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Are You In the Zone?

As a lifelong musician, I have often heard colleagues say something like, “I was totally in the zone” after a performance that went exceptionally well. Of course, we hear this phrase referring to other performers as well, such as athletes or dancers. In fact, the phrase “in the zone” was coined by tennis great Arthur Ashe, and he said it referred to the early television show “The Twilight Zone” to indicate something otherworldly and not quite explainable.

Naturally, as someone fascinated by human creativity, this concept has piqued my interest and curiosity. Do some people get into the zone more easily? How can I access the zone quickly? What if everyone was in the zone, all the time?

How do we know when we’re in the zone, also called “flow state”? According to all accounts of people who have been there, it’s pretty obvious if and when you’ve achieved this enviable status. Everything seems easy, all your skills come together at once to make you unbeatable at whatever it is you’re doing, time seems to stand still, your power seems endless - sounds good, right? We’d all like to be feeling those feelings, yet the zone is also frustratingly difficult to access. It doesn’t happen often, and only under certain conditions.

Here’s what I understand about this Shangri-La of creativity. First of all, you need to have put in your time learning and practicing whatever it is you’re doing, let’s say playing the violin, something I’ve done most of my life. As the author Malcolm Gladwell advocates, ten thousand hours should do it, the equivalent of four hundred sixteen days of constantly doing something all day and night, or thirteen years of doing that thing two hours per day. This makes a lot of sense since, 1) playing the violin well is really hard! and 2) to get in the zone, you can’t be thinking about how to do something, it must be second nature.

We also can’t be thinking about how it’s going, what others are saying about us, or fear based questions like “oh my god, what comes next?”. Our performance must come from a place of peace and assurance. It’s difficult to achieve what we want when we’re stressed, so putting our mind at ease before the performance or competition is of paramount importance.

Most musicians go through a period of performance anxiety in their careers, and I’m no exception. I had to completely revisit why I was in music to begin with, and if I didn’t like the answers, I felt I should get out of music. Nothing’s worse than performing when you’re miserable; music needs to encompass joy, sorrow, passion, and none of these can be brought to bear during a fight or flight response.

A musician friend of mine was at a point in her career where she was taking a lot of auditions for a spot in an orchestra (the usual way we musicians gain employment), when she realized she was constantly giving herself negative self-talk. She is a fine musician, but this led her to perform badly at her auditions. Things like, “I hate auditions”, or “This is so scary” kept her from getting to her flow. After she realized it, she read many books on getting in and staying with the zone, and was able to play well at subsequent auditions.

But being in the zone isn’t about beating others. It’s about the quiet confidence you have that anything is possible, and that you’re prepared and ready to take it on. You’re focused on doing your absolute best, not getting your picture in the paper, being a star on social media, or winning an award. You are simply doing, period, and the doing is flowing out of you. It feels like this action is what you were meant to do with your life.

I think this is what Yoda in “Star Wars” was referring to when he said, “There is no ‘try’....there is only ‘do’.” If you stop to think about trying to get the job done, you’ve already lost the flow. That line has been widely misinterpreted in my opinion, but to me, being in the zone is almost certainly what he was trying to get Luke to understand.

So once you’ve put in the time and effort, how do you easily access the zone if you’re not in a high pressure situation like an important game or concert? People like writers and artists need to get into the zone too, but they are rarely, if ever, in a competitive time dependent situation like a concert or audition. And yet, I’ve known writers and artists who report the same phenomena in their work.

Mostly, it’s to notice what works. What time of day are you at your most creative? I’m a confirmed morning creator, whereas my husband does some of his best work after dinner. What environment are you in? A coffee shop, a library, home, in nature? What stimulates your creativity? Music has been shown to put some people there, as when Olympic athletes prepare for competition. For me, it’s usually reading and ideas that touch a creative nerve. “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson has said coffee does it for him, whereas for me, I can’t play or think if I drink too much coffee.

Here is a list of criteria from famed Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi, who gave the state of flow its name, and spent his life studying what it was:

1. We are completely involved in what we are doing, and are focused, concentrated

2. We have a sense of ecstasy and of being outside everyday reality

3. We have great inner clarity about what needs to be done, and how well we are doing

4. We know that the activity is doable and that our skills are equal to the task

5. We have a sense of serenity with no worries about ourselves, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego

6. Timelessness – we are thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes

7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces our flow becomes its own reward

This is exciting information, because to me it may mean that human beings have the built in capability of solving almost every problem that comes our way. Getting into the flow or the zone is vital to our future, as we admittedly have a lot of problems to solve. If we access this part of our psyche, will the answers be right in front of us?

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