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Life Is A Game, Here’s How You Play It

This is a 3 part synthesis on The Flow State.

This page will be updated as parts are released each week (there are 2/3 parts on this page).

>> Skip to part 2 here.

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Let me ask you a question:

Have you ever had a taste of the optimal human experience?

The state of consciousness that professional athletes, spiritual masters, and culture-shifting artists swear by as the key to their success.

You’ve felt it before.

  • That sense of unbreakable confidence.
  • Feeling light on your feet and secure with your future.
  • The moment where skill becomes art and you no longer care what people think.
  • You feel as if you don’t exist and can’t think of anything you’d rather be doing.

It’s called the flow state.

A state of peak experience, maximum enjoyment, and effortless productivity.

It’s quite similar to “being present.” You know, the thing that spiritual gurus won’t stop preaching about.

Presence comes from an open state of focus. You release your mind from attaching to any given thought and become one with life itself.

Flow, on the other hand, comes in handy when in the pursuit of a lofty goal. You become one with the task in front of you, which leads to the actualization of a meaningful goal.

A self-generated goal, that is.

Not a goal that is assigned to you, dictating your destiny and molding your identity into an unconscious monstrosity.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the best-selling book Flow and the godfather of Flow Psychology, describes flow as an “autotelic activity:”

“Autotelic” derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

We will be referencing much of Csikszentmihalyi’s – along with a leading expert on human performance, Steven Kotler’s – work throughout this letter.

The big problem with today’s society seems to be that we can’t just get our work done.

We lack meaning in our careers.

The tasks are repetitive and endless.

Distractions are everywhere.

We don’t have clarity on what we want out of life.

Dopamine is quite a popular topic these days for that reason. Dopamine plays a crucial role in reaching the flow state, but it goes far beyond that.

Too many people get stuck in a state of narrow-minded surface-level living. All they know is to go to school, get a job, scroll on their phones, chase material objects, and never experience the depth that life has to offer.

That isn’t a way to live.

But what if I told you that you can find enjoyment in the boring, mundane, or terrible aspects of your life?

Even further, what if I told you that you could use the flow state to achieve the meaningful goals you’ve been putting off in 6 months rather than 6 years?

The result of understanding flow is discovering your life’s work, having a sense of passion for that work, and having tools to navigate the dreaded anxiety and overwhelm that cause most people to spiral into chaos.

Life enjoyment isn’t dictated by randomness or luck. It’s created by deconstructing life as the game it is and learning how to play.

The Anatomy Of A Video Game – Why We Become Obsessed

I used to play a game that consumed far too much of my life.

It was called World Of Warcraft.

If you’re familiar with it, you’re welcome for the nostalgia.

For those who aren’t, WoW is an MMORPG. A massive multiplayer online role-playing game. I often found it more interesting than the real world.

At night, after coming home from my part-time job as a lifeguard over the summer, I’d put on my headphones and get immersed in the online world. Nothing else mattered but my mind and the lines of code that kept it sane.

When you log in as a beginner, you’re met with a series of tasks.

First, you choose a faction, then race, then class, and customize how your character looks. There were two factions, Alliance and Horde. Many players were passionate and rather ideological about the faction they chose. I played Alliance but always thought the digital religion was a bit too much, so I didn’t necessarily “hate” the other side… I just thought the characters looked a bit funny.

Most of my characters were either humans or night elves, but you could choose anything from gnomes to orcs to Pandaren (panda people) to the undead. The “class” you choose determines much of what you do throughout the game. A class is your role and play style.

You can play the role of tank, healer, or damage. When you and others complete quests, dungeons, or raids together, the tank keeps the enemy attacking them, the healer keeps the group alive, and the damage role – whether close-combat with blades or long-range with magic – well… they damage the enemies.

The cool thing about a video game is that you can experiment with the character you play and start over if you don’t enjoy it.

Are you noticing patterns in the real world? How your identity influences your opportunity and potential? How getting attached to one political, religious, or social ideology will make it difficult to reach a state of maximum enjoyment? We will break down the psychology of this soon.

After you create your character, you are thrown into a starting zone specific to that race – like the culture you were raised in. All you know is one little spot on the map. The rest of it is dark and unknown. In reality, you are raised in a culture that determines your beliefs, which you accept as truth. What you fail to realize is that you only understand less than 1% of reality (if I could actually put a number on it, it would be closer to .000001%, but we like to act like we know more than we do to our own detriment).

The game will not let you progress to new areas of the map until you acquire the skill and ability to level up to the point of being able to survive in those areas.

