 

Sadly, flow is becoming a scarce commodity on college (and school) campuses.  This doesn’t just mean that students are finding less intrinsic interest and pleasure in their studies (which they are), it also means young people are increasingly failing to develop their own thoughts, ideas and opinions about what they are studying.  Worse, it also means that our current generation of young people are increasingly passive and compliant when it comes to their futures. Conditioned to believe that life is a series of tests they must study for and pass, they are completing their educations, only to discover that the adults don’t have any more next steps planned for them. Our children are losing the ability to create their own futures.

Fortunately there are some ways to help your child develop a taste and capacity for flow. Here are a few basic “Do’s and Don’ts”:

DO show interest in their school experience.  Focus on what they studied or did, not how well they did at it. Be curious and interested.  Try to “pick up what they are putting down” – they may not always talk about what you want them to talk about. Try to put your own agenda to the side, and listen to what they want to share with you.

DO NOT over-focus on grades and marks. Don’t worry, your child will become all too anxious about marks soon enough. 

DO expose them to lots of flow opportunities. Encourage enrolment in programs, sports and extra-curricular activities.  Sometimes you may have to help your child push through their reluctance to attend a program or practice (“I don’t want to go – I have a tummy ache!”): gently insist that they have made a commitment and get them out the door.  Once they are there, they almost always will find their flow. 

DO NOT over-use praise. Children need you to recognize and validate their experience, not tell them how good they are at things.  When we praise our kids we are essentially giving them a gold star – a kind of grade or mark – something researchers have found actually decreases children’s creative engagement with the world around them.

DO find flow together as a family.  Whether its going camping or building a deck in the back yard together, working away at something as a family provides an opportunity to find flow together (and perhaps is a good reminder to yourself to keep flow in your own life!)

Flow isn’t just basic to happiness, it’s a key to success as well. Nothing leads to a “good work ethic” more than enjoying what you do. So: Go for Flow!


Bio: Dr. Alex Russell is a clinical psychologist who helps children develop resilience and their own personal relationship with school and achievement. At the heart of his message—and his book, Drop the Worry Ball—is that children learn by experiencing non-catastrophic, painful failure, and it is through the process of these failures that they mature into resilient, resourceful and emotionally balanced individuals.