Adam Grant shares ‘Mario Kart Theory of Peak Flow’ in TED talk

October 18, 2021

Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) faculty affiliate Adam Grant explains “How to stop languishing and start finding flow” in a recent TED talk.

The TED talk builds on Grant’s wildly successful New York Times article on languishing, which he calls the “neglected middle child of mental health.” Grant defines languishing as a sense of stagnation and emptiness that falls somewhere between thriving and depression.

In his TED talk, Grant explores how a feeling of flow, or being fully engaged in a real-world activity, can help employees counter languishing. He cites his own experience of achieving flow by playing Mario Kart with his extended family during the COVID-19 pandemic. Grant tells the TED audience how his sister, who lived across the country, suggested their families connect online via gaming.

“Soon, we were playing every day with a video call running at the same time. After a couple weeks, I stopped feeling so blah. I was living ‘Zen and the Art of Mario Kart,’ ” Grant says. “Our kids were waking up asking what time we would play. They were excited. They loved it when I would gloat about an impending victory, only to be bombed by a flying blue shell and then just sit there, watching all three of our kids drive past me to the finish line in tiny go karts. We had so much fun that we started a new Saturday night tradition after the kids were asleep — adult Mario Kart.”

Grant says the experience helped him formulate what he playfully calls his “Mario Kart Theory of Peak Flow.” The theory suggests that the ideal conditions for achieving peak flow include mastery, mindfulness, and mattering:

  • Mastery: Grant cites research that suggests workers’ happiness is strongly influenced by making progress on projects, even if it’s just small wins.
  • Mindfulness: But, achieving mastery requires undivided attention, Grant says. He notes that after one Fortune 500 company instituted a quiet time policy for employees, when their work couldn’t be interrupted during set hours, productivity increased 65%.
  • Mattering: While mastery and mindfulness can get you into a flow state, Grant says, mattering — knowing you make a difference to other people — is what catapults the experience to peak flow. Grant cites an experiment he conducted with a group of fundraising callers working to secure alumni donations for a university. Callers assigned to meet with just one student whose scholarship was funded by their work subsequently nearly tripled their weekly revenue. Grant says that, instead of focusing on the monotony of making calls, they became absorbed in the meaningful purpose of funding tuition.

While creating the conditions for peak flow — mastery, mindfulness, and mattering — can boost workplace productivity, Grant says his Mario Kart theory is just as applicable at home.

“The antidote to languishing does not have to be something productive,” Grant says. “It can be something joyful. Our peak moments of flow are having fun with the people we love, which is now a daily task on my to-do list.”

Grant is the Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania.