Random finds (2017, week 18) — On the myth of flow, why design thinking needs to think bigger, and the knowledge illusion

Mark Storm
14 min readMay 8, 2017
Brutalism: In search of the architectural sublime (One Kemble Street, Holborn, by Richard Seifert/George Marsh, 1966)

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity.

The myth of flow

The popular concept of ‘flow’— that when it’s time to perform, be it on stage or green, in the operating theatre or around the boardroom table, the true virtuoso leaves all striving behind — is a seductive idea, writes Barbara Gail Montero, an associate professor of philosophy at the City University of New York and the author of Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind, in Against flow.

“On this model of expertise, there is no intervention of conscious control, let alone doubt or indecision. Performance simply occurs, one movement after the other, with the inevitability of water running downstream. There is no need to search for ideas, because the ideas find you; there is no need to try, instead you just do.”

One of the high priests of contemporary flow-speak is the writer Malcolm Gladwell, Montero writes, referring to an article Gladwell wrote in 2000 for The New Yorker, The Art of Failure, in which he describes how Jana Novotná ‘choked’ during the women’s final at Wimbledon in 1993. Novotná led Steffi Graf 6–7 6–1 4–1, and had, at 40–30 in the sixth game of the deciding set, a service point for a 5–1 lead. But she double-faulted and arguably the greatest disintegration in a Wimbledon final had begun. Some 10 minutes later, Graf had won her Wimbledon fifth title 7–6 1–6 6–4.

According to Gladwell, Novotná’s loss was the result of thinking too much about her performance. But what is missing from his account is Novotná’s own perspective. Without that, it is difficult to know if overthinking was the culprit.

The Duchess of Kent, trying to console Jana Novotná at the awards ceremony (Wimbledon, 1993).

“What’s more, in contrast to Gladwell’s account, it’s not clear that young beginners do proceed with cautious deliberation. In their 1987 study of children’s writing skills, the education researchers Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia found that ‘the paragons of effortless performance were fifth-graders who, given a simple topic, would start writing in seconds and would produce copy as fast as their little fingers could move the pencil.’

Those fifth-graders are in flow. The young tennis player’s game is fun […]. It’s the experts’ technique that becomes difficult; not to the outside world, but to themselves. Just as in Plato’s dialogue the Apology, where Socrates is wise because he knows he is ignorant, it’s the capacity to recognise where there’s room for improvement that leads us to the highest levels of human achievement. In other words, the idea that expert actions are in a placid state of flow — a state in which things seem to fall into place on their own — is a myth.”

But, in truth, when the term is understood as originally conceived, Montero believes flow is highly desirable. Developed by Hungarian-born psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the concept of flow was meant to capture the way people feel when they are fully engaged in what they are doing. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), he describes it like this:

“In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. Why am I doing this? Should I perhaps be doing something else? Repeatedly we question the necessity of our actions, and evaluate critically the reasons for carrying them out. But in flow there is no need to reflect, because the action carries us forward as if by magic.”

“Csikszentmihalyi’s research suggests that flow is conducive to optimal experience. But it doesn’t tell us anything about whether it is conducive to optimal performance. So look for flow when you want to feel better, but not necessarily when you want to do better.” This doesn’t mean that performing is always unpleasant, but “enjoyable performances are not necessarily the best performances. Relinquishing the quest for pleasure is sometimes the only way to embark on that never-ending path to perfection.

What stands in the way of untrammelled joy is self-evaluation. A large body of research by the psychologist K Anders Ericsson indicates that critical self-reflection is essential to the best training regimens. In contrast to mindlessly doing an action over and over again, Ericsson advocates deliberate practice — working on the most difficult aspects of a task, followed by an analysis of one’s own successes and failures. Deliberate practice, he and his colleagues say in a 1993 article, is ‘very high on relevance for performance, high on effort, and comparatively low on inherent enjoyment’.”

