In a paper entitled “The Way of the Wanton” (2008), philosopher J. David Velleman suggests that we achieve excellence only when we are “transcending reflective agency” (p. 182). What he means by this is that, although reflective agency—that is, thinking about and deliberating over our occurrent actions—is a stepping-stone to developing expertise, we perform at our best when we attain what he refers to as “self-forgetful spontaneity,” or “flow” (p.187). Expressing a version of the view I have been referring to as the “just-do-it principle,” he tells us that in highly-skilled actions, “the capacity to monitor . . . performance, to consider how it falls short of an ideal, and to correct it accordingly . . . is no longer exercised” (p. 188). Rather, after the requisite training, according to Velleman, “evaluative judgment is suspended,” and experts act “without deliberate intention or effort” (p. 185).
In previous chapters, I have argued for the importance of monitoring, evaluation, and effort in expert action. In this chapter, I want to suggest that self-awareness is not necessarily detrimental to, and is often a component of, optimal performance. Monitoring, evaluation, and effort go along with a sense of the self: when you are monitoring or evaluating your actions, there is a sense that it is you who is doing the monitoring or evaluation; when you are making an effort to perform an action, you have a sense of effortfully exerting yourself.108 In this chapter, however, I want to scrutinize the type of self-forgetful spontaneity that Velleman sees as essential to optimal performance, and discuss the question of whether the pleasure of movement is due in part to losing the self.
Some of my thoughts on this topic have come about through a collaboration with the physiatrist Jonathan Cole, which resulted in a paper on the pleasure of bodily movement, entitled “Affective Proprioception” (Cole and Montero, 2007). Jonathan is a leading researcher on proprioception, and I have learned a great deal both from my collaboration with him and from his insightful and engaging books and papers. However, I now no longer fully agree with some of what we said, for it seems to me that some of our claims were, alas, beholden to the just-do-it principle – in particular, to the idea that in expert movement, the self is lost. Cole and I started with the premise that highly skilled bodily movement is often pleasurable: a view I still agree with, even though I would now place more emphasis on the fact that it can often be painful, as well. We were then interested in what makes it pleasurable, and one of various features we identified is that in highly skilled movement, one is sometimes blissfully unaware of the self. I think that how we expressed this view was not quite right: yes, there is an aspect of the self that is lost, I would now say, but not the self entirely. Hence, I would like to take this chapter as an opportunity to both recount some of my work with Jonathan, as well as to amend aspects of it that I now think were mistakenly under the thrall of just-do-it. I thank Jonathan for graciously allowing me reprint some passages from that work in this chapter, as well as for being open-minded enough to understand how our views differ.