Eric Clapton and the Flow

Eric Clapton’s music is amazing. I am sitting on a ten hour plane flight from Frankfurt to Denver, watching the 2008 Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood concert at Madison Square Garden via the airline’s video programming. I tried to get tickets to that concert, but it was sold out in the blink of an eye. If you remember the rock groups Blind Faith and Traffic, then you know why.

Eric Clapton Steve Winwood

Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood in the "zone"

Yesterday, Linda and I were conducting an all day training session with 125 operational excellence consultants in Copenhagen. I asked them to recall a time they performed their very best at something meaningful to them. You know, that once in a lifetime performance where for some reason you excel way outside your normal level, just nailing it. You ski the run like never before, or shoot the round of golf of your life. Once they recalled such an experience – and most everyone does – I asked them, “What caused it? What was different, what was unique in that moment than unleashed a potential buried within you that you had never previously expressed?”

I have asked this question of thousands of people over the years, starting way back in the early 1980’s at the Optimal Performance Institute. The answer is always the same. People report that they “lose themselves,” “stop thinking and just flow,” “enter a zone of pure awareness and just express.” And always, they report that it is a marvelous, awe-inspiring experience.

If there was one thing I wish I could do in my next life, it would be to play the guitar like Eric Clapton. What kind of inner zone must he enter to be able to feel the music and express it the way he does?

Listening to Steve and him right now, I feel that zone about me. Music does that. Listening to it transforms us. It takes us to a place “beyond our minds,” where we stop thinking and simply be, full of the inner joy that naturally wells up inside and washes over us with each familiar beat and note.

Not everyone loves Eric Clapton’s music as I do. For them, that inner experience of just being in the flow of the music might come from Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra or Andy Williams, like it does for my dad, or from Andrea Bocelli, like it does for Linda. The experience does not emanate from the musician; rather, their music touches that timeless and formless place in us. Not everyone’s boat is floated by the same music, but everyone has a favorite style that moves them.

But to play such music, that must be doubly wonderful. As talented as Clapton is, even on an off night he’s fantastic. But when he is in his mental zone, then even he reaches new heights.

When the Copenhagen consultants spoke of their optimal performance experiences, I could see them light up, even from the stage. As they recalled those moments of being in their flow, feeling the inner joy of really going for it, you could feel it in the room. What would our lives be like if we could be in that inner space more often?

What is it like for you when you are in your inner flow? How often does that happen for you? How easily can you consciously create it?

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Professor, University of Michigan
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Marshall School of Business
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MSOD Program, American University
Organizational Change Consultant