Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Mastery and flow

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Mastery and flow:
What is the role of flow in motivating people to pursue excellence?


Case study

Dean is 35 years old and was raised near a river by loving hardworking parents. ‘Fun’ was largely considered wasted time. During childhood, Dean was a happy, if reserved and lonely but intelligent boy, torn between wanting to explore the nearby city and his love of rambling around the countryside on his bicycle, exploring the river's nooks and crannies. One day while exploring a faraway bend in the riverbank, Dean struck up a friendship with an old hermit who had escaped city life to live in a small cabin. To Dean’s amazement, the hermit spent his days painting landscapes. Once they’d learnt to trust each other, they developed a habit of frequenting the water’s edge together to build miniature houses from mud, twigs and flotsam, and spent hours making up stories based on their creations. Dean sometimes got into trouble for coming home late as time often got away from them.

Figure 1. A view of a river where Dean first learnt to experience flow.

One day Dean was devastated to find that the hermit had disappeared. In the deserted cabin, all Dean found was a painting of the two of them playing in the river mud. Years later, Dean himself disappeared into the expanding city to attend university. Dean initially wanted to study architecture but on his father’s advice, studied statistics and now works quantifying arbitrage risk for a hedge fund. The pressure of being a quantifier or 'quant' was immense. Each year 30 per cent of the fund's lowest performing quants were fired. Quants sometimes sabotaged each other’s work and management encouraged a cut-throat culture which Dean felt powerless to change. The compensations for excellent quants like Dean were the comforts afforded by high earnings, when there was time to enjoy them.

A recent trip to his parents took Dean past his old playground near the hermit’s cabin, now overrun by a mall, which just made him feel empty. At his parent’s house, Dean got out the painting the hermit had left for him. The play of light captured in the brushstrokes reminded Dean of those special days spent playing in the company of the old man. Dean realised that he’d rarely felt as happy since. Running his fingers over the painting, Dean felt a layer of dust under his fingertips and remembered his abandoned architecture dreams, and tried to ignore the waves of guilt that briefly lapped at the outer edges of his consciousness. Back in the city, Dean is feeling listless and remorseful, unsure if he will ever recapture the muddy joy of times past that flowed so effortlessly. So, what is flow? What is excellence, or mastery? How and why are we motivated to experience flow? And, what is the role of flow in motivating people to pursue mastery?

The aim of this book chapter is to define flow, expose the motivation for people to experience flow, and explain its role in the pursuit of mastery. From reading this book chapter you will gain insight into mastery, and how it may differ when viewed from the perspective of flow. This chapter aims to increase your understanding of how to access flow, to help you pursue mastery in something important to you, and avoid the discomfort affecting Dean. Hopefully, you will take away and apply knowledge that increases your own experience of living a satisfying life.

Learning objectives
  1. Define flow.
  2. Establish whether or not flow is ubiquitous.
  3. Recognise factors influencing flow.
  4. Explore the psychological perspective on flow to explain how it can benefit mastery development.
  5. Understand how we can influence our ability to experience flow.


What is flow?

Flow is where an individual feels engrossed in an activity, and awareness of time, place and self evaporates (Privette, 1983). This state of mind goes beyond enjoyment; the person feels they have transcended their ego and their awareness merges with their activity (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989). The profundity of the experience helps explain why people are motivated to spend time doing flow inducing things, like building mud castles, that do not produce any material reward (de Manzano, Theorell, Harmat, & Ullen, 2010). Other benefits correlated with flow include experiencing a higher quality of life (de Manzano et al., 2010) and higher cognitive functioning (Payne, Jackson, Noh, & Stine-Morrow, 2011).

Flow, or ‘being in the zone’, is a focused, complex motivational state that fully challenges a person’s skills in the service of clear objectives while the person exercises effortless control over their task (Payne et al., 2011). The combination of focus and effortlessness, while appearing contradictory, comfortably coexist (Privette, 1983). For example, driving combines complex skills and focus yet many people report driving is a common flow inducing experience (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989).

Figure 2. Driving is a ubiquitous and highly skilled activity that commonly allows for the emergence of flow in many people.

