Thinking About Flow

If you make a living programming, you know how productive, how creative, how enjoyable this state is: you + the task at hand – any other thought in the world. Focus, flow, mindfulness only of the moment you are in.

Flow can be found in the most mundane moments (there are no mundane moments if you become aware of this): from playing a game of basketball, to playing your guitar, to a late night World of Warcraft session, to gazing at your wife, or laughing with your daughter.

Time slows when you are in flow. Anxiety about the future transforms into passion about the now. Thoughts about the past do not get a chance to play on your conscious mind.

Flow is an extreme form of the feedback I’d give my Mom, when she was falling into a bad state, and concentrating too much on mistakes made or horrors visited upon her in the past.

“All that matters is the here and now. You, right here, are safe and well. We are doing well. All of us are blessed. Don’t let what happened 20 years ago defeat you. It doesn’t matter. Besides – its kinda insulting to your current circumstances to think anything more of the past other than it helped you get to here. Now is all that matters.”

(I need to tell myself this more often!)

This doesn’t jibe so well with a lot of psychological talk about how people need to face their pasts to over come them. That’s true in many cases. In many cases we *do* need to deal with the demons in our hearts in order to achieve our potential. But Mom had already faced her past. In countless therapy sessions, with countless doctors. She had a condition. And her doctors had, at one time wrote her off as hopeless – doomed to a downward spiral of psychotic episodes.

Becoming mindful of her own thoughts was part of a larger set of solutions that helped her be very “with it” the last few years of her life before leaving us. She succeeded to the point of being aware of threatening ‘bad thoughts’ and seeking out help before cycling and requiring hospitalization. Before this, once you saw the signs, you knew it was a hospitalization that would be the result.

Its funny, when you think about it. Because while we find flow in a great many positive things, the state of flow is just as likely found in the neutral or even the negative.

We spend millions of dollars, our time and attention, following gurus of various ideologies, taking up crazy religious practices, pursuing sex and drugs, creation and destruction, creating drama upon ourselves and our fellow man – just to be in it.

Flow is so primal a force in our adult lives because its something we literally swam in 100% of the time as children.

Our schools and our parents barked it out of us as they taught us to ‘pay attention’ for the *next* moment. We shaked it out of our own hearts as we let ourselves become more and abiding to scheduling. Most of all, as we get older, time simply seems to speed up as we become aware of our looming mortality.

Psychology Today: Finding flow:

…A deprived childhood, abusive parents, poverty, and a host of other external reasons may make it difficult for a person to find joy in everyday life. On the other hand, there are so many examples of individuals who overcame such obstacles that the belief that the quality of life is determined from the outside is hardly tenable. How much stress we experience depends more on how well we control attention than on what happens to us. The effect of physical pain, a monetary loss, or a social snub depends on how much attention we pay to it. To deny, repress, or misinterpret such events is no solution either, because the information will keep smoldering in the recesses of the mind. It is better to look suffering straight in the eye, acknowledge and respect its presence, and then get busy as soon as possible focusing on things we choose to focus on.

To learn to control attention, any skill or discipline one can master on one’s own will serve: meditation and prayer, exercise, aerobics, martial arts. The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.

It is also important to develop the habit of doing whatever needs to be done with concentrated attention. Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn, become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.

…Flow is a source of mental energy in that it focuses attention and motivates action. Like other forms of energy, it can be used for constructive or destructive purposes. Teenagers arrested for vandalism or robbery often have no other motivation than the excitement they experience stealing a car or breaking into a house. War veterans say that they never felt such intense flow as when they were behind a machine gun on the front lines. Thus, it is not enough to strive for enjoyable goals, but one must also choose goals that will reduce the sum total of entropy in the world.

Find your flow and you slow down time. Find your flow and time has no meaning. Find your flow and find your love.

These are things I am saying as much to myself as I am you.

Related Links:

Scratch: Lowering the floor, widening the walls, raising the ceiling

Read about the principals behind the design of Scratch in Communications of the ACM: Scratch: Programming for All: “Digital fluency” should mean designing, creating, and remixing, not just browsing, chatting, and interacting.:

It has become commonplace to refer to young people as “digital natives” due to their apparent fluency with digital technologies. Indeed, many young people are very comfortable sending text messages, playing online games, and browsing the Web. But does that really make them fluent with new technologies? Though they interact with digital media all the time, few are able to create their own games, animations, or simulations. It’s as if they can “read” but not “write.”

As we see it, digital fluency requires not just the ability to chat, browse, and interact but also the ability to design, create, and invent with new media, as BalaBethany did in her projects. To do so, you need to learn some type of programming. The ability to program provides important benefits. For example, it greatly expands the range of what you can create (and how you can express yourself) with the computer. It also expands the range of what you can learn. In particular, programming supports “computational thinking,” helping you learn important problem-solving and design strategies (such as modularization and iterative design) that carry over to nonprogramming domains. And since programming involves the creation of external representations of your problem-solving processes, programming provides you with opportunities to reflect on your own thinking, even to think about thinking itself.

A lot of time to think when you have the flu

It’s been a long week. Last Sunday I started to come down with symptoms of the flu. Classic symptoms. High fever, chills, aches and pains, cough, a gurgle coming from the chest when I breath out here and there, feeling run down. So this week I’ve been spending time basically doing a few things:

  1. Sleeping
  2. Being a pain in the ass to Richelle
  3. Over-sharing on Twitter and Facebook
  4. Trying to answer email from work whenever awake.
  5. Watching Babylon 5’s first season for the first time.
  6. Reading Logicomix
  7. Watching the Phillies take the National League Championship and move on to the World Series!

Along the way I’ve had time to reflect on how blessed I am. Sure, this flu came down during a very, very bad week – things are running tight on a project I’m part of at work and I feel like my body has let people down. But then again, I haven’t caught the flu in years. I guess I was due. The problem is – it comes on the tail end of a nasty cold. So I haven’t been running 100% for over a month. A crucial month.

I’ll be heading back to work soon (if not Monday, then very close to that), and I know it will be a challenge. But it has to be better than the throbbing in my head that I feel even now, a week after coming down with this thing.

Phillies + Flu == Cheers?

Monday night I went to the ER as suggested by my family doctor for flu symptoms. It was a long night. The ER was overrun and understaffed. Nerves were frayed in the waiting room as minutes turned to hours.

One thing that helped pass the time was the Phillies/Dodgers game. Rooting for the Phillies took some of the edge off, but after an early lead, the Dodgers not only caught up, but looked to win.

Later that night, in the patient room I was finally assigned to, waiting for the doctor to visit to give me his five minute diagnosis (yes I have the flu, here’s a prescription for Tamiflu) the 9th inning was coming to a close.

The buzz in the ER slowed down for a moment as Jimmy Rollins came to the plate.

I was on the phone with Richelle giving her my status, taking pause to watch.

I pretty much screamed into the phone as yells of joy erupted around me as his 2 run double brought people home and the Phillies won the game.

A great night.

On “Make It Work Make It Right Make It Fast”

Ward’s wiki: “Make It Work Make It Right Make It Fast”

If you never make it Right – you will fail.

If you never make it Work – you never ship. You have failed.

The tension between these frames the art of software development.

There are no golden hammers to navigate these waters. Don’t let anyone fool you.

Some personal growth pieces to read and re-read

Just some recent links that have connected with me as of late:

Derek Sivers: If you think you haven’t found your passion…:

If you keep thinking about something like putting on a huge conference or being a Hollywood screenwriter and you find the idea terrifies but intrigues you, it’s probably a worthy endeavor for you.

You grow by doing what excites you and what scares you.

t3rmin4t0r: A Simple Survival Guide for your Inner Child:

There are only two basic rules of survival for the individual:

  • Work the system
  • Fuck with the system

It doesn’t get any more contradictory than that.

Howard Weaver – with echos of “Data Smog”, by David Shenk – : Infobesity: the result of poor information nutrition

Chris Dixon: What carries you up will also bring you down

Pace and Kyeli Smith: The Freak Manifesto

Institute for Artificial Intelligence: Michael A. Covington: How to Write More Clearly, Think More Clearly, and Learn Complex Material More Easily

Michael Montoure: Hack Yourself:

Stop assigning blame. This is the first step. Stop assigning blame and leave the past behind you.

You know whose fault it is that your life isn’t perfect. Your boss. Your teachers. Your ex-lovers. The ones who hurt you, the ones who abused you, the ones who left you bleeding. Or even yourself. You know whose fault it is — you’ve been telling yourself your whole life. Knowing whose fault it is that your life sucks is an excellent way to absolve yourself of any reponsibility for taking your life into your own hands.

Forget about it. Let it go. The past isn’t real. “That was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.” If we’re not talking about something that is real and present and in your life right now, then it doesn’t matter. Nothing can be done about it. If nothing can be done about it, then don’t spend your energy dwelling on it — you have other things to do.

Lawrence Lessig shakes the faithful?

TNR: Lawrence Lessig: Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government.

Yes – you read that title right.

Lessig connects the dots from newspapers to the music industry and the ripple effects taking place – everything having to do with the architecture of the Internet and the dynamics set forth.

You need to read the full piece because it is not ‘against transparency’ – far from it – but it does call for a sense of concern and realism to settle into conversations about transparency as means to an end. Ultimately, in regards to government, it is a call to reform, specifically election finance reform – and I agree with much of it.

Reformers rarely feel responsible for the bad that their fantastic new reform effects. Their focus is always on the good. The bad is someone else’s problem. It may well be asking too much to imagine more than this. But as we see the consequences of changes that many of us view as good, we might wonder whether more good might have been done had more responsibility been in the mix. The music industry was never going to like the Internet, but its war against the technology might well have been less hysterical and self-defeating if better and more balanced alternatives had been pressed from the beginning. No one can dislike Craigslist (or Craig), but we all would have benefited from a clearer recognition of what was about to be lost. Internet triumphalism is not a public good.

Likewise with transparency. There is no questioning the good that transparency creates in a wide range of contexts, government especially. But we should also recognize that the collateral consequence of that good need not itself be good. And if that collateral bad is busy certifying to the American public what it thinks it already knows, we should think carefully about how to avoid it. Sunlight may well be a great disinfectant. But as anyone who has ever waded through a swamp knows, it has other effects as well.


O’Reilly Radar: Carl Malamud: Larry Lessig and Naked Transparency

David Larry Lessig: Beyond Transparency, and Net Triumphalism

Aaron Swartz: Transparency Is Bunk

Dave Winer’s experience with InBerkeley recall those of Dan Gillmor with Bayosphere

Dave Winer: What I’ve learned about Hyperlocal

OJR: Tom Grubisich: What are the lessons from Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere?

Mark Glasser: Dan Gillmor Finds His Center

Different situations, but lessons to learn from each are there. And in both cases, the founders shared those lessons with the wider Internet audience. Hopefully more do the same.