flow and the red desert

One was called simply “The Track”, and the other “The Red Desert”.  The were they places that Wulguru kids hung out after school in the early 80’s.  The Track was a network of dirt tracks criss-crossing a gully behind the local primary school, while the Red Desert was a vast (or at least it felt that way) area of eroded red gravel trails in the foothills of Mt Stuart.

For a Townsville 10-year-old, these places were magic. We’d race home from school, dump our bags, grab a biscuit and a bike, yell out “see you Mum, we’re going to The Track” and be out the door.  Those hours of messing about on bikes, doing jumps and skids and having races with whoever else showed up that day shaped our childhood.

Later as a teenager living in Brisbane’s western suburbs, the story wasn’t much different. A narrow downhill bushland trail a couple of hundred metres from home turned into a race track where we’d meet neighbourhood mates to race bikes down the hill, putting the stopwatch to work to determine who was the day’s fastest.  Lots of fun, and the occasional gravel rash and one memorable crash resulting in a cracked collarbone for a visiting cousin were the results.

Kmart BMX bikes, Repco 10 speed ‘racers’ and the roadsters of the 80’s were our weapons of choice, dirt trails through the bush our playground, and hours of fun that fostered friendship and brotherhood the outcomes.

Forty-odd years later, and my weekends follow a now familiar pattern. I meet up with a bunch of mates, ride bikes down dirt trails through the bush and then tell stories for hours afterwards.  The tools of course are different; gone is the Kmart BMX to be replaced by eye-wateringly expensive mountain bikes, dripping with technology you wouldn’t believe. The stopwatch has been surpassed by GPS-equipped cycle computers or smart phones measuring performance to the nth degree.  At its heart though, it’s the same story four decades on: mates, bikes, bush, adrenaline….and occasional skinned knees or dislocated fingers.

It’s not that bike riding has been a life-long constant for me in the way that sports or hobbies are for some people – more that I’ve rediscovered what was a childhood love later in life, and uncovered mountain bikes designed to do what we did on completely unsuited bikes back in the day.

The riding itself, is amazing. When you hook into a trail that is in great shape, maybe with a little post-rain moisture (resulting in what we know as ‘hero dirt’), with bike and rider in sync, the sensation of speed and the challenge of control is hard to beat.  As the bike leaves the dirt over a drop or jump, or tyres scrabble for grip in fast corner, the heart beat increases in time with the adrenaline.  I love getting on the bike and exploring bush tracks – at least as much now as in those childhood years. 

As good as the riding is though, the company makes it even better. The guys I ride with I’ve mainly known for years. We’ve each navigated life and love, family, work and hobbies in parallel, reconnecting now over handlebars and the obligatory post-ride coffee (or in my case, chocolate milkshake). I wouldn’t swap it.

All of this reminds me of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s description of “flow”. He describes it this way:

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

(Flow, 1990, p3)

That’s the sensation I get riding a mountain bike when everything is at the limit. But I’ve also experienced it in a work context when a project or presentation or workshop was going just perfectly – when the challenges of the task at hand and my own capacity and performance were perfectly matched. You might notice it even in parenting, in those rare moments when your approach to raising your kids matches perfectly the challenges they’re experiencing. You might find it surfing, or skiing, or singing or dancing. The rest of the world fades away, challenge and capacity are perfectly matched, there is immediate feedback….these are some of the characteristics of the flow state that Csikszentmihalyi describes. Flow, he says, is:

“a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”

(Flow, 1990, p4)

To be not only conscious of the flow state as it finds us, but to seek it, to put ourselves in the right situations, with the right skills, facing the right challenges…that could be addictive.

Of course, there’s a shadow side too – when the challenge or difficult facing us far exceeds our competence and we find ourselves in misadventure, or the other way around that leads to boredom. But lets save those for another day.

Today, I’m thinking about flow. Finding it on a mountain bike trail as a fifty year old. Finding it in the red desert as a kid. Finding it in family and workplace. In speaking or presenting or offering leadership. In love. In life.

Let it flow.

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