The Science Of Winging It: Why Successful People Just Go With The Flow

by John Haltiwanger
Paramount Pictures

It often feels as though the most successful people we know have mapped out their entire lives. Everything they do seems premeditated, and they're so calm and collected all of the time.

This is true to a certain and extent, but don't be fooled, most of the time they're just winging it.

In many ways, we find it comforting to assume that there are people out there who always know what they're doing. We want the people in charge to have it all figured out. This helps explain why presidents and other leaders receive such rampant criticism whenever they make mistakes.

Correspondingly, as Oliver Burkeman notes for the Guardian:

We're... shocked whenever authority figures who are supposed to know what they're doing make it plain that they don't. In fact, though, everyone is totally just winging it. We're all... energetically projecting an image of calm proficiency, while inside we're improvising in a mad panic.

Life is too random and dynamic to be prepared 100 percent of the time. World leaders don't have a response outlined for every international incident, and business executives can't predict every financial crisis.

They have to react based on their knowledge and prior experience. Simply put, they have to go with their gut.

Thus, success is often a product of being well-practiced in the art of improvisation. We will all face challenges in life, but they are almost always unexpected.

Overthinking and overdoing can cause us to stumble and fall in these situations. It's often much better to act on instinct.

Wu Wei: The Art Of Going With The Flow

Lionel Messi of Argentina is widely considered the best soccer player in the world. Indeed, it is magical to watch what he can do with the ball. His style of play is as effortless as breathing.

Accordingly, he once stated, "I never think about the play or visualize anything. I do what comes to me at that moment. Instinct. It has always been that way."

Messi embodies the notion of "wu wei," which means "effortless action" in Chinese. It's a concept derived from Taoism, an ancient philosophical, ethical and religious tradition that originated in China 2000 years ago.

As John Tierney describes it for the New York Times:

Pronounced 'ooo-way,' it [wu wei] has similarities to the concept of flow, that state of effortless performance sought by athletes, but it applies to a lot more than sports. Wu wei is integral to romance, religion, politics and commerce. It's why some leaders have charisma and why business executives insist on a drunken dinner before sealing a deal.

Wu wei is a complicated concept that is perhaps best explained by describing a stream flowing down a mountain. The stream is not consciously trying to do anything, but it is still active.

Even when the stream encounters obstacles, it adjusts effortlessly and keeps flowing forward. If we can be like the mountain stream, then we will find that life is decidedly less stressful.

Reduce Stress And Find Success: Trust Your Instincts

The Taoists believed that we cannot live uniform and preconceived lives. They believed that a person would exemplify his or her best qualities by acting naturally, instead of in accordance with propriety.

John Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, has done extensive research on philosophy in relation to his field. As he puts it:

Psychological science suggests that the ancient Chinese philosophers were genuinely on to something. Particularly when one has developed proficiency in an area, it is often better to simply go with the flow. Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.

In essence, follow your heart, be yourself and trust your instinct.

When we try too hard we often come off as unauthentic, and people trust us less as a consequence. Likewise, overthinking can lead to immobility and a sense of helplessness.

When we overanalyze situations, we become trapped in the hypothetical scenarios we've manufactured in our minds. We can avoid all of this by reacting in the moment, and accepting that not everything is completely in our control. This is all easier said than done of course, but like anything worth doing, it takes practice.

It's true that it is sometimes better to think critically about a problem before taking action, but adopting this approach in all walks of life can be debilitating. As Malcolm Gladwell once wrote:

There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.

Don't swim against the current, the waters ahead might be rough in certain spots, but embrace them and let them carry you forward.

Citations: Improvisation Its All About Practice (Psychology Today), A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying (The New York Times), What I do is play soccer (ESPN), Taoism (BBC), Everyone is totally just winging it all the time (The Guardian )