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How Social Distancing Can Be Good for Flow Finding

by Gary Gute

We’re in the midst of a hard reset. Social distancing, self-isolation, and sheltering in place are the new multitasking, meeting, traveling, and rushing. What we have, if we accept it, is a respite from the buzzing, beeping besiegement of stimuli that has defined—and driven—us for years.

If we’re open to it, isolation presents us an opportunity to refocus our attention and reconnect with authentic experience. We’re forced to confront new challenges and set new goals, and that allows us to test our skills in new ways. We find out what we’re capable of and how we can work our way out of anxiety and boredom. The Flow Channel will be bringing you many examples of inspiring people who make the theory real: people who have learned that through flow experience, we can emerge better at something—or just better—than before.

Pratik Poudel, an Environmental Sciences major in a creativity course I teach, submitted the following piece a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Turns out Pratik was no stranger to social distancing. He looks back at what he now knows was a profound experience of flow. What he learned, and what he created, would not have been possible if he hadn’t been confined to his bedroom while recovering from an injury for the second time in his life—at the same time his country, Nepal, was about to be devastated.

Pratik’s Story

I can clearly recall myself experiencing Flow between 2014 and 2015. I tore my right ACL twice. The first couple of months after surgery were always the worst. For someone as active as myself, being bedridden made me fidgety and both mentally and physically depressed. It was during this time that Nepal experienced a 7.9 Magnitude earthquake that took 10,000 lives. While my family members went out to help the country however they could, I was stuck at home. My frustration grew. Desperate to do something without leaving my bed, I decided to recreate my hometown’s tallest tower that had unfortunately toppled during the earthquake. I would build a paper replica.

First, I made a digital 3D model of the tower. Going through hundreds of pictures on the Internet from every angle, the digital model alone took me about 3 days to create. I informed my parents that I wished to be left alone other than sharing meals, and my human interaction was limited to them observing how much progress I made. Eventually, I converted the model into a 2D puzzle-esque PDF using specialized software (Pepakura, for those of you that are interested). It consisted of some 564 pieces. I printed the 2D shapes on cardstock and set about cutting and folding them, and ensuring that I stuck the right end to the right pieces, until I finally had the 3D model ready. That took 8 days. Many people looking at it now ask me if I used a 3D printer. If only they knew no one has access to those in Nepal.

During this entire process, I experienced all eight dimensions of Flow. I was completely concentrating on making a replica of the tower. My days were a blur, because I essentially worked on it from when I woke up to when I went to bed, except for meals and using the bathroom. I did not notice the sounds of dogs fighting or neighbors yelling, some common disturbing noises in Nepal. I didn’t spend time fixating on how much my knee hurt or brooding on when/if I would be able to play soccer again. I had one goal and that was to complete the tower. Ironically, I had never been emotionally attached to the real-life version. I had gone to the top just once, but the process of completing each story was intrinsically very satisfying, in addition to the realization that here was a new skill I didn’t know I had. The intricate, domed roof was a challenge, but the feeling of accomplishment when I finished it was so worth it.

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Here is Pratik's replica and, below that, the original tower before and after its destruction.

What We Can All Learn from Pratik

Pratik is describing the flow experience that resulted from his setting a challenging goal, continually re-calibrating his skill to meet the challenge required of him, and controlling his environment so he could focus his attention relentlessly on the task.

After this intense experience, he found himself more knowledgeable, more skilled, more confident, and more motivated to rise to higher challenges. Pratik didn’t anticipate that he would emerge from the experience as a more complex person, but that’s exactly what flow experience does. The more complex we become, the better we can deal with whatever challenges life presents us.

For Pratik, constructing the tower replica out of paper was just the beginning. As he describes it, “It kinda took off from the tower,” adding, “While the tower design was my own, the other designs are based off of models on the Internet, so the digital versions of these are not my creation but the paper models are.” The dragon below is his work in progress, along with other examples of the mastery and creativity that emerged from Pratik's flow in isolation.

In the era of quarantine, what good can come from yours?

Two sides of the same model.

Gary Gute is host and associate producer of The Flow Channel's podcast, launching soon. Dedicated to cultivating Mihaly (Mike) Csikszentmihalyi’s work on human flourishing in individual lives, organizations, and schools, he has worked closely with Mike since 1999.


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