But Montero’s own experiences as a dancer, tells her that Ericsson doesn’t take things far enough. He assumes that the analysis lets up once the lights are on, but Montero has never found this to be the case. “Certainly,” she writes, “one cannot stop the music, ask the audience for their forgiveness and try again. But one does at times notice mistakes, making mental notes about what works and what doesn’t.”

“One of my ballet teachers, Graciela Kozak, who danced for many years with the Bat-Dor and Bat-Sheva companies in Israel, tells her students to ‘be like a driver at the wheel’. Kozak believes that in some of the best displays of artistry, the deliberating mind doesn’t meld into the movement, but is experienced as the master in control.”

Along with an enjoyable loss of self, the concept of flow also implies a high degree of effortlessness. But faking effortlessness was something I got paid to do as a ballet dancer, Montero writes. “I was trying to appear as if I were not trying. As a dancer, I learned that ballet is not effortless: those ethereal nymphs in Les Sylphides who seem to simply levitate are actually jumping their wings off.”

Scene from Les Sylphides, originally choreographed by Michel Fokine, with music by Frédéric Chopin orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov.

But why is the idea that optimal performance occurs in a state of flow so widespread, if it’s wrong?

First, it is a mistake to infer ease from a lack of apparent effort. “Aristotle wrote in the Physics: ‘It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating.’ His goal was to illustrate the existence of nature’s aims in the absence of consciousness. However, we can apply Aristotle’s wisdom to expert athletes and dancers who provide no outward indication of painstaking thought. As is often the case, looks don’t tell the whole story,” Montero argues.

“Another motive for flow’s appeal is that people tend to jump from their experience of well-worn, everyday actions to conclusions about activities in highly skilled domains, such as those of professional athletes and dancers. Yet, not only do these individuals train thoughtfully and continually […] their motivation is completely different.”

“In its ‘just-do-it’ advertising campaign, Nike presumably used the phrase to mean something like, ‘stop procrastinating, get off your posterior and get the job done.’ Interpreted as such, I’m in favor of ‘just-do-it.’ However, when interpreted as ‘experts perform best when not thinking about what they are doing,’ the idea of just-do-it is a myth.” — Barbara Gail Montero in The Myth of ‘Just Do It’ (The New York Times, 2013)

Montero thinks the concept of flow might draw us in because we generally dislike hard work. Just as numerous self-help books turn on this tendency, suggesting that instead of buckling down to a lifetime of toil, you can reach great heights by simply letting go of the thought, the effort, the trying.

“Flow sounds appealing, and it seems to frequently coincide with some of our most pleasurable pinnacles of human experience, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into optimal performance. In great athletes, performing artists, writers, chess-players, doctors, nurses, air-force pilots and others, beneath the surface of effortless flow is unrelenting determination. And if developing one’s potential is key to a meaningful life […] then flow, while bringing momentary happiness, might impede the attainment of that loftier value.”

Why design thinking needs to think bigger

Design thinking, as it was conceived 15 years ago, has outlived its usefulness. Enter systems thinking.

“We live in a massively complex, intricately interconnected global system. And it’s increasingly impossible to be designers (or human beings) without taking into account how we affect and are, in turn, affected by all the moving pieces of this organic machine. […] The challenge for designers is learning how to balance the production of evermore complex capability against the threat of a resultant breakdown. That’s why I think design thinking, which emphasizes solving problems holistically, needs to look at a bigger whole by incorporating another body of thought: systems thinking,” Steve Vassallo argues in Design Thinking Needs To Think Bigger.

“There are two key concepts to understanding systems thinking. The first is emergence. What makes a system a system rather than just a collection of parts is that the components are interconnected and interdependent. Their interconnectedness creates feedback loops, which change the behavior of the system — in fact, they define the behavior of the system. Emergent properties arise that exist only in the system as a totality, and not in its disparate components, making it impossible to understand the system without looking at the whole.


So how are designers supposed to address this onslaught of socioeconomic, techno-political complexity? I think the trick is to analyze systems with an eye toward finding leverage points — the second key concept in systems thinking. Rather than attempt to design a wholly new, perfect solution, oftentimes it’s better to find areas where an incremental change will lead to significant renovation in the system. The smallest nudge for the biggest effect.”

