Walking the Cat . . .

Because life's kinda like that . . .

Goin’ with the “Flow” . . .

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I love playing pocket billiard, shootin’ pool.  There is something about the game, the elegance of it, that makes my head turn whenever I’m anywhere near a pool table.  Like Paul Newman’s character, “Fast Eddy” Felson, in The Color of Money, my head turns and my ears prick up anytime I hear those beautiful colored balls “CRACK!”.

The first time I experienced being “in the zone” was at a pool table.  I was, maybe, 16 or 17 years old; playing at a pool hall called, originally enough, The Cue n’ Cushion.  I had been going to this pool hall more or less regularly for about two or three years.  I remember, on this particular day, I was shooting with an older player named, Dennis, and we were playing 14-1 straight pool.  Straight pool isn’t played much anymore; it’s a “position” game, requiring more than a little skill to place the cue ball, shot after shot, in the right position.  It’s also a long game, usually played to a score 100 or 150 points.  (The preference, today, is for 9-ball or 8-ball, where the game can be won on as few as one or two shots; ideal games for the smaller “bar room” tables).  Anyway, I remember I had managed to finish off a rack, leaving the last ball to start the next rack; the position was near perfect, all I had to do was make the shot and cue ball would break out the rack, making it possible to continue my “run”. 

I remember studying the rack for several seconds, taking a deep breath, leaning over the table to take a few practice strokes, then firing the cue ball at the object ball; everything after the first shot was “kind of a blur”.  The object ball, I think it was the 4-ball, dropped into the pocket with a satisfying “pock” and the cue ball caromed into the rack,  sending balls across the table,  and I lined up my next shot.  Several minutes later (I have no idea how much time actually passed), I found I had “run” fifty balls!   For whatever reason, I missed the next shot.  Maybe I was distracted in some way, maybe it was the unconscious realization of what I had accomplished.  Whatever the cause, the “run” was over.  It was Dennis’ turn to shoot.  He put together a decent run, missed an easy shot and I returned to the table.  I made a few good shots, missed and turned the table back over to Dennis.  That’s the way it went for the remainder of the game.  I lost by around twenty balls; not a lot, but enough.  It had been a hard-fought game and it hurt to lose.  But what stuck with me afterwards, and throughout the intervening years, wasn’t the loss.  It was being “in the zone”.  It was the sense of invincibility, of knowing “without knowing” I would make the next shot and the one after that, and so on, until I missed.

I’ve been “in the zone” a few times since that day (and not only when I’m shooting pool but when I’m doing other things like cooking or writing); not often, it’s not something you can intentionally do, it just seems to “happen”.  When it does happen, there’s no better feeling in the world.  It’s almost like a drug (not that I know anything about drugs, but I’ve heard stories).  It’s an experience that, having once had it, you want to keep having it.  And that’s the strange thing about being “in the zone”, you can’t make it happen.  You have to let it happen.  And you have to be prepared to let it happen.  The only way that can come about is to practice, practice, practice so that when the time comes, you’re ready to get “into the zone”.

Turns out that all the time I’ve been chasing “the zone”, psychologists have been studying this “phenomenon”.  The resulting “flow theory” has been applied to everything from sports to surfin’ the Web.  They’ve even managed to break it down into component parts necessary to the experience.  I could have saved them a great deal of time and money, had they bothered to ask.  But we probably wouldn’t have gotten together; I was busy chasing an experience, they were busy formulating a theory.  How do you experience “the flow” or “being in the zone”?  At work?  At play?

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Written by stevewthomas

June 5, 2011 at 7:14 pm

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