Gradual is Good

After the publication of my first book, I was getting invitations to give speeches and didn't really know how. It's more difficult than I thought. The organization of a talk, how much of it to memorize, how to end on time — these are skills I hadn't yet learned — not to mention that it is disconcerting to have all those people giving you their undivided attention (it often made me lose my train of thought).

So I joined four Toastmasters clubs. This is a great organization. It is a club designed solely to help people learn to give speeches.

I was making good progress when I was invited to the richly-paneled office of an extremely successful man. He told me my book was fantastic, and that he can now throw away all the books his salesmen had and just go with mine. He wanted me to come speak to his executives and he offered me an enormous amount of money. Of course I accepted.

But the next few days I felt stressed and under pressure. It came to a head one night when I was practicing one of my Toastmaster speeches on three friends of mine. When I was done, I realized it was lousy, and that I didn't really know much about speaking. I had succumbed to the temptation of so much money. I was doing something that was too much for me. I didn't have enough skill yet.

This is an extremely important principle: Stay within the "flow zone." The researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, found that when your skills match the challenge you are faced with, you can reach a state of "flow." In that state, you have the most pleasure, give the best performance, and your skills improve the fastest.

If you have a lot of skill and not much challenge, you sink into boredom. If you have more challenge than skill, you move up into stress and anxiety. Which is where I was after agreeing to speak to that man's group of executives.

So I called him up and explained my situation. "No problem," he said, "I completely understand. We have this retreat every three months. Maybe you can come speak to us at the next one."

Immediately, my mood improved, and I continued to make good progress in learning to speak while staying in that middle zone: the flow state.

There is a lot said about challenges. And for those who are afraid of challenges, it is good advice to increase your challenges - to express your skills, to grow. You'll be happier because you'll be spending more time in flow.

But if you are highly motivated, you may have the opposite problem: You pit yourself against challenges that outpace your skills too much. You will accomplish more and enjoy it more to back off a little. Be smart about it. Keep yourself in the flow state, and your gains will be greatest. When you start to feel bored, look to increase your challenges. But when you start to feel stressed, either lower your challenge or increase your skill or both. Increase your challenges gradually. You'll enjoy your life more and ultimately, you'll accomplish more.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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