the time of flow

Over at Nautilus—which, happily, has secured funding to continue its print edition from a group of well-heeled superfans—Heather Berlin writes about time and the flow state:

When our minds are under-stimulated, time often feels like it is moving in slow motion…[When] we are fully engaged, especially in the kind of “flow state” familiar to artists, athletes, and other top performers, our sense of time appears to speed up, or even to disappear entirely.

When a game like Super Mario Bros. 3 or The Legend of Zelda stopped working on my old Nintendo, I’d dutifully remove the cartridge, blow into it, and put it back in. This didn’t do anything, I’ve since learned, but the game would eventually start working again of its own accord as long as I kept at it. The ritual simply gave me the comforting illusion of control over an unpredictable outcome.

Just so with my flow state. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn’t; my attempts to encourage it amount to blowing into my own cartridge. (That sounded better in my head.)

According to Berlin, “the frontal regions of the brain that have been shown to be involved in time perception and impulse control are also involved in spontaneous creativity.” Our sense of time and our flow state are intimately linked—maybe that connection goes both ways?

In fMRI studies of improvising jazz musicians and rappers, a key portion of the prefrontal cortex shows an increase in activation. This area is known to be involved in intentional self-expression. Simultaneously, another portion of the brain slows down, this one responsible for self-monitoring and problem-solving. As we improvise, creativity ramps up, the inner critic cools off, and we soar into a timeless flow state. When flow fizzles, however, that inner critic is firing up when it’s supposed to lie low.

I suspect one reason this happens is that “the sense of time passing, producing its changes and progressions, is a capacity our brains evolved for adaptive reasons.” In other words, that inner critic didn’t evolve to make artists miserable but to keep artists out of the bellies of saber-toothed tigers. If this nugget of gray matter isn’t convinced it’s safe to relax and stop watching the clock, it remains on high alert. Each second continues to tick by, second-like, and flow remains frustratingly out of reach.

I’ve written before about my new reliance on Focusmate, the online accountability service that pairs you with a stranger over webcam so you can work silently in virtual solidarity. (Some dude is programming in another country while I write these words.) Sure, timers help us break up large tasks into manageable chunks, but Berlin’s article suggests another reason why time-based tools like Focusmate and the Pomodoro technique are effective at fomenting flow. They reassure the time-conscious inner critic that we won’t miss an important appointment or leave the stove on too long if we let ourselves get lost in timeless creative improvisation. We can relax.

The creative trance requires an essential part of us to lower its guard, even “sleep.” It’s not going to do that if it’s worried we’ll wake up under a tree with a long white beard. A timer provides basic reassurance that we won’t.

Speaking of which, my session is up.

when mastery is all the rage

If you’re looking for the ticket to mastery, I can’t help you. Plenty of books promise to show you how it’s done, but I don’t think mastery is something you can choose. That said, I might have a viable alternative.

In Making Things Right: The Simple Philosophy of a Working Life, Norwegian carpenter Ole Thorstensen tells the story of a loft renovation from beginning to end; I was enthralled.

Thorstensen is a master. In fact, he is a master carpenter. It’s right in the title.

Thorstensen approaches his work with great seriousness and boundless humility. The goal might be nothing more significant than a new bedroom and bathroom for his clients’ kids, but the job itself—long winter months of painstaking and backbreaking effort in an uninsulated attic in Norway—receives the full measure of his skill and craftsmanship. His mastery shines through every phase of the work—even the bidding process at the start, as he carefully balances his strict professional ethics against the desire to win the job. To Thorstensen, all of it is the craft: bidding, budgeting, professional networking, even taking archival photos of the work. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing masterfully.

Thorstensen knows not only what to do at each step of the renovation—a feat of (to me) astounding technical complexity—but why. Why this material or that technique and not something pretty similar, probably just as good, and maybe a bit cheaper or easier? He understands which details really matter because those tiny differences will be magnified by the scope and complexity of the job. That kind of nail might be fine for hanging a picture or two, but if used improperly in this context, you might have to tear everything out and start again later on, losing days or weeks of work.

In some ways, renovating a loft is like writing a book. I’m glad you see the parallel, too.

