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"Life of Kai" Season 4 Episode 3: Hustle and flow (but, mostly flow)

"You’re just in that moment, nothing else exists, and you're completely isolated by the task at hand."
By Beau Flemister
7 min readPublished on
In Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi posits that people are happiest, if not most productive, when they are in a state of flow. Colloquially known as being “in the zone,” the flow state is a mental space of complete concentration or absorption with the task or activity at hand. It is a space where one is fully immersed in what they are doing — often, without having to think about it. It is a state where one, as Csikszentmihalyi describes, is "completely involved in an activity for its own sake.”
Kai Lenny, Tow Bomb, 20ft+ Red Bull Recap Season 1 Episode 2 on April 30, 2023.

Kai Lenny

© Lea Hahn/Red Bull Content Pool

Entering the flow state is not an easy task. It’s not a video game level. There’s no sure-fire manual. It is almost ethereal. Attempting to enter this place is almost futile, yet most of us, at some point, have probably felt what it’s like in hindsight, totally absorbed in something we love to do.
Kai Lenny certainly gets at the core of this idea when he says: “A lot of what is required to be really good at riding waves is not thinking.” After a recent traumatic head injury at Pipeline, however, (and perhaps some compounding wear and tear from XXL surfing on top of that), Kai realized that he was having trouble rediscovering his flow state.
In the newest episode of “Life of Kai,” we follow Mr. Lenny on a journey to reconnect with that special yet truly intangible place. Of course, we had more questions about that zone…and Kai was gracious enough to answer them.

In this recent episode you talk about getting back into a flow state, or finding it again after your head injury earlier in the year. How would you define that concept of flow state?

Kai Lenny: I feel like the concept is a little hard to describe, but I’d say that for most people, it’s like if you were to go for a run and you sort of zone out. The “flow state” is kind of like zoning out, I guess. It's like everything else sort of melts away and the only focus is what's in front of you. When you're in the flow state, there are no worries anymore. You’re just in that moment, nothing else exists, and you're completely isolated by the task at hand. When you're truly in a flow state, it feels like everything is just easy. It’s like you’re sitting in a movie theater watching everything unveil itself. You're literally going with the flow, you know?

And if you're unable to get into a flow state, you can't actually perform at your top level. That's something I realized and it was really crazy because for the longest time — I think from previous concussions and the effects from this recent accident — it had been compounding, and I was having a hard time getting into a flow state. It felt like I couldn’t do it, or I was forcing it.

But a lot of what is required to be really good at riding waves is not thinking. It’s kind of just feeling, and being in that flow state where, all the training that you've done is what's leading you, so it's not a conscious effort. It’s flow. So all that being said, yeah, I really think that my head injury at Pipe opened my mind and made me realize that I have so much potential left, you know? If I'm not fully accessing my brain power, there's a whole lot more in there.

Kai Lenny surfs at Haleiwa, Hawaii on February 7, 2022.

Kai Lenny

© Ryan Miller/Red Bull Content Pool

Yeah, that seems to be a new focus of yours, no? We’ve seen so much of your physical training in episodes, but talk to us about training the mind in regards to the flow state.

I think the physical is obviously extremely important, but at the same time, I think the mind is even more so. The power of the mind can pretty much do anything, and after doing a lot of endurance stand-up paddle racing and big-wave surfing, I’d actually say you're better off being undertrained than overtrained. Maybe by “overtrained,” I mean over-exhausted. But being over-exhausted isn’t just a physical thing — that also means mental fatigue.

You just can’t have one without the other. You can't be just physically strong to overcompensate on being mentally weak. And believe me, it's a lot harder to work on the mental than the physical. Physical's quite easy; that just takes time and persistence, but the mind is quite the challenge. But what I’ve learned it that if you have a little bit more gas left in the tank for your brain, your brain can pretty much make your body go to levels you didn't think was possible. I think a lot of people talk about it being belief...and it is that. It is belief, but I think it's on a deeper level.

But back to the flow state and all of this — you just don't know what you don't know. And I didn't know that I was missing out on entering that flow state. I didn't really realize it, and it took a bigger injury, something that was compounding, to be like: Oh my gosh; for some time now, I actually haven't been reaching my full potential. My brain was not allowing me to go into this flow state that had once allowed me to ride unrestrained on the water. And if you're not in a flow state, you pretty much feel held back because you're always trying to mitigate and take in all sorts of situations, rather than just allowing it to flow through you.

Kai Lenny rides a 20ft-plus wave on April 30, 2023.

Kai Lenny

© Yunes Khader / Red Bull Content Pool

That’s wild. As a dad to two young girls, would you say there’s a flow state to being a father?

Absolutely. Being a father, even if you're tired or not, you just got to just show up every day, and that's what it’s all about. And that’s been a real life lesson for me. I'm pretty sure a lot of people that end up having kids and a stable family tend to become better athletes because the limited time that you are given, compared to all of the freedom you may have had before, ends up making you a lot more focused in the moment.

I wouldn't say you force yourself, but you give yourself no other option but to enter a focus-mode that will allow you to perform and get what you need to do done. It's like, Okay, I have 30 minutes between a kid's nap to maybe get three waves out in the water. I can go out there, and I'll make the most of it, versus, like, having all the time in the world and not using it wisely. You certainly become much more present with your children and nothing else matters when you’re with them. That’s gotta be a flow-state, right?

One hundred percent. What about the equipment aspect… How does that factor into flow state? That’s clearly been a huge obsession of yours.

Yeah, I've definitely always focused on my equipment, to the extent that as I've gotten older, I've been around so many incredible designers and shapers — now I have a catalogue of what works, what doesn't, and what would happen if you mixed a few things together. I'm always trying to squeeze every little bit of performance out of equipment because I think I actually really relied on that in the past because I felt like I couldn’t necessarily enter the flow state like some of my competition.

So maybe I felt like the only way I could gain an advantage was if my equipment was helping me more than anything. Honestly, I think many people can get into that flow state — that zone where you’re not thinking about anything — riding anything. But that’s not really me. For me it’s like, if my equipment's better than everyone else’s, I can have a level playing field, which in turn will allow my performance to be better, and ultimately get into that flow state. At the end of the day, though, it's not about beating others. That obsession with equipment is just about getting the best performance you possibly can, because when you leave everything out on the table, then there's nothing to be disappointed about. You've done all you could to be the best you can.

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Kai Lenny

From kiteboarding and windsurfing to foiling and big wave surfing, Hawaii's Kai Lenny does it all and at an expert level.

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