Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I'm My Own Bueaucracy

Yesterday as one of my early morning friends was leaving the coffee shop, he turned to wave goodbye and noticed that I looked perhaps a bit too happy sitting behind my Mac and typing. He quipped, "Hey, are you working or just playing around?"

I can remember the words landing somewhere in my consciousness, and then sometime later paying attention to them, and eventually noticing that they'd been directed at me, and then listening to them, and then, after what seemed like an eternity (though I'm sure the whole process took just a second), looking up and responding, "I guess I'm playing around, but they pay me to do it."

Some call it it flow, some call it groove, some call it being in the zone. Whatever you call it, there's this experiential phenomenon where you become wholly present with whatever it is you're doing. You're in the moment with no thought about past or future. You're in your process with no thought about other tasks or challenges. Time disappears. The world around you disappears. It's fluid. It's blissful. It's serene. It's poetry in motion. It's all that.

I find myself experiencing flow every day. When I'm playing music, when I'm writing software. when I write my blogs, I'm in my zone, flowing. I find myself experiencing flow when mountain biking across particularly challenging trails or when snowboarding. I love that I get paid to do work where I get to be in flow. I love that I can find my groove every day.

Epistemological Flow and Other Oxymora
On Saturday, Jonathan and I talked about being in an epistemological flow, which would normally be perceived as an oxymoron. Flow is normally associated with just being, just doing, and not thinking about it. Epistemological thought is the mental processing that we do to structure, organize and store information. Ontological thought is the thought of flow; it's just being with whatever is presented you and pursuing it to wherever it takes you.

Software design and implementation are highly epistemological in nature. In fact, one's skill at software is directly proportional to his ability to structure, organize, reduce, abstract, translate and the like. And yet, when I'm working on software, my experience is ontological. Everything just flows. I feel serene, blissful, and happy; and, I get paid to do it.

So, I wondered, "What's up with that? How can one be ontologically epistemological?"

And then I realized that flow is not about what you're processing; it's about how you're processing it.

It's Not About What, It's About How
I know many software engineers who are quite epistemological in their approaches to software design and implementation. They're methodical going from collection of requirements, to design, to review, to implementation, to testing. They perform each of these tasks as discrete steps in a linear process that can be described as anything but flowing.

Many of the people whom I've met in software play instruments and even compose music. You know what? They bring the same epistemological approach to music that they do to software. It's structured, it's organized, it's prepared and presented. It doesn't flow.

On the other hand, starting out as an improvisational musician who, much to the chagrin of anyone who ever tried to teach me anything, always preferred playing what's in my head to playing what's on the paper in front of me, I bring a dramatically different approach to software and to music. I move freely from task to task (back and forth, from what I want to do, to determining how to do it, to doing it), and concept to concept (up and down from coarse abstraction to fine detail). It flows. I don't hink about my process; I just think within it.

In fact, as I think about it, it's not the music or the software that are appealing to me; it's being in my zone, finding my groove, flowing.

I shared with Jonathan that what I want most in life is to expand the time that I'm in flow. I want to be in flow when talking with others. I want to be in flow when working. I want to be in flow when playing.

Jonathan, who is an expert skier and who knows what it is to flow while writing software, responded, "Well, who wouldn't want that? To be in that state is incredibly appealing, even addicting."

So, take-away one for me is that flow has nothing to do with the what of what you're doing. Flow is all about the how of what you're doing. You can do epistemological meditation or you can do ontological meditation. You can play music, or ski, or write software, or work algebra problems, or talk with your partner, ontologically or epistemologically. It's all about attitude, presence and focus.

Who Wouldn't Want That?
Yesterday, as I approached a day where everything planned had become something else, I noted instance after instance where I was anything but in my flow. Or at least, where I actively attempted to toss large boulders in the midst of it in order to divert or block it.

Time after time, I would stop my ontological process and go all epistemological, trying to figure out everything before acting on anything, trying to anticipate all the possibilities, trying to answer all the potential problems before they occurred, stopping myself dead in my tracks. Forget about your average software programmer, yesterday morning, the US senate could have made decisions about national health care faster than I could as to whether or not I should leave now of ten minutes from now. I'd become my own private bureaucracy.

For someone who loves flow, I was doing anything but flowing. Why is that? What changed? What was I hoping to accomplish? What was I hoping to prevent?

Of course, the answers to those question would be epistemological. As I found myself yesterday completely confounding my ontological flow with epistemological hesitation, asking myself these questions would have been akin to convening a five-star panel to study and report on my decision processes?

In the end, what worked for me yesterday was to just decide, decide to flip from epistemological congestion to ontological action. Maybe that's all it takes, ever?

Do You Flow?
So, where in your life do you experience being in your zone? Is it when you're working? When you're playing with your kids? When you walking in nature? Driving through traffic?

Do you flow? Sometimes... much of the time... always... never?

When you're in your groove, how does it feel? Do want more of it?

As I'm writing today, I realize that we can bring the experience of flow to anything we do. Flow is not about the content of our activities, it's about who we become and how we are when conducting the activity.

Perhaps the reason that many of us employ activities such as yoga and meditation or skiing or music to find centered-ness, peace and serenity, is because we've relegated flow to exclusively those activities. Perhaps we can bring centered-ness, peace and serenity to any activity, just by deciding to.

Maybe today is the day where we each decide to disband our own private bureaucracies?

Happy disbanding!
Teflon

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