The Flow – Personal Mastery in business and all that jazz

Mastery, unconscious competence, effortless genius.  These are all ways to describe what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called the state of ‘flow’.  What can we learn about ‘flow’ from music that we can transfer to the world of business and personal development?

Let’s begin, not by talking about the state of flow but by experiencing it through looking at masters of their craft operating at a state of effortless genius.  Let’s start with jazz master Joe Pass:

What then is flow?  Are there any ways to learn how to be in this state and what can we learn from professional musicians?   Here’s a great quote to open up the debate from Richard Thompson:

“Focus for performance is extremely important. I start quite early in the day of a performance, just very slowly focusing in on performing later that day with the whole idea that you are going to be as present as possible. You can play music for yourself, and that’s one thing, but to communicate with an audience is really something very special. When it happens, it’s a beautiful thing, an extraordinary thing, a wonderful feeling for the performer – this idea that you play something and people get it.

The way that you’re able to get stuff across to an audience is by getting inside the music as much as possible, reaching that really still place in the center of the music where you are totally present, almost unconscious, and totally engaged in the musical process and the storytelling process. When you get to that point, you’ve really achieved just about everything you can achieve as a musician.”

John Howitt is a professional session musician, who has performed with Celine Dion, Anastasia and Shirley Bassey.  He also works with us in our business and music masterclasses.  As a session musician, John must be at peak performance with every engagement.  I asked him to reveal some of his tips for staying in the flow:

Flow master – John Howitt with Peter – Picture by Jason Dodd – master photographer

Peter :  Can you tell us something about your career and the role of practice as a spur to personal mastery?

John : “Mastery comes out of preparation.  In business circles, people talk of the need for 10 000 hours disciplined practice to master an art or discipline.   Contrary to what amateur musicians might think, to do what I do, it’s all about practice and preparation.  I have probably exceeded the 10 000 hours in my career as a session musician and still spend 5 hours a day playing an instrument if I am not actually engaged in a piece of client work”

Peter :  Many so-called ‘creatives’ say that they feel they would lose their creativity / mojo if they overprepared. What do you say to that?

John : “Practice gives you ease AND versatility.  Playing routine pieces of music almost goes on auto pilot allowing you to concentrate on what is needed to add that extra piece of sparkle.  I feel this is just as applicable to business and personal excellence as it is to performing music”

Peter : As well as your stage and session work, I know you also record soundtrack music for films.  In your experience, how do you move from a performance role to one that is perhaps more introverted?

John :  In one way, there is no difference.  When performing, you still need to keep your focus both internally on the mastery of what you are doing, whilst keeping your antennae open to hear those around you.  It’s what the business gurus called ’emotional intelligence’ – living inside your own head AND paying attention to your co-performers.  Good musicians and leader do both.  Bad musicians and leaders just listen to themselves.

That said, when I’m recording soundtracks, I can focus completely in on the point of detail that I’m working with, PLUS keep in mind the overall piece.  The big picture AND the small detail are essential if you are to achieve what Peter Senge calls personal mastery.  As a musician or leader, I find it essential to be both gregarious AND solitary.

Peter : On innovation excellence, can you share one important insight for us?

John : I’ll offer two.   In music, the innovation challenge lies in breaking away from habits. Practice can force you into habit but it need not.  It’s what companies like Toyota, Nokia and First Direct have achieved, rather than just repeating themselves.  Furthermore, it’s like Miles Davis says “There are no mistakes”

Please share your thoughts on what gets you in the high performance zone.  A recent interview with Tom Peters on the related topic of personal excellence can be found at Innovation Excellence.  I found flow is vital when writing perhaps the shortest business book known to man or woman – Punk Rock People Management – get your copy via the link.

If you enjoy this blog, you may also enjoy related blogs at Prince, Deep Purple, Hendrix and Bill Nelson.  To finish, let’s see some more masters of music immersed in the art of effortless genius.  None other than Jeff Beck giving a tribute to Les Paul, plus a tribute to Les Paul by Bill Nelson:


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via  Check our latest book reviews out:


17 responses to “The Flow – Personal Mastery in business and all that jazz

  1. Great article Peter. You might be interested to know it’s not 10,000 hours of any old practice which matters, it’s 10,000 hours of what K Anders Ericsson called ‘deliberate practice’ i.e. putting sustained effort into doing the things you can’t do very well or even at all. So to become an expert in anything, you need to get out of your comfort zone.

