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A Wu-Wei Paradox: Striving to Win at All Costs Inhibits Flow

Cultivating a non-striving mindset promotes frictionless flow and superfluidity.

Key points

  • Frictionless flow or superfluidity is a phenomenon that occurs in quantum physics laboratories and in the realm of sports.
  • Flow states are on a continuum. Regular flow occurs reliably "in the zone" between anxiety and boredom; superflow is more elusive.
  • Through the lens of Eastern philosophy, the wu-wei paradox suggests that a non-striving mindset promotes superflow and generates success.
This diagram of "The Flow Model" illustrates Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory that flow tends to occur when someone's skill level and the level of challenge are equally high and perfectly matched. If someone's skill level is low and the level of challenge is too high, it produces anxiety (not flow). Conversely, if the challenge is too easy for someone's skill level, it results in boredom and apathy, which inhibits flow.
Source: Duppydupdup/Shutterstock

As a rookie ultra-endurance athlete in the 1990s, I followed Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's advice and learned how to consistently create flow state experiences on-demand simply by tuning into a sweet spot between anxiety and boredom at a pace that wasn't too hard but wasn't too easy.

However, after spending hours each day "in the zone" while training for ultra-distance races, I realized that flow was on a continuum and seemed to have different tiers that, to the best of my knowledge, Csikszentmihalyi didn't describe or discuss in his writing.

For example, once I was "in the zone" and experiencing flow for an extended duration of time, periodically, I'd experience sublime bursts of total effortlessness that felt extraordinary but were difficult to describe. The only analogies I could come up with at the time were based on sex (flow : coitus :: superflow : orgasm), but I wanted something less salacious to describe this phenomenon, which felt spiritual.

How Do Superconductivity and Superfluidity Relate to Flow States?

Sometime in the aughts, after watching the BBC documentary "Absolute Zero," I glommed onto the concepts of superconductivity and superfluidity as an evidence-based way to describe episodic moments when a run-of-the-mill flow state suddenly felt like a transcendent or supernatural out-of-body experience. As a triathlete, there was absolutely zero friction or resistance during these bursts of superfluidity when I was running, biking, or swimming ultradistances.

Superconductivity is a phenomenon marked by the disappearance of electrical resistance as energy moves through a superconductive material at ultra-cold temperatures. Similarly, superfluids involve an otherworldly quantum state that enables them to flow without any friction or resistance at temperatures near absolute zero (−459.67 °F).

In the world of condensed matter physics, fermion pairs are noteworthy because they're immune to resistance; they flow without losing energy. Frictionless flow doesn't dissipate heat and occurs when the momentum and spin of superconductive fermion couplings are equal and opposite.

In the world of sports, regular flow states are reasonably easy to dial up and experience on a daily basis once you find your sweet spot between boredom and anxiety.

Ironically, everyday flow states themselves can become kind of boring and mundane. But experiencing superfluidity always feels mystical and exotic; experiencing this rarified state as an athlete became a holy-grail-like quest that I pursued like a Buddhist might aspire to Nirvana.

Cultivating a Non-Striving Mindset Facilitates Frictionless Flow

Every day, while training for ultra-distance triathlons and ultramarathons in the early aughts, I'd keep tabs on precisely when I experienced moments of superfluidity and take mental notes about what was going on at the time so I could increase my odds of having it happen again.

For me, the hallmark of superfluidity was a laundry list of paradoxical combinations that seemed like polar opposites, such as simultaneously feeling energized and serene, grounded but ecstatic, relaxed but highly motivated, effortlessness during extreme exertion, etc. Metaphorically, these diametrically opposed "coexisting opposites" are like atomic fermion pairs facilitating superfluidity in a physics laboratory.

"He's nervous, but on the surface, he looks calm and ready. Feet fail me not. This may be the only opportunity I got. You better lose yourself in the music. The moment you own it, never let it go." —"Lose Yourself" by Eminem (2002)

Serendipitously, Eminem released "Lose Yourself" in the early 2000s, just when I needed a catalyst that would take my athletic career to the next level. "Lose Yourself" helped me realize that a mindset shift away from trying to "win at all costs" to focusing more on "losing myself" dissolved my ego in ways that opened the door to superfluidity.

