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Being "in the zone" is an experience that comes to all of us from time to time. If it happens, it happens when we are totally absorbed in purposeful work or play. Our senses become more alert. Intuition brings keener insights. Skill, emotion, and reasoning blend in a flow that makes our work seem almost effortless. In the zone we feel energized, focused, and not distracted by worry. We are constructive, efficient, and effective in moving toward our goal because our best stuff is coming together. We want to be in the zone because it is so satisfying to feel we are at our best, and getting better.
THE ZONE EXPERIENCE
We can often recognize when someone is in the zone, and it is usually a pleasure to watch. It is a treat for me to see my brother Howard at the keyboard. Playing piano has been his hobby since childhood. Now he has an electronic keyboard that keeps him in the zone for long stretches of time-working with the endless combinations of back-up instruments, types of music, and chords and rhythms built into it. His pleasure is infectious, and the spread of this pleasure to others is part of his zone experience.
My grandson at age seven was a delightful child, but he had a short attention span. For Christmas he got his first Zoids kit, a box of many small parts that can be assembled into an unearthly creature. He carried it off to work on it. An hour or more later, we wondered where he was. We found him on the floor in a bedroom, totally absorbed in figuring out how to get the thing together. We were amazed that he could stay focused on one thing for so long. The challenge had triggered a zone experience for him. He now has a full collection of Zoids creatures he has constructed. His attention span doesn't come up as an issue anymore, and we believe this is somehow related to his experiences in working with these kits.
Athletes speak of being in the zone. The image that instantly comes to my mind is the basketball player at the top of his or her game-seeing the whole court, coolly reading the flow of play and anticipating the moves of the other players, then breaking with a hot hand toward the basket and sinking the ball in the hoop. Basketball players often report that the zone experience amazingly makes the basket seem to double in size.
Fortunately, the zone experience is available to all of us, not just the superstars. We can learn a lot about the zone from the superstars- how they get there, how they sustain it, what sometimes blocks them from being in the zone, and about the fire in the belly that gets them back to it after it has been blocked. Their insights can help us more ordinary folk find the zone. These superstars are not just athletes but people in all kinds of pursuits, with widely diverse talents, who can find the zone to an extraordinary extent.
Although the zone experience is available to all of us, some of us don't get there very often. While we can agree that the zone is a good place to be, many of us have no idea how to set the conditions for entering the zone. Having a passion for something and pursuing it diligently are essential to the zone but not enough to make it happen. We can't just go after it or make it happen by willpower; it has to come to us. It is elusive, but it does come when the conditions are right. Consider, for example, something as ordinary as preparing a meal for one's family. It can be a zone experience for some and mundane for others. What makes the difference?
All of us have our own zone stories and can reflect on the conditions that help put us in the zone. Whatever our talents-mechanical, social, cerebral, physical, musical, creative expression, nurturing, exploring, organizing, harmonizing-when in the zone we are working at the fresh edge of our gifts and skills, and we are getting better. We are focused and not distracted. And we are absorbed in the process, not in ourselves. We are challenged and energized as we proactively pursue our goal. These, in brief, are the conditions for the zone identified by researchers. What circumstances make these zone characteristics happen for you?
Of course, we can't stay in the zone all the time. Every day we have many mundane things to do that take us off the crest of the wave. And we need the pleasure of zoning out with things that are just enjoyable without challenging us. But the zone experience calls us back because of the emotional charge that comes with experiencing growth in our skills and capacities.
The zone I am writing about is not the zoning out that comes with entertainment, such as watching a good movie, reading a good book, listening to music, or playing slot machines. In those activities we are often carried along as a relatively passive participant. But some zoning-out activity could help spark a zone experience. Zoning out could turn into a zone experience if it prompts us to take charge, bring our skills to bear, and hone them to better functioning. For example, great books have the capacity to do that-to engage us deeply, challenge us, and provoke us to grow.
But whenever we are in the zone we are initiating action, moving toward a goal, creating-as we more likely would be if we were making the movie, writing the book, creating the music, or absorbed in playing the basketball game. Alternating between being in the zone and zoning out is common. For example, I see it in my brother as he plays his keyboard, alternating between stretching his skills and just having the comfort and fun of zoning out with something familiar. The distinction between being in the zone and zoning out is an important one, and it is examined seriously in this book.