As you level up, you unlock new quests, dungeons, special abilities, career choices, and the ability to ride or fly to new parts of the world.

You don’t need to understand many more details, but this will help us answer a few questions:

  • Why do we find video games so enjoyable to the point of addiction?
  • Is it possible to replicate that enjoyment to make progress toward our own goals in life?
  • Can we structure our lives like video games so that we become so immersed that we forget we are playing a game in the first place?

Let’s deconstruct the parts of this fantastical game to understand the principles that addict our minds.

A Hierarchy Of Goals – The Key To Mental Clarity

The mind craves order.

Video games have quests, leveling, and skill development to narrow your mind on the big goal at hand and eliminate distractions.

Video games are designed to make optimal experience easier to achieve:

They have rules that require the learning of skills, they set up goals, they provide feedback, they make control possible. They facilitate concentration and involvement by making the activity as distinct as possible from the so-called “paramount reality” of everyday existence. – Flow

The keyword there is “designed.”

A question I want you to hold in the back of your head while reading this letter is, “How can I design a life, month, week, and day that gives me a sense of control over my life?”

Like the tutorial phase leading into quests of a video game, society is designed in a similar way:

  • You go to school to make sense of the game society wants you to play.
  • A hierarchy of goals is placed in front of you. Go to school, get a job, praise your God.
  • At first, there is ample challenge to keep the mind narrow, but soon, life becomes repetitive and mundane.

It is human nature to gravitate toward the things that bring us comfort and security, but that can turn on us fast.

The massive problem with the default path in life is that one size doesn’t fit all.

It’s not difficult to see that most people don’t enjoy their lives. They are stuck in jobs they hate. They have lost trust in the God they praise. They were assigned goals to achieve – like reading a specific book in school – that put a bad taste in their mouth for learning, so they stopped.

We all find enjoyment in different things.

And, what we find enjoyment in evolves as our identity does.

A level 100 player won’t enjoy a level 1 challenge.

A level 1 player won’t understand a level 100 challenge.

The key to life enjoyment is maintaining a sense that one’s skills are enough to take on the challenge of any situation that one understands. One must create an environment with a rule-bound system so one knows how well they are doing. By doing so, concentration becomes so intense that there is no attention left to think about anything irrelevant or worry about problems.

The lesson so far is that video games immerse you so far into the fabricated reality that it becomes your reality. Nothing but the rules and structure of that game fill your attention. You reach absolute clarity. Zero distractions live in your awareness.

This stresses the importance of the goals that you choose.

  • A big life goal to frame the information you see as important.
  • A series of reverse-engineered goals to bring clarity to your actions.
  • A small goal in the present to rivet your attention and kick you into flow.

This is why weird deep-work hacks like playing instrumental music, planning your day the night before, and wearing a hat while you work are so potent. They focus your mental energy away from distractions.

The mind is a machine that aids in reaching known goals and discovering unknown goals.

Your mind will notice, accept or reject, and use information to achieve the goals you feed it. If you’re always focused on negative outcomes, your life will become negative. If you only focus on the goals society assigns you, you lose a sense of control over your life.

In psychology, this is called pattern recognition. You feel the dopamine when you notice information that helps you achieve your conscious or subconscious goals. You can’t help but use that information to make progress.

The question is, how do we use this knowledge about goals to live a more meaningful life?

If you want to change your life, you must start by removing yourself from the repetitive string of tasks that make life unenjoyable. You must dive into the unknown.

By the way, I help you create your own life plan in my book, The Art Of Focus.

The Unknown – The Land Of Infinite Potential

Let’s imagine that you don’t know how to swim.

How would you feel if I offered you a scenic helicopter ride over the ocean?

You may be a bit fearful, but you’d be silly not to accept.

Now, how would you feel if, on that ride, I took the chopper low to the water, pushed you out, and brought it up just enough so you were forced to swim?

A few things could happen:

  • You would succumb to your fear, overthink it, and drown.
  • You would flail like a madman doing whatever it takes to stay afloat but soon lose energy and, again… drown.
  • You would remain calm, attempt to float, and potentially stay above water long enough to devise a plan.

None of those are optimal.

When you play a video game, you have a map of the digital world.

On that map, there are unknown areas. Places you haven’t, or can’t, explore.

There’s a reason you can’t just teleport into the middle of those areas. Chances are, you’d be swarmed by monsters 50 levels higher than you, and you’d get killed in one single hit.

Is that fun?

Would you want to play the game anymore?

