One of my favourite pastimes is to watch my nearly-three-year-old son do anything that requires him to focus.
Colouring. Painting. Putting together a train track. Lining up all his trucks on the low sill of our front window, so that their front bumpers are hanging just over the edge, but not falling off.
All these tasks require a level of fine motor skills that are barely within his capabilities; challenging enough that they demand focus and give him a real sense of accomplishment, but doable enough that he doesn’t get frustrated by his own limits.
He’s completely absorbed, and completely happy. He’s experiencing what psychologists call “flow.”
Flow is the narrowing of focus that occurs when the task you’re doing requires a high level of your skill, and offers you a high level of challenge. It looks like this:
In the bottom-right corner, imagine the casual dunk of an NBA player during a pre-game warmup. Their skills are so high and the challenge so low, that the result is relaxation. In the top-left, you have someone like me attempting the same dunk. High challenge, but no skills. Anxiety. And then in the bottom-left corner, you have an activity like watching cat videos. It’s not a challenge, and it requires no skill. It’s fun, sure. But the rewards are limited, and when you finally pull yourself away from it, you don’t feel like you’ve accomplished much.
The top right is what some psychologists (especially this one) believe we should aim for. That’s where the big rewards lie. They call it optimal experience.
Occasionally, when making music or when researching and writing for this blog, I do silly things like forget to eat or go to the bathroom. I feel like I’m being pulled along by some magical type of motivation. Incremental small achievements that don’t feel like accomplishments on their own, but taken together form steps upwards towards a much larger goal.
I don’t know if that qualifies as flow, but it’s a feeling that’s worth chasing, whether you’re nearly-three-years-old or just plain old.
What makes this a beautiful song:
1. The low, humming A-flat that is held throughout the track, like a chilled out monk hiding in the background. Reminds me of the sustained note on this album.
2. The percussion. Tontario has a real talent for making EDM percussion sound tactile and organic. Everything’s grounded by a nice booming kick drum, but other elements sound like someone rooting through a basket of office supplies.
3. The piano from James Maloney’s original track is wonderful. There isn’t exactly a melody, there isn’t exactly a progression of chords…it feels more like a series of iterations of the same chord. Blocking out all distractions and exploring one chord fully. Focus. Flow.
Recommended listening activity: