April 23, 2021

Feel And Flow

This is the fifth in a series of short essays I wrote as part of the Ship 30 for 30 program. You can read all thirty essays here.

I used to play drums in a band. I was self-taught, not formally trained, so, on some level, I didn’t know what I was doing. Sure, I could hold down a groove for the band, but I did it by feel and intuition. I didn’t think about it.

Sometimes while jamming, I would play a sick beat without any idea how it was constructed. If I thought about it and tried to break it down so I could repeat it later, my brain would get in the way, and the beat would fall apart.

This taught me an important lesson about feel. It is not a conscious process. It is something you find in the moment.
I’ll give you another example. When my son was born, I had no idea how to get him to sleep. I would just try things and see what worked. Eventually, I learned I could hold him against my chest with his head on my shoulder and he would settle down. Then, to get him asleep, I would cradle him in my arms across my belly.

At first, I would switch back and forth between these two positions until he eventually fell asleep. Now I can get him to sleep in five minutes.

What changed?

Through repetition, I developed an intuition for his barely perceptible cues and made micro-adjustments in response. Just like the drumming, it wasn’t a conscious process. I did it by feel.

Feel leads to a flow state—the holy grail of high performance. It’s the difference between playing a steady beat and the song falling apart, or your baby being asleep in minutes vs them still being awake an hour later.

But we can’t think our way into flow. Instead, we must follow the advice of Bruce Lee: “Don’t think. Feel.”