Now, what if you completed quests until you unlocked the ability to fly? What about reaching the level to do your first dungeon?

You would be ecstatic! You wouldn’t waste any time. You would get there as fast as possible to test your abilities. In the real world, you may even pull an all-nighter because you are obsessed with seeing the new opportunities available to you.

The lesson is this:

Meaning is found at the edge of your abilities.

The edge of the unknown.

Not so deep that you are met by chaos, but not so shallow that you close yourself off to depth.

The sweet spot where your skills are enough to navigate the challenge of any given situation.

You’ve been there before…

When you feel incredible for no apparent reason. When you know exactly what to do to make progress in your life. When you can’t stop having ideas. When your vision for the future is so clear that you can’t help but act on it.

The “flow” state of consciousness is where the “flow” of information is maximized. All thoughts, ideas, and mental energy are useful for the meaningful hierarchy of goals you are attempting to achieve.

Maximum signal, minimum noise.

Maximum focus, minimum distraction.

This is true education. Learning, doing, and discovering in unison. Not being told what to learn for a task you don’t care to do on a path that hordes of people have gone down before.

This gives us a hint about how we can maximize our time in the flow state.

I like to think of the mind as the metabolism for experience.

When you eat too much, you feel sluggish.

When you eat too little, you feel on edge.

When you are overwhelmed with information, you feel anxious.

When you are underwhelmed with information, you feel bored.

It isn’t uncommon for us as humans to bite off more than we can chew. To accept more work when you’re already neck deep in water. To learn too much and expect it not to overwhelm you. To know that you should say “no,” but say “yes” so you don’t disappoint the other person.

The optimal state of mind is when you can metabolize life as it comes. You learn and do without thinking and emerge a new person.

You have the skill to match the challenge of a situation. There is no friction. You flow with the information that life throws at you.

People often report that they don’t remember the times they were in flow, but once they came out, they feel as if they unlocked a new level of self-development.

One common misconception about the flow state:

It is not the product of trying.

It is effortless.

I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the “backwards law.” When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it—which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, “Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.” – Alan Watts

Now, this is pretty obvious, but you can’t go from working a 9 to 5 you hate to making millions from your life’s work.

But there is a quest you can create and follow in your life to reach any goal you want be it weight loss, good looks, charisma, more money, or work you enjoy.

The only thing standing in the way is you.

Character Creation – Reaching Your Potential

At this point in our history it should be possible for an individual to build a self that is not simply the outcome of biological drives and cultural habits, but a conscious, personal creation. – The Evolving Self

You aren’t where you want to be because:

  • You didn’t make the choices that led to a purposeful career.
  • You didn’t make the choices that led to fulfilling relationships.
  • You didn’t make the choices that led to a healthy and aesthetic body.

You, right now, are the manifestation of your past choices.

So, if you want to take control of who you become, your choices are of utmost importance.

There are 2 things here:

  1. Who you want to become – perspective and zooming out.
  2. The choices that will take you there – perception and zooming in.

The good life is created through constant reminders of your vision and programming the identity that would actualize it through aligned action.

Do you know who you are?

Your identity. Your concept of self. Your personality.

That little character you’ve been playing in the game of life. A web of ideas that shape your perspective. A perspective that shapes your perception of situations. A perception of situations that determines the choices you make. The choices you make that result in who you are and the quality of life you live.

You are a perspective vessel in a relative reality.

Your perspective can be expanded or contracted.

Absorbed in a task or at one with life.

Manhandled by an emotion or drowning in a sea of familiar future events.

In a video game, you create your character.

A mage can only wear cloth clothing and perform a certain set of spells. They can’t fight big monsters alone because they aren’t strong enough.

A warrior wears armor and fights in close-quarters combat. They can take more damage and fight more monsters on their own, but that comes with disadvantages, too. They aren’t specialized to have certain professions, so they can’t make as much gold on the market as someone like a mage.

The class, profession, quests, and path you choose in the game determine what you can do in your future.

In other words, if you don’t like your life, it’s because your identity doesn’t allow you to notice and pursue the challenges you find enjoyable.

The day you were born, you became a learning sponge. Your biological goal was to survive, so you pulled information from your environment to fulfill that goal.

  • You learned the language you speak.
  • You learned to crawl, walk, and run.
  • You were told “eyes, ears, mouth, and nose” because you can’t directly see your own face.
  • Your parents, teachers, friends, books, and media told you what was good and bad, so your mind shifted to only retaining information that allowed you to survive by those standards.

From a structural standpoint, a worldview or perspective is composed of goals and problems that the goals allow you to become aware of.