Psychologists explain flow as an intrinsically (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999) joyous state that motivates people to go to great lengths to repeatedly experience it, even persisting for years until mastery results (Payne et al., 2011). Flow goes beyond hedonism or utilitarianism, and is often associated with activities defined as ends in themselves (de Manzano et al., 2010). Examples include playing or listening to music, playing sports or being with friends (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989). Surprisingly, while flow is associated with enjoyment, it is very prevalent while working, which is often seen as not enjoyable (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989). Such conflicting findings can be explained by flow’s emphasis on the correspondence between skills and task requirements (Payne et al., 2011). Flow can be viewed as a motivationally important by-product of activity, either at work or in recreation, because it results in appetitive experiences that increase a person’s desire to repeat that activity (D’Mello, 2013) thereby sustaining higher levels of happiness (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989). While flow is accessible across differing activities, its complexity means that numerous preconditions must be met before flow becomes accessible (de Manzano et al., 2010).

The preconditions for flow

The nine preconditions for flow (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989) comprise circumstantial elements that make flow possible but not guaranteed. These preconditions include: balancing task demands and skills; action consciousness unity; clear objectives; feedback; concentration; control; absent self-consciousness; time distortion; and experiencing the task as inherently valuable (Payne et al., 2011).

Skills and demands balance is important because if the latter is overpowering the person 'worries flow away' whereas if the former is overly abundant then boredom blocks flow (Hallett & Hoffman, 2014). For example, Dean’s work culture overwhelms some resulting in anxiety driving them out of the zone. Action consciousness unity arises out of task familiarity leaving capacity to appreciate and accommodate subtle variations in task requirements (de Manzano et al., 2010). For example, the hermit as master painter unconsciously adjusts brushstrokes to capture subtle variations in light pervading the landscape. Clear objectives can give actions direction, sequence and structure. However since Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre’s (1989) earlier work, it has become apparent that not all objectives are optimal depending on the person’s cognitions, traits and proximity to reaching their objectives (Ranellucci, Hall, & Goetz, 2015). Goal choice that reflects personality, values and drives is complex and can impact flow and persistence in perusing mastery (Midgley, Kaplan, & Middleton, 2001). For example, Dean's present unhappiness may in part result from not following work goals more aligned with his personality, values and flow experiences. Feedback informs adjustments ensuring correct tracking towards goals thereby avoiding high cognitive loads later on where more radial adjustments may become necessary (de Manzano et al., 2010). For example, when building mud houses, Dean and the hermit constantly processed feedback about how the river water was moving so as to access mud that was just the right consistency for building. High concentration enables the translation of feedback into performance adjustments (de Manzano et al., 2010). For example, Dean’s work requires him to make statistical assumptions about variables affecting commodity scarcity, and high concentration is required to correctly adjust these assumptions as small mistakes in price models can result in large speculative losses. Control matters both in terms of task mechanics and because situational autonomy impacts emotional entanglement (Benita, Roth, & Deci, 2014), making positive emotional experiences and greater creativity more likely (Benita et al., 2014), in turn promoting flow (de Manzano et al., 2010). For example, if Dean were given free time at work to focus on a pet project, it's likely that he would demonstrate higher creativity, and perform and feel better. Loss of self-consciousness is required since concern about being judged can precipitate anxiety that blocks flow (Hallett & Hoffman, 2014). For example, the cut-throat culture of Dean’s workplace might result in a reliance on malicious gossip as means of undermining rivals, resulting in an atmosphere of flow-blocking self-consciousness. Among the least controllable flow preconditions is perceived time distortion, either faster or slower (de Manzano et al., 2010). For example, Dean would sometimes come home late after building mud houses because he was having so much fun that he’d lose track of time. The final precondition is an emotional and cognitive state of happiness at being engaged in a task that is meaningful in its own right, meaning no extrinsic reward is necessary (de Manzano et al., 2010). For example, the hermit paints regardless, he paints because of the joy and sense of purpose it brings.

While different flow preconditions may be more or less accessible to conscious influence, they appear to all be equally important in terms of maximising the probability of flow occurring (de Manzano et al., 2010). You are therefore more likely to experience flow by arranging a task so that all the flow preconditions are present rather than just focusing on some.

Table 1.

List of the preconditions of flow according to Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre's (1989) theory.

