When “just go with the flow” is a total cop-out

I’ve touched on the benefits of going with the flow as a powerful mechanism for embracing life and accepting what you can/cannot control. 

But what about the downsides of going with the flow? 

When does “going with the flow” hurt us more than help us? 

When do we need to not just go with the flow? 

Take charge of yourself

Look: going with the flow is great when it’s about embracing the flow of life — when you accept that there are things beyond your control. 

It’s a total cop-out when you avoid making any decision at all. 

This is the dark side of “going with the flow,” giving up all control over your life. 

You don’t want to be a passenger of your life — you want to be an active participant! The sole participant! 

You need to make the shift from being reactive to active. 

Understand what you control

To me, the biggest lesson that you can internalize for “going with the flow” is to understand what things you can control and what things are outside of your control. 

Good “going with the flow” is accepting that there are parts of life you cannot control. 

Bad “going with the flow” is when you give up control of the things that you can change. 

Ever taken a job just because someone told you to do it? Did you go to that college because your parents went there? 

Whenever you do something just because it’s “the easiest option, you’re not really going with the flow — you’re taking the easy way out. 

In these cases, going with the flow isn’t a decision, it’s a way to abdicate responsibility. 

So, the way to stop doing this is to be honest with yourself, and really identify which things you do control. 

Do you control which job you work at? You control it a lot more than you control the weather! 

Can you control if you’ll succeed at finally recording that concept album? Way more than you can control if your bassist shows up on time! 

And if that bassist consistently shows up late? You can control how you respond. Maybe the answer is you find a new bassist — that’s something that you control. 

Once you understand what things you have direct control over, and what things are outside of your control, you can make efforts to improve your life. 

The serenity prayer

I’m a religious person. There’s a prayer written by Rheinhold Niebuhr that I find to be exceptionally helpful when going through hard times in life.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” 

Even if you’re not a religious person, this prayer can function as a powerful meditation that helps you empower yourself to understand your own power — as well as the limitations of your being. 

We are strong and profound creatures, but we’re not superheroes. There are things we cannot change — and it takes wisdom to divide those from what we can change. 

Good going with the flow really is “the wisdom to know the difference.” 

How can I change things? 

The first step to changing the things that you control is to create a plan

  • Figure out what it is that you want to change.
  • Visualize what a successful change looks like
  • Determine the steps that you need to take to make change a reality
    • Divide these steps into small, medium, and large goals, allowing you to break complicated goals into easy-to-handle steps 

After you’ve determined the first three things, you need to figure out a schedule to make sure you complete these steps. For some people, they need the rigidity of a daily checklist to make their goal a reality. For others, generally working toward a goal in their own time is solid enough. 

Whichever way works for you, the final step is commitment. You need to commit to your goal. Commit to doing each of the small to large steps along the way to ensure that you actually make a change.

It’s a daunting task, but it’s one that will serve you well. 

Why can’t I go with the flow while changing? 

Here’s the deal: you have to take credit for your success. If you “just go with the flow,” you’re allowing yourself to pass the buck when you succeed or fail. You’ll chalk up your achievements to “luck,” and your failures to “the will of the universe,” when it was your own mettle and determination which actually determined the outcome. 

You’re going to fail sometimes. That’s a given. But you’ll succeed too! And owning your actions and their consequences makes your successes so much sweeter, because you did it! 

That’s why “just going with the flow” is not conducive to personal growth. Because it can cause you to let life happen to you, instead of making your life your own. 

Flow state: Taking charge while letting go

Straddling the line between “going with the flow” and “controlling your life” is the flow state — what I like to think of as controlled unconsciousness. 

The flow state is a powerful state of creative force where you are so fully immersed in an activity, that your actions are not being consciously directed. 

Some people refer to this as being “in the zone.” 

Now, the trick with flow state is that it’s not immediately accessible. You can’t just magically pick up a guitar and lay down a series of impressive licks without ever having practiced before (though if you can, let me know — I have a record contract for you). 

Instead, the flow state is (more or less) unlockable after achieving a high level of proficiency in the activity. Yes, after thousands of hours of guitar practice, you could enter into the flow state where your practices happen without your conscious participation, where your perception of time is distorted, and you suddenly find yourself having played for 3 hours in what feels like a matter of minutes. 

This is the flow state. 

Once you’ve achieved enough proficiency in your activity, entering into the flow state becomes a form of “controlled unconsciousness;” you have to consciously allow yourself to get lost in your own flow. 

It’s a fine line — allowing yourself to get swept up in your own built-up abilities, as it represents a very delicate balance between control and surrender. But, ultimately, you are surrendering to your own abilities and mastery. 

Even though you may look back on your efforts and think “I can’t believe I did all that,” the truth is that you did. You have that superpower! 

We all have that potential. It just takes practice, dedication, and openness to surrender to unlock. Our founder, Justin Brown, has an awesome video on helping us enter the flow state. Check it out if you’re curious about learning more! 

Conclusion: When going with the flow isn’t enough

“Going with the flow” is a double-edged sword. It can be a powerful mechanism for recognizing the limitations of our own abilities, or it can be an insidious tool to dodge all responsibility. 

It’s important to understand and accept that there are things we cannot change (otherwise we’d be miserable chasing after perfection), while recognizing there is much within our own power that we have the ability to control. 

Go with the flow when it comes to the things you cannot change. But blaze your own trail when it comes to things within your control. Straddling that divide is difficult, but ultimately very rewarding. 

Ultimately, understanding how to control your moments of surrender will allow you to access your natural creative abilities, enabling you to enter into the powerful flow state where your years of expertise can be drawn upon without conscious control. 

It’s just a matter of actively allowing yourself to let go. 

Nathan Dennis

Nathan Dennis

Nathan Dennis is a Manhattan based playwright and poet of Floridian extraction. A graduate of NYU Tisch Department of Dramatic Writing, he served as a Rita and Burton Goldberg Fellow, and was awarded Outstanding Writing for the Stage in Spring of 2015. His most recent play, Lord of Florida, was workshopped by PrismHouse Theatre Company in the Fall of 2017.

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