Beyond FlowJanuary 5th, 2012 · 38 comments
A Deliberate Day
Earlier this week, after three days of trying, I proved an interesting theorem. I was studying a certain type of scheduling problem in graphs. I was finally able to prove that without lots of knowledge about the graph no algorithm can solve the problem fast.
This morning I set out to extend this result. I wanted to know what happens if you have more knowledge. After about an hour, I had a partial answer: If the graph is small in a certain way there is an algorithm that can solve the problem fast — I know this because I found it.
Unfortunately, for more general structures I couldn’t make the math play nice. I had a hazy intuition, but attempt after attempt to make it concrete failed. I couldn’t hold the pieces straight in my head. (See here for more on the style of problem I’m talking about here.)
After another 3 – 4 hours I had to stop for the day.
Between Flow and Tedium…
My experience this morning was not flow.
I was not lost in the experience. Nor did I feel “spontaneous joy.” On the contrary, I found myself waging battle with my attention, forcing it back again and again to the complexities I was trying to sort through.
My mind was pitching every possible distraction as an alternative to working on that problem, and I don’t blame it — it was a draining effort that in evolutionary terms must seem a waste of perfectly good glucose.
At the same time, however, the work wasn’t annoying or tedious. I ended the day exhausted but fulfilled.
I’m telling you this story in reaction to the comments generated by my recent post on deliberate practice. In that post, I noted that the practice habits of expert piano players are tough — not likely to generate the immersive, enjoyable state that defines flow.
Many of the commenters protested. As one reader asked: “Unless you’re actually having fun [with your work], why do it?”
I think these commenters are worried about the conclusion that work should create suffering. Here’s the thing: I agree with their concerns, and this was not the point I was trying to make
On reflection, I think the readers’ confusion stems from our inability to talk about practice in a more nuanced manner. Put plainly, the knowledge work community does not yet have the right vocabulary for describing the type of experience I had this morning — an experience that is not suffering, but then again is not immersive flow either.
Work shouldn’t suck.
But it shouldn’t feel like play either.
The deliberate practice hypothesis demands that we learn to recognize (and embrace) that curious zone found somewhere in between.
This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.
- Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player
- Is Talent Underrated? Making Sense of a Recent Attack on Practice
- Perfectionism as Practice: Steve Jobs and the Art of Getting Good
- Complicate the Formula: John McPhee’s Deliberate Practice Strategy
- If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong: The Surprisingly Relaxed Lives of Elite Achievers