You can see that Thorstensen has considered the many ways each problem can be approached and selected the most efficient, effective, safe, and—ideally—elegant solution. Further, he is always able to explain his reasoning in layperson’s terms. I’ve struggled to understand more than one self-proclaimed expert only to suspect they’re more confused than I am. Clarity is a hallmark of mastery.

Even under the pressure of milestones and deadlines, Thorstensen is deliberate and unyielding about periodic rest and relaxation—he has learned that rushing the work or pushing himself to his physical limits will only come back to bite him. Reading the book, it feels as though the entire renovation exists as a four-dimensional model in his mind, the ramifications of any deviation calculated and compensated for between blows of the hammer.

Clearly, mastery brings Thorstensen satisfaction. I think that’s why he wrote the book. He takes pride in the way he works. He wants you, the reader, to take similar pride in your own vocation, whatever it might be.

Just as clearly, he earned his mastery without any shortcuts. Thorstensen is so intimately familiar with the craft of carpentry and all its pitfalls that we see him anticipating and avoiding problems several steps ahead, down to making sure there is enough floor space to work at each stage as stacks of wood and mounds of cement are hauled in and out of the loft. He knows where the tolerances are tight and where they’re not. In one case, precision up front saves hours of arduous labor down the road. In another, he can afford to eyeball it. He has learned all of these lessons the hard way, through endless repetition and a single-minded devotion to his calling.

What kind of person spends every waking minute thinking about carpentry? Or about any subject, for that matter? Does Jiro dream of anything other than sushi? As I’ve written before, a good ER nurse anticipates chaos—and saves lives—by painstakingly arranging the cables, tubes, and sheets to avoid any trips or snags when every second counts. Mastery is mastery is mastery. It is the product of obsession multiplied by time.

We’re talking about more than practice here, however many thousands of hours you might invest. Inborn talent plays a fundamental role. IQ doesn’t measure a fraction of the scope of human potential, but I believe a gift must be present to achieve mastery. Gifted people are driven in a way the rest of us simply aren’t. The thing is, I don’t envy the geniuses their mastery. In 1843, Maggie Fergusson suggests genius is a curse. She makes a good case.

One characteristic of gifted children is a “rage to master.” As Fergusson explains, once a brilliant child locks in on something—trains, the violin, dinosaurs—it’s almost impossible to divert their attention. They have to spend every moment studying the object of their interest, plumbing its depths.

Mastery is nothing more than the byproduct of this compulsive attention. The actual purpose, for the gifted individual, seems to be distraction. Distraction from the grinding discomfort of perceiving the world at 8K resolution and 60 fps. Life shouldn’t be in such sharp focus. Like a faded star of old Hollywood, we all benefit from a little Vaseline on the lens.

Pity those bunched up at the far end of the bell curve. They see reality a little too directly, warts and all, and they do so alone:

A gifted child may have an advanced ability to master something like maths, but more limited capacity to deal with their social environment which is another important part of growing up and fitting in over the course of their lives. “A gifted child might be prone to complete social meltdowns,” says Anguera. “They can’t understand how other children work, and they can’t control their emotions.” Being exceptionally able in some areas means they need “the right support” in others, she says.

You can see why Latin, or the piano, or carpentry might represent such a powerful escape to a gifted mind. These subjects offer complexity, bottomless complexity, enough to engage the whole overclocked processor for hours at a time. The “rage to master,” a phrase coined by developmental psychologist Ellen Winner, represents a kind of bottled-up energy that, unchanneled by logic puzzles or subway maps, leads to intense anxiety, depression, even suicidal thoughts.

I’ve often wondered why so many of the greatest artists, having achieved the fame and wealth necessary to travel the world or mingle with other legendary peers, continue spending their waking hours in a studio or at a desk, alone. I’m starting to think they have to stay engaged with the work in order to survive.

Maybe you’re not a genius and maybe neither am I. Just because we don’t have an obsessive devotion to writing—or any other area of expertise—doesn’t mean we can’t get pretty darn good at doing our jobs. You don’t have to be a master to act a lot like one, most of the time. That’s what I aim for, anyway.

Here’s what I take away from gifted, driven people like Thorstensen. Take it easy. Pace yourself. “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” Recently, I was talking to a friend who’d spent some time in the trades. According to him, the pros on any given job always took their time getting set up. Regardless of the timeline or the weather or their mood, they would find a good, clear spot to work, lay out their tools, and arrange everything they needed to begin just so. There was no hurrying them. The right way was the only way.