Only then can you choose to solve those problems, achieve the goal, and open up room for the next one.

Every day, zoom out and remind yourself of what you don’t want. You don’t need to focus on what you want, because that will make itself apparent through your choices.

Hold that frame at the top of your mind.

Do not allow distractions to penetrate it.

Any time a choice comes up, zoom out and align.

“Will this benefit the future I am trying to create?”

Then, be decisive. Make the decision.

Allow failure into your life so you can correct your behavior the next time around.

Awareness is a cure.

But if you don’t have vision, you may accept a quest society assigns to you, which almost always results in you not being in control of the level of goals you pursue or problems you solve. In other words, you – as a perspective – stop growing. Around the ages 25-35 you are met with an inescapable bubble of responsibilities that trap you in a cloud of chaos and meaninglessness.

If you identify as a “smart” student, you have the goal of applying to college, and the only problems you notice are those like the state tests that you have to study for.

So, you invest mental energy into that goal.

When you achieve it, your psyche is rewarded, and you continue pursuing that narrow path.

The problem is that this path is known. It was assigned to you. People have done it many times before. You know well that you are limited to the results of others when you go down this path, but you don’t care because it’s what you’ve been programmed to do.

Later on, we will discuss a different vessel into the unknown. One that allows you to choose and find clarity on a path you create.

One that exposes you to your unique potential.

A path that nobody has gone down before.

Your life’s work.

Your perspective – goals and problems – frames any and all information and opportunities available to you. By information, I don’t mean books or podcasts or words. I mean anything that you perceive. Sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and touches. The combination of which composes the content of our consciousness. Our experience. The only thing that is real.

The conscious mind can process 50 bits of information per second.

The unconscious mind can manage 11 million bits of information per second.

So, if we want enrich our everyday experience, notice more novel opportunities, achieve the impossible, and create more flow in our lives, we must expand who we are by fundamentally changing the goals our mind operates on to navigate reality. We must influence what information composes the 50 bits of processing power we have in any given second.

Now, what is self-development?

It is increasing the complexity of your self (or identity).

When you pursue a challenging goal, your mind must expand to a new level to acquire the knowledge and skill to solve problems in the way of achieving that goal.

When you achieve one goal, only then do you have the awareness and skill to achieve another.

As you achieve less superficial goals, you reach a level where you can take on more meaningful opportunities – ones that you didn’t know existed before.

To stress this point:

You don’t know what you want because you haven’t done anything with your life outside of what you’ve been told to do.

You stayed in the “known” areas of life’s video game map. You didn’t take a rare questline into the depths of the unknown, challenging who you are and your abilities.

But it isn’t entirely your fault.

There’s an enemy we are all battling against that leads to us being stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed more than we’d like to admit.

That enemy is called entropy.

Chaos In Consciousness – Why Your Life Feels Out Of Control

If you understand entropy, you understand that by doing nothing with your life, you choose to slowly drown in chaos. You don’t stay the same. You dig yourself deeper into a hole without trying. The good life demands consistent effort toward your own goals.

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned so far in one sentence:

The flow state occurs when the content of your consciousness is composed of one challenging yet meaningful task.

But there’s a problem.

Most people feel like they are drowning in a cloud of chaos.

Rather than one meaningful task occupying their attention, there are 10 negative thoughts that have the potential to splinter off into 100 more. Like how you feel a pain in your chest, then thoughts of grandpa’s heart attack come to mind, the 10 different heart-healthy foods you neglected eating, and how an early death may impact your family.

I want you to think of your mind as a supercomputer.

Your ability to process information is dependent on a few things, but the RAM – or random access memory – is the most important part of a computer that influences its performance.

The more RAM you use up with different programs running, open browser tabs, and the performance requirements of what you have running, the slower your performance will be.

This is no different from your mind.

What you hold in your conscious attention is critical.

Most people live with multiple high-demand programs running that are draining the limited creative energy they have.

  • Thoughts about regretful past mistakes
  • Thoughts about stressful future happenings
  • Desires of hunger and entertainment to escape those thoughts
  • An internal cry to break out of their conditioned way of living
  • A list of mixed-priority tasks that need to be finished
  • Open loops of tasks they were supposed to complete but forgot about

The list goes on and on.

The modern mind has its attention split in infinite directions by default. We go about our lives stressed and near sickness. Rather than living in the present with singular focus and a worry-free mind, we are the opposite – living in a false reality created by split attention.

When we think too much of the scattered past or future, chaos ensues. The mind tends toward disorder. If not kept in check, we lose the sense of control over our lives that leads to enjoyment.