    Bridget Grenvillle-Cleave


  2. And a comment on the subject of flow from the master himself, Bill Nelson:

    Bill Nelson Hi, Peter…’flow’ is indeed something which describes my approach to playing the guitar, but I’m not sure it has much to do with practicing or concentrated mental effort, at least not in my case. It’s somewhat more mysterious and, perhaps, risky. For me it comes from having no plan, no thoughts, but just being entirely in the moment and trusting the unconscious mind to know the way. Oh, as an aside, forgive me for pointing out that the track from ‘Here Comes Mr. Mercury’ you have got on your ‘flow’ thread is actually called ‘Never A DULL Day’ rather than ‘Never A BULLY Day.’;-) Nice to be included as an example alongside Joe, Les and Jeff though!

    For more on Bill’s work check him out at


    • “For me it comes from having no plan, no thoughts, but just being entirely in the moment and trusting the unconscious mind to know the way” – good words from Bill Nelson.

      Reminds me of a very old saying… “To spend time in the present, not constantly reassessing the past or worrying about the future, is the deepest rest a mind can have”.

      I forget where it came from, yet I have used it many times, especially as a long-distance runner, where that being-in-the-here-and-now “flow” is a state of mind I aspire to every time I go out.


  3. From Kevin Chamberlain on Linkedin:

    Kevin Chamberlain • Wonderful posting Peter. So agree with John Howitt.
    Passion has to be there for me. Passion drives me through the tough stuff when I want to give up and on to the point where I respect what I am doing even though mastery may be elusive. Passion ensures that I never believe I have attained mastery and that there is always something new to discover.

    Flow is a bit like the sea for me, sometimes powerful and I feel like I am riding a wonderful wave and other occasions I can feel becalmed, struggling to get going and feeling like I am puffing into a sail to move the boat, but I know that nothing, least of all the sea, remains the same and if I am ready something fresh will come.


  4. The three P’s. Preparation, preparation and preparation.

    Doesn’t just have to be scales mind, to get my grooves tight I tend to practise to the high performance stuff like Led Boots by Jeff Beck (love it!). Then do scales… There’s a fine line between intentional practise and just practising for the sake of it.

    High performance live, plenty of water as much as the odd pint of your favourite brew would be nice it does dull your co-ordination. Save the celebrations for after.

    Stage/Studio are worlds apart from your bedroom/practice room and nothing beats being onstage and getting into it. Once you sense where the flow is and how it does essentially ebb and flow then you’re cool.


  5. Perhaps that’s the point – many musicians would consider practice to be scales and putting arpeggios on ‘auto pilot’ whereas Bill Nelson (and your own approach) is certainly still about hours of immersion but always looking for a surprise rather than just learning technique.

    p.s. Bill Nelson probably does not realise the connection between you and him as I recall you worked in a music shop in York and had the job of selling his guitars when he had to reduce the size of his collection.

    For myself, I like both the stage and the interactivity that it offers, and also the stillness of my ‘cave’ where I compose things in a more accidental (and sometimes deliberate) way.


  6. Here’s a sort of counter argument to Bridget’s point. Yes, undoubtedly those hours practising something you do badly or not at all will help, but don’t forget the value of those hours doing something you *do* do well – Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in regard to Bill Gates, who clocked up those hours having fun, and doing something he was good at – the end result was the same accumulation of hours.


  7. (p.s. Bill Nelson probably does not realise the connection between you and him as I recall you worked in a music shop in York and had the job of selling his guitars when he had to reduce the size of his collection.)

    Very true indeed. It what was Alpha Music in York. The one guitar that springs to my mind was an acoustic fretless bass, huge triangular like body that had no hope of sitting on your knee to play. It sounded huge and gorgeous. And Bill was ever the kind polite soul everytime he came into the shop.

    At a guess it would have been 1992/1993 as I was just putting together my own band and about to start the journey of discovery that was The Chapman Stick.


  8. from a recruitment perspective ( i’m in HR) beig able to get in the flow is linked to the ability to be engaged in your work so i tend to look for in the flow experiences with candidates.

    check out the great Tim Gallwey inventor of “he inner game” coaching books for tons of useful stuff on flow in sports/music and business. I have found it useful in playing tennis and golf and my guitar.


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