School seems to teach the opposite. We’re constantly hurried along, and speed is held up as a metric of success. It’s a hard habit to break. As I’ve been facing down one deadline after another myself, I’ve forced myself to adopt the stance of mastery despite being anything but a master myself. WWMD: What would a master do?

Resisting the urge to dash anything off for the satisfaction of ticking a checkbox, I open all the necessary applications and documents, make a written plan for the work session, and read all the materials carefully before typing a single word. The steadier and more methodical my pace, the faster the work gets done, and the less pain involved in doing it. Never fails to surprise me, but then again, I’m just pretending to be a master here.

Contrary to popular belief, Salieri had a pretty great career. I’d take it over Mozart’s path any day.

on writers and their drinking problem

I’ve written before about the coffee situation, the notion that, while you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can judge a book publisher by its coffee. Specifically, its availability. Are we here to work or not? These details matter as much as the semicolons do, people.

That said, there’s another side to the coffee question. The brew of roasted Coffea arabica isn’t necessarily the best option when you’re blocked or otherwise feeling skittish around a piece of writing. Use caution.

I started drinking coffee at an early age. By high school, I was drinking several cups a day. Not because I was doing homework—I wasn’t—but because Mystery Science Theater 3000 was on late and my priorities were straight. (To this day, I’m confident I made the right call there.)

Ours was a Taster’s Choice household. We weren’t fancy like them Folgers drinkers. Folgers, with its high-falutin’ Shakespeare library. Ha! You might as well drink dewdrops and moonbeams. Folgers might be the best part of waking up, but Taster’s Choice is a conscious decision.

Taster’s Choice: You brought this on yourself.

Actual Taster’s Choice slogan

Historical fact: They call the coffee “Taster’s Choice” because, originally, that choice was offered to the King’s food taster:

“Would you rather drink from this goblet of wine poured by the King’s jealous cousin, or from this mug of instant coffee?”

The goblet starts smoking suspiciously.

“Well, taster? What’s your choice—goblet or mug?”

I’m thinking it over!”

(For all those playing Maven Game bingo at home, I’ve finally squeezed in a Jack Benny reference.)

Between my junior and senior years, I spent a summer at Syracuse University playing with lasers and DNA for a pre-college science program. Syracuse featured one of those old-school college town coffee shops: ratty couches, board games missing several key pieces, the occasional jazz trio. There, I ordered my very first “red-eye”: two shots of espresso, then up to the brim with drip coffee. Why? Because the red-eye was the maximum, and I’m a maximum kind of guy.

Reader, I drank my first red-eye. Pow. Hamster, meet wheel. “I am a golden god!” “Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!That scene in Altered States where the guy becomes a monkey. Et cetera.

When I returned from Syracuse, I was off to the races.

Adenosine is a chemical. In the body, it acts as the brain’s brake. Released into your central nervous system, it slows down neurological activity and makes you sleepy. It’s your brain’s way of saying simma da na! (OK, last reference.)

Structurally similar to adenosine, caffeine molecules fit into the same receptors, blocking adenosine’s effects on the brain and revving you right back up again. Over time, your brain creates more adenosine receptors to compensate, but to this day, I can still count on a slew of ideas about fifteen minutes after every strong cup of coffee.

If I’m really cooking on a new piece, the enhanced recall and accelerated cognition pay dividends. In fact, it can be a real challenge to write without it, even after withdrawal passes. At my first writing job, I quit coffee for the Atkins diet. Not only did my output dry up—a problem in many, if not most, writing jobs—I lost my sense of humor to boot. Since I was spending most of my time at work writing my personal blog, this was serious. I figured it might take a little while for my brain to adjust. My blog would have to wait.

Once I got over the initial withdrawal symptoms, I waited patiently for my brain to return to some kind of equilibrium. After a couple of months, however, I realized: This is my life now. So I poured myself a fresh cup and never looked back.

Coffee gets ideas flowing but, as urgent and important as those ideas feel—particularly when you don’t have a pen handy to write them down—they aren’t necessarily useful. Ideas are cheap; everyone’s got some. Execution is what matters. Depending on the timing, a flood of new ideas can be a distraction from the work at hand. This is especially true if you’re already subconsciously seeking a way to avoid doing that work.

