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  • Writer's picturePeterMax

In The Zone

in the zone

Dr. “B”, an academic colleague asked me last week; “What job have you had, in your career, when you were in “the Zone”? Without hesitation I replied “my current position”! Then I thought about a couple of other positions I had where I was “in the zone”. In fact, upon reflection, there have been only a couple of positions where I was not. As an athlete, I have had many conversations about the achievement of zone status. I originally thought it was reserved for very elite athletes during competition.


Another academic colleague runs every day and enters the zone every time! I never achieved it in my running career, but regularly experience the zone while bicycling. My son never achieved the zone while bicycling, but, as an elite marathon runner, regularly achieves it.   Having finished his first 100 mile ultra-marathon one week ago, he depended on the zone to successfully complete it. I thought the zone was only during competition with others, however I enter the zone mostly during solo rides. On a mountain descent, on a bicycle, with switchback curves and riders only inches apart and reaching speeds close to 50 mph, I have never been in the zone, and I do not want to be! The distraction of external safety forces is overwhelming! On a 3 hour ascent, however, I am in the zone and when I finish, it seems like only 30 minutes have passed!


That one simple question by my academic colleague stimulated my long time curiosity about “the zone”, what it means for athletes and what it means for careers. The term “in the zone” has been used by athletes from all sports for several years by that phrase and others, including “runner’s high”, “in the moment”, “on auto”, “running on adrenaline” and “flow”. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1990 work; Flow: The psychology of Optimal Experience laid the groundwork for many psychological studies of “the zone”, including many articles on athletic zone research. Csikszentmihalyi described “flow” or “in the zone”, as a collection of eight characteristics; complete focus and concentration on the task at hand, a clearly defined goal, a change in perceived time (increase or decrease), a self-rewarding conclusion, a period of relative ease in the activity, a balance between the individual’s skill level and the skill requirements of the activity, a loss of self-conscious rumination, or a merger of actions and awareness, and a feeling of control over the task. Csikszentmihalyi specifically addressed “flow” in the workplace:


“A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” 


Csikszentmihalyi, M 1990


Returning to the original question by my academic colleague regarding the job when I was in “the zone”? Almost every one! For the reason that all eight of the “flow” characteristics were present at those moments in time and there was complete inner joy in doing the best I was capable of doing, to complete my clearly defined goals. That included my part time work as a 14 year old in a hardware store, the custodial and many odd jobs during college, and the vast majority of increasingly responsible and challenging positions I have had since then. The only two positions that were “zone-less” for me, did not have the balance between the challenge at hand and my skill level (There were no challenges to grow and increase my skill level). Those two positions also had little organizational goal clarity.


Being “in the zone” requires the development of basic skills. With a lifetime of thousands and thousands of miles “in the saddle”, I easily visit “the zone” on my early morning bike rides. It is usually dark, aiding to the elimination of external distractions. I quickly enter the zone after a couple miles and I am on “auto”. I am never aware of a couple minor hills that require a gear shift and some “dancing on the pedals”. When I am finished, I am always amazed that the seemingly half hour has been a one and one-half hour ride that covered a respectable amount of quality miles, and I am joyous at accomplishing my morning goal!


And my current position? I am in the zone! I lead 1,000 faculty of the University Of Phoenix School Of Business, who lead 10,000 students, who attend 30 learning centers and online classes. I work with two “in the zone” counterparts and we report to an individual who is “in the Zone” and models that focused behavior very well!


Our mission is clear and measurable and we are focused on our mission:

  • Student success through persistence and mastery of curriculum to graduation

  • Meaningful faculty development through engagement, and

  • Operational excellence in the classroom


Time goes by amazingly fast, there is always a challenge to improve my skills, and I have control over my actions and decisions. I am laser focused on my mission. My intrinsic reward? Every day, I have the privilege to live my passion; change the lives of students, their families, their communities and those in the organization I serve. I have much authentic joy in what I do. Yes, I am “in the Zone”. Actually, I am happy to say, I usually am!

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