As you might suppose, research supports what our experience tells us: most people don't find the zone very often. Every day we see depressing reminders of wasted human potential-people who go through life without much joy, people who do not know how to move toward a satisfying discipline of themselves that can take them to a higher level of functioning, and people who settle for a mundane life punctuated by passive zoning out. And the problem is most frightening when we see such behavior in our young people.
Promoting the Zone Experience
This book has three main themes. The first is that the zone experience is a phenomenon that can be examined to yield clues about how it works and how it can be made more available to more people. While it cannot be willed to happen, it can and should be planned for, as a catalyst for our growth and development, individually and collectively. If the zone is a place where we find powerful motivation to keep improving, we surely want to be promoting it for ourselves and those we influence through our leadership and example.
Promoting the zone for others-in parenting, coaching, teaching, and all the helping roles-has been my main focus in shaping this book. Because these roles differ so widely from each other, it is not realistic for one book and one author to deal with the zone experience in relation to all of them. Promoting the zone with two dozen or more people at once, as would the classroom teacher or work supervisor, is a very different responsibility from that of the parent or the mentor who works one-on-one. I have taken the latter as the book's emphasis, and the examples I use are mainly of individuals helping other individuals find the zone.
So the key questions are these:
How can we make the zone experience more available to any of us, rather than just waiting for chance to bring it?
If being in the zone is truly catalytic for our growth and development, why don't more of us get there more often?
Everyone's experience with the zone is so subjective; how can we objectively understand it well enough to know what conditions can bring it about?
Before we can answer these questions, we have to break through two major roadblocks, two basic and essentially hidden assumptions about the nature of mind and motivation. These assumptions prevail in our culture, and our being caught up in them-mainly unconsciously-seriously limits our access to the zone. They are the second and third main themes of the book: the commonplace view of mind that has been shown by research on brain/mind functioning to be clearly wrong, and the prevailing view of motivation that limits our ability to see constructive, alternative ways of promoting mental development. These prevailing conceptions, and replacements for them, are the subjects of chapters 2 and 3 and are briefly discussed below.
In the practical business of daily life, why should we worry about or take the time needed to ponder misconceptions of something as esoteric as the nature of mind? Because the assumptions we hold about other peoples' mental processing profoundly affect the way we treat them. And how we treat them has a direct effect on their development and performance, and on our own as well. It is the Eliza Doolittle phenomenon-is she the flower girl or the lady? Professor Higgins came to realize that his view of Eliza-his assumptions about how her mind/psyche/soul worked-also affected his own development and his understanding of human nature, and perhaps his own capacity to be in the zone.
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT MENTAL PROCESSES THAT NEED REEXAMINING
The second and third themes of the book are concerned with tackling what I see as two major prevailing assumptions about the mental equipment we are born with and carry with us all our lives. These assumptions harm us in virtually all important human interactions and institutions, and they keep most of us from the zone experience much of the time. This book is a proposal for making two fundamental shifts in our view of human mental processing, shifts that have the potential to release a lot of constructive energy for our growth and development, regardless of age.
The first assumption is that the mind we are born with is essentially unformed and unorganized, in need of life experiences-with good parents and good teachers especially-to activate and organize it to take in the knowledge, skills, and character traits needed for mature functioning in the world. The work of teaching-and coaching, nurturing, and training-most commonly begins with the assumption that the learner's mind is gradually moving from an unformed to an organized state through the planned stimulation provided by the teacher, parent, and other authorities (authorities, in effect, authors of what is written into the learner's forming mind). It is assumed that the mind is ready to absorb. It is "impressionable" and "receptive," but to become organized, it needs the initiatives of the teacher. It is a blank slate to be written upon. Cognitive scientist and popular science author Steven Pinker summarizes this view of mind as the assumption that our biology equips us with "five senses, a few drives like hunger and fear, and a general capacity to learn. Then our culture molds the clay of our biology." This view of mind is truly pervasive. It is everywhere-in the folk wisdom of child rearing, in the structure of our schools and colleges, in the manner of religious education and practices, in the typical approaches to training and motivation in our workplaces. This blank-slate assumption is so deeply embedded that it is virtually unseen and unacknowledged, accepted as a given feature of human nature, generally beyond question.