This leads to the question:

What is a state of consciousness?

That’s an incredibly deep question, but when it comes to the flow state, it’s crucial that we understand it. Since we are tackling a metaphysical problem, be open-minded, ask questions, and be okay with the fact that those questions may take time to answer and make sense of.

A lesson there:

Ask more questions. You won’t receive the answer immediately, but you seed your mind to receive an answer that you normally wouldn’t have. It can take a day, a week, or a month… and for the questions that matter, a decade.

Reality is consciousness that takes different states. There is nothing but states of consciousness. All that is real is state. The denial of states of consciousness is done from a state of consciousness.

If it helps, you can think of “states of consciousness” as just “states of mind.” They are synonymous for the most part.

There are higher and lower states of consciousness, neither of which are “better” than the other… they just “are,” but higher states of consciousness may be preferable at times, like getting into flow for deep work.

Being sleepy, drunk, high, anxious, dreaming, stressed, bored, or overwhelmed are all on a spectrum of conscious or unconscious, open or narrow states of mind.

David R. Hawkins developed a map for levels of consciousness, or stages of consciousness.

Ken Wilber often speaks of the difference between “states” and “stages.”

States are fluid and temporary modes of mind. You oscillate between various states every day. You can think of this as your “everyday experience” from being tired at night to focused in the morning.

Stages, or levels, represent your baseline of development. You can still reach lower states, but you come back to baseline rather quick, and tend to hangout around your stage of development.

So, what causes chaotic states of mind that make it seem like our life is falling apart?

Are we doomed to continue suffering from it?

And most importantly, how do we increase our baseline level of consciousness to achieve more flow and live a better life?

Psychic Entropy – A Mass Mental Health Crisis

We are going through a mental health crisis.

We lack the curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, and mastery that create a flow-sustaining life’s work.

Most people have mental disorder.

Not a mental disorder, just mental disorder.

By that, I don’t mean one that can be diagnosed and prescribed a solution (even though that’s been on the rise… mainly to profit off of this epidemic).

When I say mental disorder, I mean disorder in the mind.

Psychic entropy.

Psychic = of the mind.

Entropy = systems tending toward disorder.

Systems need consistent energy to thrive.

A system is a group of parts that are connected or work together to form a goal-achieving complex whole. Each part affects the system in some way and depends on the other parts to function properly. For example, your digestive system is made up of organs like your stomach and intestines that work together to help you digest food.

Just like how your business is made up of brand, content, product, and marketing. If you don’t have a good product, which is a system in itself, you won’t make an income. If you neglect energy in other parts of the system, again, you won’t make an income.

Systems become more efficient with time unless you neglect them.

To describe entropy in a system, if your mind is a room, and you don’t put energy toward cleaning that room (maintaining order), then the room will get dirty.

One day without cleaning won’t be bad. But after a week? A month? A year?

Then your mom starts telling you that you live in a pig sty.

It’s no wonder that anxiety is rampant in our society. Nobody has cleaned their room for a year, and who wants to put in that much more energy? It’s much easier to clean your room after a day than it is after a year. The anxiety cycle continues because we know we need to clean our room, but we don’t. There is a gap between thought and action.

With that, if you are a writer, it takes some time and experimentation to form the habits and systems that lead to an audience and income. But once you have it down, you don’t need as much energy to keep it going. But if you stop for a day, week, or month, it becomes increasingly harder to regain your ground.

That is exactly where problems occur.

When there is a blockage of energy in the system that is our mind.

Mental health is about making sense, understanding, and clarity.

If you let a compulsive and negative thought hijack a situation, you can’t see that situation for what it is.

You get stuck in your head, thinking about the bad things that could happen. You pull that negative experience into the now and it influences your thoughts and actions.

Attention breathes life into everything it touches.

When you give your attention to a false reality that your mind creates, you act in a way that makes it real.

Do you think this will lead to beneficial outcomes in any situation?

The solution to chaos is finally taking control of your life.

In parts 2 and 3, we will discuss:

  • How to navigate the chaos of modern life.
  • How to start making progress toward your own goals.
  • How to discover your life’s work (and what to work on).
  • The best way to get into deep work every morning to make progress toward your goals.

If you want to be notified when parts 2 and 3 are added to this letter, subscribe to the Koe Letter.

Who Is Dan Koe?

I am a writer & brand advisor for 7-8 figure creators, influencers, and social media brands. I am obsessed with dissecting human potential, lifestyle design, and one-person businesses.

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