Illustration: Jumpeestudio/iStock, domin_domin/Getty Images.

This will cut against the grain of most designers’ instincts, because the end result will likely be far from an ideal proposed design, Vassallo writes. But “designing for the real world means dealing with the practical constraints of that reality and trying to make refinements in the face of compromise. […] The challenge is to rise above the distraction of the details and widen your field of vision. Try to see the whole world at once and make sense of it. It’s a heady challenge, but you either design the system or you get designed by the system.”

For an interesting ‘counter view,’ see Fred Collopy’s 2009 article in Fast Company, titled Lessons Learned — Why the Failure of Systems Thinking Should Inform the Future of Design Thinking. Collopy writes that, “Systems thinking […] contained within it many of the impulses that motivate the application of design ideas to strategy, organization, society, and management. Ideas such as engaging a broad set of stakeholders, moving beyond simple metrics and calculations, considering idealized options and using scenarios to explore them, shifting boundaries to reframe problems, iteration, the liberal use of diagrams and rich pictures, and tirelessly searching for a better set of alternatives were all there. If the business and management community had bought it, we would not be having the many discussions about design, design thinking, and expanding management education to engage the intuitive, to embrace values, to look beyond available choices. We would already be doing all of that and more. But systems thinking, despite its wartime successes never really captured the imagination of business leaders. And we must learn from its mistakes.”

And this …

We think we know a lot — even though individually we know very little — because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own. This is what cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach call the knowledge illusion.

“In The Knowledge Illusion, the cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach hammer another nail into the coffin of the rational individual. From the 17th century to the 20th century, Western thought depicted individual human beings as independent rational agents, and consequently made these mythical creatures the basis of modern society. Democracy is founded on the idea that the voter knows best, free market capitalism believes the customer is always right, and modern education tries to teach students to think for themselves,” writes Yuval Harari in People Have Limited Knowledge. What’s the Remedy? Nobody Knows.

“Behavioral economists and evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that most human decisions are based on emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts rather than rational analysis, and that while our emotions and heuristics were perhaps suitable for dealing with the African savanna in the Stone Age, they are woefully inadequate for dealing with the urban jungle of the silicon age.

Sloman and Fernbach take this argument further, positing that not just rationality but the very idea of individual thinking is a myth. Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups. Just as it takes a tribe to raise a child, it also takes a tribe to invent a tool, solve a conflict or cure a disease. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb or an aircraft. What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.


This is not necessarily bad, though. Our reliance on groupthink has made us masters of the world, and the knowledge illusion enables us to go through life without being caught in an impossible effort to understand everything ourselves. From an evolutionary perspective, trusting in the knowledge of others has worked extremely well for humans.”

Technology is changing the way people think about — and participate in — democratic society. In The Next Great Experiment, Adrienne LaFrance, Irina Raicu and Eric Goldman wonder what this means for democracy?

“We are witnessing, on a massive scale, diminishing faith in institutions of all kinds. People don’t trust the government. They don’t trust banks and other corporations. They certainly don’t trust the news media,” they write.

“At the same time, we are living through a period of profound technological change. […] the mobile internet is recontextualizing how we relate to one another, dramatically changing the way people seek and share information, and reconfiguring how we express our will as citizens in a democratic society. But trust is a requisite for democratic governance. And now, many are growing disillusioned with democracy itself.”

Illustration: Zak Bickel for The Atlantic.

“Disentangling the complex forces that are driving these changes can help us better understand what ails democracies today, and potentially guide us toward compelling solutions. That’s why we asked more than two dozen people who think deeply about the intersection of technology and civics to reflect on two straightforward questions: Is technology hurting democracy? And can technology help save democracy?”

The potential answers to these questions will be published in a collection of essays from technologists and scholars, beginning with Lessons From Isaac Asimov’s Multivac by Shannon Vallor.

“Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk,” says Ferris Jabr in Why Walking Helps Us think (The New Yorker, 2014). “There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts. Ultimately, maps like the one that Nabokov drew are recursive: they are maps of maps.”

In A Portrait of I.M. Pei at (Nearly) 100, Justin Davidson writes how Pei, over the course of his career, has drawn on a dazzling range of influences, from Chinese gardens to ancient Colorado cliff dwellings to the fountain in a Cairo mosque.

“He blended the austere modernism of the Bauhaus with opulent Beaux-Arts classicism, technological daredevilry with reverence for precedent and a minute study of the past. The best of his creations, like the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., look at once audacious and inevitable. He designed a skyscraper for the Bank of China [below] whose exuberant asymmetry snapped the Hong Kong skyline into focus. Even designs that were never built (an astonishing corkscrew tower intended to rise above the FDR Drive near the Queensboro Bridge) or that wound up bowdlerized (the JFK Presidential Library in Boston) failed with panache.”

Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong (1989) was designed to echo the structure of bamboo. )Photo: Raymond Asia Photography/Alamy)

“He has been called the wrong man for many different jobs. The architect and critic Michael Sorkin recounts calling Pei in 1987 and half-jokingly demanding that he turn over the task of designing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. ‘What do you know about rock and roll, I. M.?’ Sorkin asked. The elder architect politely answered that he knew all about popular music thanks to his son: ‘T’ing gave me a book!’ he explained. That cultivated naïveté has served him well. When the call came from Doha, he responded with the confidence and humility to revisit his education and forge a new style, yet again, in his 80s. A signature, he once said, is a trap. ‘I don’t envy the architects who have such a strong stylistic stamp that clients would be disappointed if they do not get the same look in their projects … I think I have greater freedom.’”

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar (2008). Pei was coaxed out of retirement for this project; when it opened, he was 91. (Photo: Iain Masterton/Alamy)
Kips Bay Plaza, New York (1965) was designed in the Brutalist style. The buildings are considered an example of muscular minimalism but have also been criticized as anti-urban. (Photo: Stock Connection Blue/Alamy)

In Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry (BBC4, 2014), British writer, journalist, essayist, film-maker Jonathan Meades investigates the origins and foundations of Brutalism. Meades is cross with the people who say buildings should be pretty, reassuring, unthreatening. We don’t expect paintings or novels or films to be pretty, he argues, so why should buildings be? “Something that is universally tolerated is likely to be pretty boring. Anything that’s any good, and original, is going to incite hatred as much as it does adoration,” he told The Independent journalist Christopher Beanland.

Watch both episodes of Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry (and other films by Meades, including his latest (2016), Benbuilding — Mussolini, Monuments, Modernism and Marble, in which Meades explores the modernist architecture in Mussolini’s Italy) on Vimeo.

“In Tomás Saraceno’s studio, spiders collaborate on urban planning. The networks created by multiple species all weaving their webs in close proximity inspire connective structures for future cities,” writes Jonathon Keats in Tomás Saraceno Is Inventing Futuristic Cities That Are Lighter Than Air For A World Without Borders.

In his vision, “these civilizations won’t be limited by standard constraints such as asphalt, citizenship, or even gravity. Saraceno is designing for the Aerocene era, a speculative future in which human habitats float like clouds and spontaneously cluster in all three dimensions. By situating his spiders inside open polyhedra and rotating them regularly to simulate independence from ‘terra firma,’ he’s able to explore architectural and social phenomena within his idea of utopia.”

Tomás Saraceno: Stillness in Motion — Cloud Cities; installation view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, December 17, 2016–May 21, 2017 (Photograph: © Studio Tomás Saraceno)

“Today, the principal activity of any publicly held company is rarely the invention and creation of valuable products to satisfy market need. Management attention is largely directed towards the invention of plausible-sounding efficiency narratives to satisfy financial analysts in banks, many of whom know nothing about the businesses they claim to analyse beyond what they can read on a spreadsheet.” — Rory Sutherland, the vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, in Even the most successful companies can be wrecked by idiots with MBAs



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought