Flow or drift?

Just go with the flow: choosing the right words.

The hippies got it right. 

Who would’ve guessed? 

Invitations to go with the flow, misunderstood across generations before and after, refused in the same of pragmatism. Drifters, they were labelled as, good for nothing dreamers. Labels affixed by society ill-prepared for its own demise, brought on by its own reluctance to pause and understand the full meaning of what feels good and productively immerse itself in that. 

Of course, that’s a pretty simplified version of events, woven through the tapestry of my own worldview, resting on its foundations of personal experience and my own singular perspective, yet that perspective has been fashioned over fifty-odd years by listening and observing, patiently teasing out the opportunities I felt were appropriate at one point or another and leaving some preferences behind to serve the greater good, or my own version of what I think that is.

And there’s the thread I’ve decided to unpick in this particular moment: my own version of what I think that is.

How have I come the conclusions I’ve made? What information have I sorted and categorised, bent into what’s fit for purpose, then added to the efficient auto-pilot routine of life? This lurching between going with the flow and taking decisive action has, at times, frozen me in the tracks of indecision, drifting eventually through culverts of distraction and unfettered zeal to the pit of inaction.

A drifter. A good-for-nothing. What do you want to be when you grow up?

I used to joke through my twenties and thirties that I still didn’t know. By the time I reached my forties, I would see my peers rising to success, claiming their piece of life’s pie, while I still wondered which slice appealed to me most. This feeling of drifting continued. “Just go with the flow” some would say, conflating the notions of flow and drift, and that’s where this whole misunderstanding resides.

Language is a funny thing, we might say, but language is at the root of culture. I once heard someone quote a source I’ve long forgotten, but whose words gouged deep in my mind: the quickest way to kill a culture is to take away its language. It happens every day with the colonial insistence “you’re in our country, you’ll speak our language”. That’s another tangent I could easily distract myself with, but maybe another time. In this moment, with this fragile, taught thread I’m inspecting, tentatively plucking to see what note it sings, I find that I have had an unhealthy fear for most of my life, of nurturing a living, growing vocabulary. It starts with schoolyard taunts: names like “nerd” or “egghead” to put curious types in their place.

Keep it simple, don’t be verbose are the messages as time stretches forward. The irony of someone demanding an end to verbosity, calling it such, is not lost on me. There’s a place for simplicity, but that place is not using it in service of limiting others. Nor should complexity be used to shame or exclude. If language is at the root of culture, then why should we not embrace it and use it wholly to properly express those things we are thinking? The hippies were labelled as drifters because they were immersed in what made them feel good. Coincidentally, what made a lot of them feel good and confuse their experience with feeling like they were in the flow, was mind-altering substances. Not your regular legal types like alcohol, but your illegal varieties like marijuana and LSD. Their flow became drift, and that’s what the moral harbingers of doom latched onto, but they missed a very important point.


Flow. Drift. Two quite different things.

Flow is a state of mind, in positive psychology terms, in which we do something with energised focus, full involvement and enjoyment. It’s a state of balance between skill and how challenging something is. It requires concentration but feels effortless.

To drift is to move slowly, especially as the result of outside forces, with no control over direction.

So where is your flow? What are the things you can do that require your focused attention and skills you have learned but now find effortless and brings a sense of enjoyment? There’s a fair bit to absorb in that sentence. I’ll wait while you re-read it as many times as you need to.

Far from feeling directionless, flow has movement and supports us in all kinds of positive ways.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

What’s something you have learned how to do well and feels good when you’re doing it? Not a bad starting point.

Letting go and drifting for a short time might be useful when we’re feeling stuck, but it’s that feeling of flow that we can engage with and employ as our guide to better-feeling places, as they’re sometimes known. Those places we often judge as the stuff of dreamers and drifters is the stuff of our own dreams.

Live in the moment, go with the flow. Hippie talk. But also present in the wisdom of people who have overcome major illness.

Maybe it’s time we looked at our own language and used it deliberately for growth, not suppression.

To conflate means to combine two or more ideas into one, like assuming flow and drift are the same thing. Next time you hear someone using a word that’s unfamiliar, be curious. Ask them what they mean. Look it up and see if their meaning is the same as the agreed definition if what they’re saying doesn’t seem to make sense. Look at the words you have adopted and the ones that rise to popularity as the latest buzz word. How are you using it? Is that the right word for what you want to express?

Feel the feels and choose your words with intent. It could mean the difference between honing a skill to the point of a pleasurable sense of accomplishment, and letting yourself get swept away into the abyss.

From this neo-hippie to you: find your flow and go with it!

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