Some will argue that we long ago gave up the idea that the mind is a blank slate ready to be written upon or a vessel ready to be filled. Some have intellectually abandoned that concept of mind, but there is no doubt that it persists as an unspoken assumption in the structure of our institutions and the ways they treat the learning mind. The aforementioned Steven Pinker, one of the most accomplished contemporary students of human nature, has written a five-hundred-page book demonstrating the pervasiveness of the assumption. The book is titled The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
The blank-slate assumption underlies virtually all versions of schooling. Young children and college students alike face a curriculum that was preplanned, before they ever entered the classroom, for a steady presentation of preorganized materials designed for the generic absorbing, unformed mind. Teachers and printed materials lead them through a sequence of encounters, along a progression the curriculum makers and textbook writers believe will take them from relatively unformed mental activity toward a well-ordered mind. What's missing in this formula is allowing for the possibility that students enter new learning opportunities with minds already exquisitely organized to make sense of their world-that they come in with their own existing mental organizations that are dynamic components of classroom transactions. What's missing is the realization that all substantial learning involves unlearning first, the reorganizing-however minutely-of mental systems already in place. The blank-slate assumption keeps this vital fact from being recognized. Some of us were fortunate enough to have had teachers who connected with us as unique individuals, who saw what made us tick, and saw how we processed information. In doing that they consciously or unconsciously rejected the blank-slate assumption and tapped into our own distinctive mental organization that we brought to the learning situation.
How we can root out the blank-slate assumption is addressed directly in chapters 2 and 6. The question for us here is what we put in its place.
THE BLANK SLATE DRAWS A BLANK
The blank-slate view of mind seems obviously supported by our own experiences with babies; we see them as starting out with unformed minds that rely just on instincts. They seem so helpless, unaware, and in need of our attentive efforts to give them a sense of the world into which they have been born. This is a misconception. In the last thirty years, the research of neuroscientists and developmental psychologists has demonstrated beyond any question that babies are born with minds already organized, preorganized one might say, to take the initiative in engaging their environments to support their own growth and development. This is exciting stuff. The research methods they used with babies are ingenious. Chapter 2 of this book covers the research and gives you a sampling of the studies and their outcomes.
Some of the evidence that babies are born with preorganized, inquiring minds has been available to all us parents, but it wasn't recognized as evidence. For example, just after birth babies can recognize the difference between voices and other sounds, and they show by their behavior that they much prefer the voices. They also recognize the difference between faces and other objects, and they prefer the faces, especially a mother's face. It seems clear they were born with a brain preorganized to make these discriminations. No one taught them.
Even when infants can focus their eyes no more than a distance of a foot or so, they can duplicate the facial expressions of people they are seeing for the first time. They can smile back. (No, it is not just a gas bubble.) Stick out your tongue and the baby is likely to do it too. As one set of researchers put it: "At first glance this ability to imitate might seem curious and cute but not deeply significant. But if you think about it a minute, it is actually amazing. There are no mirrors in the womb: newborns have never seen their own face. So how could they know whether their tongue is inside or outside their mouth? ... In order to imitate, newborn babies must somehow understand the similarity between the internal feeling and the external face they see, a round shape with a long pink thing at the bottom moving back and forth."
Young babies' minds are organized to have coordination among the senses. A researcher gave pacifiers to two groups of one-month-old infants. They held the pacifiers in their mouths but didn't see them. One group had regular pacifiers, while the other group had pacifiers with a bumpy surface. Then the researcher showed the babies smooth and bumpy objects. The babies saw but did not touch them. The videotapes showed that "The babies looked longer at the object that was the same shape as the one they had just been sucking on. Somehow, they could relate the feel of the pacifier in their mouths with its visual image."
Babies anticipate that they can engage and influence their world, that they can find experiences and resources that will help them meet their needs. In no way are their minds blank slates. We will explore the research behind this assertion in chapter 2.
Excerpted from Finding the ZONE by GORDON D. LAWRENCE Copyright © 2010 by Gordon D. Lawrence. Excerpted by permission.
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