Living “in the Zone”: How Music Entrepreneurs Optimize Their Flow Experiences

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

  • your skill level meets the challenge at hand,
  • you know what you want to achieve and you are receiving the feedback on how well you are doing,
  • time whizzes by because you are doing something that you love, and
  • you are thus inspired to continue increasing your level of performance.

Known as Flow, this mindset 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 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.

As Csikszentmihalyi explained 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:

  1. The first step is to become aware of when you are in Flow.  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.  
  2. Once you become aware of yourself at Flow, jot down the words that describe what you are like in Flow.
  3. Pick 3-5 words that resonate for you and create your Flow Affirmation.
  4. Every day, select one or two words from your Flow Affirmation and see where else in your life you can be in Flow.

Many of my students discovered that Flow is an enormous source of positive energy. As one of my students aptly put it:

“On the trail of flow, I start to notice the great thing I have. With positive energy and confidence, I am eager to take on new challenges, however difficult, and to set new goals. Ultimately, I will succeed.”

While some students were initially skeptical about the process, they came around to seeing the value both through their own experiences as well as by hearing from other classmates through our class discussions of how Flow was helping them in many aspects of their life.  

The great thing is that Flow can arise under a variety of circumstances and not just when performing music.  Here is a sample of how and where my students experienced Flow.

Flow in the Practice Room 

While practicing one’s instrument can bring up feelings of perfectionism and overwhelm, it is also an opportunity to be in Flow.  One of my students has long dreamed of making a career as an orchestral musician but worried if he could actually achieve his goal.  He noticed that he was often in Flow while practicing and he pushed himself to see how long he could maintain that level of focus. Because of this flow awareness, his practice sessions over the course of the semester became much more productive, his playing has improved and he feels much more confident about continuing to pursue a career as an orchestral musician.

Flow in Auditions:  No Need to “Compare and Despair”

 The same student also noticed that when he took auditions, his goal was to achieve Flow, rather than comparing himself to the other musicians and feeling inadequate.  The result was that his performances at the auditions where he experienced flow were much more successful and he was able to win a spot at a prestigious program.  His goal is now to attain flow in all of his performances.

Flow under Pressure

For one of my students, Flow represents personal happiness which gives him a sense of control and command.  Being in Flow helps him stay calm under pressure when auditioning or performing so that he can be at his best. 

Flow and Life Purpose

Yet another student found that Flow gives her a sense of purpose, fulfillment and trust that the universe provides for all of us.  As a result, she was able to let go of her feelings of anxiety and perfectionism because she feels that she is simply doing her best and letting the cosmos take care of the rest. By understanding this, she feels inspired by other people’s success and is able to overcome feelings of jealousy.

Flow in and out of Music

Another student finds flow in many different areas of her life.  It starts with performing at her best for an appreciative audience, as well as putting effort into a challenge that interests her and where she is determined to find a solution that fits her needs. She also finds flow when she goes out running and feels full of energy. 

Flow and the Creative Process

One of my students found that he is at his best when he is in involved in a creative process and related how his semester project (which did not involve musical performance) was a genuine Flow experience.  Starting with his idea, he learned new skills, promoted his project through networking, designed a strategy to engage his audience and ultimately presented the project in class using his communication skills.  The project strengthened his entrepreneurial spirit and reaffirmed his belief that “passion for what you do demolishes all boundaries”.

Flow and One’s Career Path

Another student finds flow whenever he engages in a challenging task that he enjoys immensely, whether it is in improvising, performing  and composing.  By identifying where he experienced flow, he was able to see what activities gave him the greatest professional satisfaction. He now embraces the different skills that he has acquired over the years, rather than seeing them as being in conflict with each other. As a result, he has zeroed in on a path that suits his strengths and enables him to feel great about his choices.

Another student is using Flow to inspire her career choices in order to overcome feeling of overwhelm that comes from being in a challenging program.  

Flow when Leading Others

One of my students used the concept of flow when he was rehearsing a choir that was having trouble with a difficult piece. He reminded the choir members of their own Flow experience where they had mastered another difficult piece and gave a beautiful performance. Recalling that experience inspired the choir members to stay motivated and on task at the rehearsal.

Take a page from these talented young people and start noticing where you experience Flow.  Then, make it a goal to cultivate that mindset and experience Flow in all parts of your life.  Enjoy what it is like to be “in the zone” throughout your life!