Notably, the ego dissolution (a.k.a. "ego death") I experienced during moments of superfluidity—when I totally lost myself while playing sports—wasn't unfamiliar. It reminded me of feeling "one with the universe" when I experimented with psilocybin as a teenager at boarding school in the early 1980s. (See, "One Mystical Psychedelic Trip Can Trigger Lifelong Benefits.")

As an athlete, one surprising paradox of striving to lose myself—instead of striving to win at all costs—was that this mindset shift increased my odds of winning because it led to superfluidity, which resulted in peak performance and generated extrinsic success. For example, in 2004, embracing a non-striving mindset helped me break a Guinness World Record.

Source: GoodIdeas/Shutterstock

A Wu-Wei Paradox: Letting Go of Your Win-at-All-Costs Mindset Increases Your Odds of Winning

I realize now, in 2022, that this non-striving mindset has roots in the ancient Taoist concept of wu-wei, but that doesn't make it any less paradoxical. Fundamentally, there's something potentially hypocritical about cultivating a non-striving mindset as part of a winning formula that's cunningly masterminded to outperform competitors. Maybe this hypocrisy is the ultimate wu-wei paradox?

Wu-wei is an ancient Chinese philosophical construct rooted in effortless action. A non-striving mindset is central to "the way of Tao." Taoism espouses that a non-striving mental state (i.e., wu-wei) is key to maximizing skillfulness and harmonizing with the universe.

In a recent peer-reviewed paper, "The Wu-Wei Alternative: Effortless Action and Non-Striving in the Context of Mindfulness Practice and Performance in Sport," first author Ying Hwa Kee and colleagues posit that athletes who cultivate a wu-wei mindset are more likely to experience flow states. This open-access paper (Kee et al., 2021) was recently published online ahead of print in the Asian Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

From a sports and competition perspective, the wu-wei paradox could be summed up by the counterintuitive notion that by not striving to win, you're more likely to succeed. Along these same lines, when it comes to creating frictionless flow states, by letting go of a win-at-all-costs mindset, you're more likely to experience superfluidity.

Like Repels Like and Opposites Attract: Coexisting Opposites Facilitate Superfluidity

In closing, let's return to the world of quantum physics. An international team of condensed matter physicists from Columbia University, Harvard, and the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan recently figured out a way to fine-tune superfluidity in a laboratory by playing around with the crossover between strongly- and weakly-coupled fermion pairs.

 Image credited to Cory R. Dean, Columbia University
An illustration of positively charged holes interacting with negatively charged electrons between two sheets of graphene to form a bosonic pair.
Source: Image credited to Cory R. Dean, Columbia University

As the authors explain, "In fermionic systems, superconductivity and superfluidity occur through the condensation of fermion pairs. The nature of this condensate can be tuned by varying the pairing strength." These findings (Liu et al., 2022) were published on January 13 in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

"If you can get electrons to pair, they can superconduct," senior author Cory Dean, who runs an experimental condensed matter physics lab at Columbia, said in a news release. "But there's been a problem. Electrons do not want to pair. 'Like repels like,' as the saying goes." Therefore, Dean and colleagues are exploring novel ways of using electrons and holes with oppositive charges to create dissipationless flow.

Because opposites attract, the secret to creating superfluidity in both a physics laboratory and on the playing field may be held in the quantum power of fine-tuning coexisting opposites in ways that facilitate frictionless flow.


Ying Hwa Kee, Chunxiao Li, Chun-Qing Zhang, John Chee Keng Wang. "The Wu-Wei Alternative: Effortless Action and Non-Striving in the Context of Mindfulness Practice and Performance in Sport." Asian Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology (In press, corrected proof first available online: November 21, 2021) DOI: 10.1016/j.ajsep.2021.11.001

Xiaomeng Liu, J. I. A. Li, Kenji Watanabe, Takashi Taniguchi, James Hone, Bertrand I. Halperin, Philip Kim, and Cory R. Dean. "Crossover Between Strongly Coupled and Weakly Coupled Exciton Superfluids." Science (First published: January 13, 2022) DOI: 10.1126/science.abg1110