What It’s Like To Live in a State of Flow
Have you ever been “in the flow”? So focused on what you’re doing that time flies by and nothing can distract you from what you’re doing? Athletes often talk about being in the zone, but it can happen to anyone, anywhere.
The concept of flow state was developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term in his book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. He wrote, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, relaxing times. They usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limit to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
If this doesn’t describe ophthalmologist Geoffrey Tabin, then I don’t know what does.
Born in 1956 to Julius (a physicist with the Manhattan Project) and Johanna Tabin, Ph.D. (who studied with Anna Freud in London), Geoff grew up to be captain of the Yale tennis team, attended Harvard Medical School, was a Marshall Fellow at Oxford University, and climbed Mount Everest.
As an ophthalmologist, he co-founded the Himalayan Cataract Project with Dr. Sanduk Ruit, a Nepalese surgeon. Since founding the organization in 1994, the doctors have restored eyesight to more than 900,000 people.
I met Geoff while he was in surgical training and over the years, my wife and I have become close friends with him. We accompanied Geoff on a trip to Ghana in 2007, during which he and his team performed several hundred cataract operations—at no charge to the patients—over a two-week period.
During that visit, Tabin, day after day, operated continuously from morning until night without a break. It was an extraordinary step-up: The operating room contained three beds, with three surgeons working simultaneously. Each surgery took approximately nine minutes. As one patient was taken out of the operating room, the next patient would already be on the table, so no time was wasted.
All the while, Chicago blues singer Howlin’ Wolf was blaring away on Geoff’s iPhone. “I am absolutely in a flow state at those times, and I am as excited about the 75th surgery of the day as I am about the first,” Tabin says.
One would assume that at the end of the day, Geoff would collapse in exhaustion. Quite the opposite. At dinner, behind his ready smile, he routinely regaled all assembled with stories from his adventures, such as when he invented bungee jumping with his buddies at the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club, or his exploits with the Dani tribe while climbing the highest mountain on the island of New Guinea.
As David Oliver Relin aptly expressed in his book, Second Suns, about Himalayan Cataract Project co-founders Sanduk Ruit and Geoff, “If only the rest of us could draw energy from Tabin’s batteries.”*
Geoff inspired me to learn to become completely absorbed in the task at hand, whether that’s performing surgery, playing tennis, or writing my books. The crucial elements necessary to be in a flow state are:
- a balance between challenges and skill set,
- receiving immediate feedback on your actions,
- having clear goals every step of the way,
- and participating in an activity that you enjoy — it’s not just a means to an end.
Geoff teaches us the importance of seeking new challenges and expanding your comfort zone.
*Excerpt from my book, The Ball’s in Your Court: A Doctor Shares Life Lessons from Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson, Abraham Maslow, and other Inspiring Teachers. All proceeds will be donated to the Himalayan Cataract Project.
Pick up your own copy on Amazon.
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