Precondition Description
Task and skills coincide Difficulty full engages skills
Consciousness action unity Optimal cognitive load
Goal clarity Success is clearly defined
Feedback clarity Progress is clear
Intense concentration Singular focus without strain
Control Performance manipulated at will
Not conscious of self Nil social anxiety
Distorted time Perception of time changes
Intrinsic interest Joy and meaning combined

How do you know how much flow is flowing?

Figure 3. Estimating how far ‘into the zone’ you are on a task (based on de Manzano et al., 2010).

According to de Manzano et al. (2010), as flow exists on a spectrum, the intensity of the concentration and appetitive emotions felt during a task enables subjectively estimation of how far ‘into the zone’ you are on a given task. The level of task mastery, defined as expertise retrieved from long term memory and applied efficaciously to achieve the best outcome, can also indicate the depth of the flow state (de Manzano et al., 2010). For example, the hermit as a masterful painter makes it look easy. However, as flow is an immediate experience while mastery only becomes possible after much practice, flow evident in task performance is not itself a guarantor of mastery (Lubinski & Persson Benbow, 2000).

The role of flow in developing mastery

According to Pink (2009), understanding how flow can assist you in developing task mastery means exploring how your goals, traits and developmental progress mediate flow for you.


According to Achievent Goal Theory, there are two basic types of goals, namely: performance goals and learning goals (Benita et al., 2014). Performance goals involve social outcomes where a person seeks relative superiority (Benita et al., 2014). For example, at just 23 years of age, Trish founded the hedge fund where Dean works and is now a 29 year old billionaire. Trish doesn’t care about money but wants to make more than her peers because that is to her the best way of 'keeping score' and demonstrating that she is the best fund manager. In contrast, learning goals are intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated (Midgley et al., 2001). For example, the hermit is constantly honing his skills and reinterpreting the world through landscapes because it gives life meaning and is a way of communicating that meaning to others. The hermit measures his success by how much he develops his skills, without comparing himself to anyone other than himself.

To win or to learn? A tale of two goal types

Figure 4. Why did the chicken cross the road? Understanding why certain goals suit you will help you navigate toward mastery.

Benita et al. (2014) confirmed earlier findings by Elliot and Harackiewicz (1994), in that both performance and learning goals can lead to mastery with their juxtaposed motivations capable of sustaining effort while also entailing positive subjective emotional experiences. Achievement Goal Theory has difficulty explaining this as it suggests that mastery results from learning rather than performance goals because learning goals promote greater task persistence (Benita et al., 2014) and retention (Midgley et al., 2001). Senko and Harackiewicz (2005) suggest this is because learning goals promote working harder when feedback about performance is negative, whereas performance goals tend to motivate avoidance where feedback is negative (Ranellucci et al., 2015). However, Self Determination Theory, which is concerned with what goals people pursue and why they pursue them, suggests that the motivation behind a goal and whether the motivation is autonomously chosen, more than the goal itself, determines the likelihood of persisting into mastery and realising associated health (de Manzano et al., 2010; Payne et al., 2011) and wellbeing benefits (Benita et al., 2014), with the assistance of flow (de Manzano et al., 2010).

For Self Determination Theory, even if the motivation is externally imposed, mastery can still result but is of a lesser quality and comes with less associated wellbeing benefits (Elliot, Shell, Bouas Henry, & Maier, 2005; Benita et al., 2014 ). For example, Dean, though an excellent quant, lacks autonomy at work making him unhappy, and the work of Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre (1989) suggests that this emotional discord blocks flow. Likewise, if Trish maximises the performance of quants by imposing extrinsic motivators, namely: sticks (firing low performers) and carrots (high salaries), mastery is possible but with less productivity (quants sabotaging each other), and creativity and health may suffer compared to a situation where quants are given more freedom to choose their work tasks and how they do them (Benita et al., 2014). This theory also suggests that a quant who is performance goal orientated, who is working in an autonomous environment, would benefit from being able to freely choose performance rather than learning goals (Harackiewicz & Elliot, 1993).

While Achievement Goal Theory suggests that mastery is more likely from pursuing learning goals (Midgley et al., 2001), it cannot account for competitive types who develop mastery in competitive and highly controlled environments since learning goals are generally not being pursued in such environments (Harackiewicz & Elliot, 1993). Self Determination Theory resolves this impasse by emphasising the role of autonomy in choosing goals and autonomy in the environment rather than the type of goal as being central to whether mastery becomes possible (Payne et al., 2011; Benita et al., 2014). This is because autonomous goal choice and autonomy of operation supports a person to find intrinsic interest and positive emotional experience in pursuing goals that may eventually result in mastery (Lubinski & Persson Benbow, 2000). The theory recognises that mastery is still possible in controlled environments where goals are imposed from outside but suggests that the benefits, such as: positive emotions; less tension; better health; and more creativity, will be less evident (Elliot et al., 2005), whereas learning goals are associated with more positive outcomes when pursued in an autonomous environment (Midgley et al., 2001). Flow is likely to help drive persistence toward mastery in both controlled and autonomous environments but people motivated more by learning goals are more likely to experience associated benefits in environments where autonomy exists for people to freely choose their own goals (Midgley et al., 2001; Elliot et al., 2005; Payne et al., 2011). For example, people like Trish, who are motivated by performance goals, can experience flow in controlled environments but their goals are likely to prevent them from continuing to pursue mastery where there is no competition value in it. People like Dean are less likely to experience flow in controlled competitive environments compared to more autonomous environments.

Figure 5. Have an ongoing conversation with yourself about the potential benefits of being conscientious in your approach toward the activity you would like to master.


While finding flow in a task can result in a person also finding meaning and joy, the immense amount of practice needed for mastery (Lubinski & Persson Benbow, 2000), means that persistence must sustain the person in task aspects that block flow, meaning uninteresting or unappealing aspects (Pink, 2009). Flow can facilitate mastery by motivating task persistence but as flow preconditions are many and complex, flow cannot always sustain the persistence necessary for mastery.

According to Demerouti’s (2006) seminal work on the links between flow, personality and mastery, conscientiousness is the personality trait most linked to being able to access flow as well as demonstrating persistence in learning a task to a masterful level. Conscientiousness even trumps intelligence in terms of sustaining task persistence toward mastery (Demerouti, 2006).

Figure 6. Like Stalin thumbing his nose, satisfaction associated with 'success' can exert a tyrannical hold over your motivation to reach your potential. In pursuing mastery there's always more to learn, so keep striving!

However, the link between conscientiousness and flow is moderated by flow being inherently dependent on situational factors more than personality (D’Mello, 2013). For example, Dean always knew that his parents and the hermit had conflicting perspectives on work, play and mastery. However, Dean also knew that his parents and the hermit had all persisted over prolonged periods in their major tasks. For Dean’s parents, it was mastering a small business and for the hermit, it was mastering painting. Dean had applied this same conscientious persistence in his own life in that he continued turning up to work even when he didn’t feel like it, and his conscientiousness made it possible for him to derive some professional satisfaction from that.


According to Louro, Pieters and Zeelenberg (2007), while mastery is a common goal, few realise their mastery potential because as their task proficiency approaches mastery, they prevent themselves from actually reaching it. Louro et al. suggest that the reason for this is that the same positive emotions that arise in flow also induce a person to reduce their striving as they near their mastery ‘finish-line’, with the reverse being true for negative emotions and striving. For example, some quants at Dean’s work will feel great about ‘coasting’ once they’ve worked out that their performance has saved them from being fired, even if it means that they are not fulfilling their potential. Conversely, other quants still in danger of being fired will often experience negative emotions, like anxiety or anger, not associated with flow but which nevertheless spur them on to deliver performances more in line with their potential. Hallett and Hoffman (2014), suggest that the key to avoiding this self-sabotage is to stay focused on how interesting and positive one’s experience of the task is. It is about realising that there are always goals that are just beyond your present level of ability that can spur you on to learning more about how to improve (Bandura & Schunk, 1981).


Psychological research on flow and the role of flow in developing mastery provides a fascinating insight into why people are motivated to experience flow and how it can contribute to the development of mastery. The examination of the motivational and psychological perspectives of flow provides information to help explain why we are motivated to find flow and how we can achieve mastery. In reading this book chapter, you hopefully have gleaned some valuable insights into the reasons why flow occurs across different activities, and the preconditions required for flow to become possible. Lastly, in knowing now the importance of flow and how you can maximise it, it might motivate you to seek out more flow from the things you do in a way that profoundly enhances the quality of your life.

Take home message
  • Flow is a profound yet common experience that can be harnessed to help you achieve mastery in a skill that is valuable to you.
  • Flow works by increasing a person’s capacity to learn and persist in a task by enabling the person to access a deeper motivational state.
  • There are nine equally important preconditions, which must be present but do not guarantee that flow will occur.
  • You can encourage flow by: choosing an inherently interesting task; setting proximal goals; noting feedback; focusing on the joy of doing rather than what others might think; being patient with your progress; noting your feelings; and practising regularly.
  • Applying this information may lead you to improve your performance in almost any activity, deepen your sense of purpose, and improve your health.



1 According to Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre’s (1989) theory of flow, what is flow?

Hedonism mixed with goals that are good for you.
Water that leaks out of a river near dam or culvert.
A way of using thoughtfulness that boosts stress tolerance in activities you do not like.
Being happily engrossed in an activity where you lose track of time.

2 There are nine preconditions that apply to flow, which of the following is not one of them?

Goal clarity.
Distorted time.

3 According to Self Determination Theory (Benita et al., 2014), in environments where there is a high level of autonomy, which kind of goals maximise the development of mastery?

Learning goals.
Subjectively balanced goals.
Performance goals.
All of the above.

4 According to Louro, Pieters, and Zeelenberg (2007), what happens when a person gets close to achieving their goals?

They strive even harder knowing that the finish line is in sight.
If the person is an 'ego maniac', they tend to boast about it to their friends.
They incorporate lessons learnt into their forward planning.
They do not realise their potential because of 'coasting'.

See also


Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(3), 586-598.

Benita, M., Roth, G., & Deci, E. L. (2014). When are mastery goals more adaptive? It depends on experiences of autonomy support and autonomy. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(1), 258-267. doi: 1037/a0034007.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist, 54(10), 821-827.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(5), 815-822.

De Manzano, O., Theorell, T., Harmat, L., & Ullen, F. (2010). The psychophysiology of flow during piano playing. Emotion, 10(3), 301-311. doi: 10.1037/a0018432.

Demerouti, E. (2006). Job characteristics, flow, and performance: The moderating role of conscientiousness. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 11(3), 266-280. doi: 10.1037/1076-8998.11.3.266.

D’Mello, S. (2013). A selective meta-analysis on the relative incidence of discrete affective states during learning with technology. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(4), 1082-1099. doi: 10.1037/a0032674.

Elliot, A. J., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (1994). Goal setting, achievement orientation, and intrinsic motivation: A mediational analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(5), 968-980.

Elliot, A. J., Shell, M. M., Bouas Henry, K., & Maier, M. A. (2005). Achievement goals, performance contingencies, and performance attainment: An experimental test. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(4), 630-640. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.97.4.630.

Hallett, M. G., & Hoffman, B. (2014). Performing under pressure: Cultivating the peak performance mindset for workplace excellence. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 66(3), 212-230. doi: 10.1037/cpb0000009.

Harackiewicz, J. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1993). Achievement goals and intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(5), 904-915.

Louro, M. J., Pieters, R., & Zeelenberg, M. (2007). Dynamics of multiple-goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(2), 174-193. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.93.2.174.

Lubinski, D., & Persson Benbow, C. (2000). States of excellence. American Psychologist, 55(1), 137-150. doi: 10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.137.

Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., & Middleton, M. (2001). Performance-approach goals: Good for what, for whom, under what circumstances, and at what cost? Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(1), 77-86. doi: 10.1037//0022-0663.93.1.77.

Payne, B. R., Jackson, J. J., Noh, S. R., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2011). In the zone: Flow state and cognition in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 26(3), 738-743. doi: 10.1037/a0022359.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Privette, G. (1983). Peak experience, peak performance, and flow: A comparative analysis of positive human experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(6), 1361-1368.

Ranellucci, J., Hall, N. C., & Goetz, T. (2015). Achievement goals, emotions, learning and performance: A process model. Motivation Science, 1-23. doi: 10.1037/mot0000014.

Senko, C., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2005). Regulation of achievement goals: The role of competence feedback. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(3), 320-336. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.97.3.320.