Why Tech vs Flow is an Incomplete View

Posted on January 9, 2014 by


For years there’s been a debate over “tech” versus “flow” and, as is want to happen at regular intervals, someone new asked what the difference is. I think the entire Tech vs Flow discussion, which often hinges on “how skilled are you with poi,” lacks the other dimension of the conversation which is about “performance expression” and I believe thinking about it more in terms of the 4 dimensions might help.

My thesis follows.

Mihaly Czikszentimihaiyl has done extensive research on flow. While “tech” may still be a subjective term (though everyone I think agrees it has something to do with technical execution), there is quite a bit of actual knowledge and information about what comprises flow state. In the community, we sometimes use the lax term “muscle memory” when the actual memories are stored in the brain. A few follow up thoughts to that:

Stages of Learning

When we talk about learning, there’s generally four stages of development which we all go through — it’s just a matter of the pace at which we go through it.

Note: a prodigy will seemingly skip the first three stages and just go to the last, but ask him/her what s/he did and because they didn’t go through the other stages of learning, they may not be able to explain it — which is why instruction is often not ideal from a natural born master because they barely think about it (and therefore barely have to break it down) in order to understand it and/or execute it.

Here’s the stages of learning:

  1. you don’t know what you don’t know (ignorant of your ignorance or “unconscious incompetence“)
  2. you know what you don’t know (able to define where your ignorance lies or “conscious incompetence“)
  3. you know what you know (you’re able to define both what you do know and you don’t know, which means you’ve past the stage of recognizing that your mostly ignorant and you start to have distinctions about what you’re doing, or, “conscious competence”)
  4. you know what you know so well you don’t have to think about it (or “unconscious competence” or “flowstate“)

If you’re not following, think about a kid learning to tie his shoe laces. At first, he doesn’t even know he has shoe laces (doesn’t know what he doesn’t know). Then, as he starts to learn how to tie them, he realizes he can’t quite do it yet (conscious incompetence) until finally, he can do it most of the time (conscious competence) until finally, he can tie his shoelaces without thinking (unconscious competence). If you look through your life, you’ll undoubtedly see this pattern emerge again and again as it relates to learning.

Flow StateFrom what I’ve studied, because memories of how you do things are stored in the brain not muscles, if you actually imagine the task in full detail, as if you’re holding the props in your hand, you can actually build the “muscle memory” in your brain because the same neurons are firing in your head and therefore, the “grooves” of the “record of your mind” are being deepened. This has been documented to work for training for high end athletes which is interesting if you ask me and why we recommend visualization before sleep to reinforce learning.

Czikszentimihaiyl says the ideal opportunity for flow to arise in the place where we are both aroused and excited by what we’re doing yet feeling a little bit beyond our sense of control… while still having enough control to not completely flail. In other words, you want to have enough skill to be somewhat competent and also challenged — riding the line between them.

I believe there are other dimensions that are not being looked at because the conversation is about “tech versus flow” rather than about also measuring the dimensions of “divinity vs discovery”.

4 Quadrants System

20140106-090655.jpg If the X axis measures “Tool Mastery” or “Competence” with “tech” (masterful execution) on the left and “flow” (the ability to move fluidly from pattern to pattern with ease and grace) being on the right; and then the Y axis is “Performance mastery” or “Expression” where “discovery” (the endless process of distinguishing new patterns) is on the bottom and “divinity” (that sense of a “higher power” taking over and moving through you) on the top, it’s really a much more gradient system and I think accounts for the anomalies that lead to the debate in the first place. Take a look at how it unfolds:

  • Upper right would be Divine Flow — probably the people who are super spiritual and care very little about technical exploration. I’ve seen absolutely mind blowing performances from people with almost no poi skill who were, it seemed, possessed by a greater force than themselves: the divine. It’s a magical experience and absolutely transcends the tools. Audience members feel a palpable sense of energetic exchange and walk away with an impression that has little to do with the tool itself. An artist in this box may be a “performance prodigy” and can move the audience with simple moves.
  • Lower right would be Discovered Flow — a place where new moves are being discovered on the fly yet fluidly accessed in a presentation. This is where an artist is at the edge of their technique and without past preparation, they are making up flows between moves. The audience is often left with a sense of awe at the masterful expression that shows up through unique combinations and patterns that work effortlessly together. An artist in this box may be a “drunken master” style spinner.
  • Upper left would be Divine Tech — which would be that place where spirit arises and expresses itself through masterful technique — so the artist still disappears — though the degree of mastery of their tricks outweighs their flow between moves. They are often prettier than the Divine Flow artists in terms of accuracy of planes and timing, though they are working with a known repertoire and not so much generating on the fly as working with a large and masterful repertoire of moves. An artist in this box may be a “technical prodigy” — you know that spinner who can get seemingly any more really quickly.
  • Lower left would be Discovered Tech — probably the extreme case of tech spinners that are often dismissed as lacking in entertainment as performers because they stand still a lot. This is where the artist is exploring new moves with as much accuracy in the technique as possible and likely standing still. It’s about doing the move right, repeating it, executing with precision. Where Discovered Flow will be more engaging with the audience, Discovered Tech will be the most static and least performance oriented because, ultimately, it’s about distinguishing more new tech all the time without necessarily caring about flowing from move to move. People who do several impressive tricks in a flow and repeat those over and over again, trying to find a new edge or new way to expand on that are characteristic of this box and an artist might be accused of having “tree trunk syndrome.”

From this perspective, it’s easy to see that when we talk about tech vs flow, we lose a lot of dimension because “divine flow” and “discovered tech” are often working in opposition though, in my experience, are not generally accounted for in this conversation because, like politics, it’s been diluted to either/or rather than multidimensional thinking. Just like the political map is 4 quadrants, I contend the tech versus flow conversation has at least 4 as well. Hopefully these ideas will help you explore who you want to be as an artist and bring more of what you want to your performance.

Written by Temple of Poi founder and visionary, GlitterGirl, who has been a full time flow arts coach and instructor since 2002. If you seek professional guidance associated with creating a safe performance, obtaining a permit in San Francisco or other personalized coaching, contact GlitterGirl directly for a free consultation (GlitterGirl <that pretty little at symbol> TempleOfPoi <daaaaaaaught> com).