As much as I love coffee, if I’m dealing with uncomfortable emotions around a piece of writing, I’ve come to accept that caffeine makes it harder to settle down and get it done.

Coffee is almost certainly a net-positive for your health. Dr. Sanjiv Chopra, who co-wrote a remarkable memoir with his brother, Deepak, told me to drink at least six cups a day. Six! Dr. Chopra, an eminent hepatologist at Harvard Medical School, says it protects your liver. D.R. Moldawer, however, prescribes caution. Driving without brakes is fun, but not if you have someplace to be and you want to get there in one piece.

The next time you’re feeling stuck, resist the impulse to reach for an extra cup.

p.s. I only heard from one of you about my accidental use of criterium—”a one-day bicycle race on a circuit road course”—instead of criterion—”a standard on which a judgment or decision may be based.” Maven Game readers being what they are, however, Pat can’t have been the only one who spotted this egregious error last week. Apologies all around. Like the Starbucks cup on Game of Thrones, the error has been digitally repaired.

p.p.s. Speaking of which, any self-respecting showrunner would have found a way to make that Starbucks cup part of GOT canon. Daenerys rides a dragon! Is it so hard to imagine she buys her coffee from a mermaid?

keeping it wholesome

First, something quick: If you’re an author, editor, or literary agent, you’ll love this.

My friend Mo Bunnell tracks how he spends his time. As a result, he knows exactly how long it took to write and publish his book, soup to nuts. I was involved and I still found this data fascinating. Watch Mo lay out the numbers.

Mo’s a wholesome guy with a wholesome message. Perfect segue into today’s topic.

There’s a quote that goes around, as certain quotes tend to do. It boils down to this: “Before you say something, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”

Man, this advice comes in handy—when I remember to use it. And I’m not the only one who likes it. It crops up everywhere. I first saw it in a store, unattributed on a sign behind the cash register. I’ve spotted it many times since, both online and off. Doesn’t really matter who originally said it, but people being people, we still want to know. Einstein, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi: It doesn’t quite fit any of the usual suspects. Usually attributed to Rumi, it crops up in print in 1848 without attribution to the 13th-century Persian poet. Who knows—maybe Buddha? One philosopher goes down the rabbit hole, if you’re curious.

What is it that we’re trying to avoid when we subject our words to these three “gates of speech,” as they’re sometimes called? A misstep, clearly, but what kind?

I think a lot about gates—of speech, of thought, of behavior—because I work in the advice business. You have to protect your head. There are a lot of experts out there, many are extremely persuasive, and some are just not to be trusted, to put it mildly.

You might think I’d have developed an immunity to bad advice by now. Bill Haast deliberately exposed himself to snake venom for over sixty years and he lived to a hundred. His snake-proof blood was eventually used to save a number of snakebite victims. Having been exposed to snake oil for over fifteen years myself, my blood should be good for something, too. But I’m still susceptible. Deep down, I’m a sucker like everybody else. I need a good gate to insulate me from the bad advice I’m forced to expose myself to in the practice of my professional occupation.

I’ve developed a bit of a radar over the years, sure, but I’ve had a hard time articulating exactly what I’m reacting to until now. Here’s the gate I’ve settled on. Maybe you’ll find it useful, too. It’s simple, but I’ve found it holds up to everything I can throw at it:

Is it wholesome?

The next time you listen to a podcast or watch a TED talk or receive a piece of sales copy via mailing list, stop before clicking the Buy button and ask yourself that question: Is this advice wholesome? If not, run, no matter how compelling the evidence or glamorous its deliverer.

What do I mean by “wholesome”? As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about identifying something unwholesome, “I know it when I see it.” To put it baldly, wholesome advice stands on its own. It bears the brunt of common sense.

Take reading. Reading books is a wholesome activity. If I were to suggest to you that you read more books—which, sure, you should—you can take that advice at face value. I don’t need to offer you a testimonial from an influencer, a cherry-picked research study, or an obscure but fascinating anecdote drawn from a 19th-century newspaper. You can just nod to yourself and think, “Dave’s right. I should read more. What’s the harm?”

If I were to go beyond that and do the whole thought leader thing, layering on studies about how reading novels builds empathy and so on, that wouldn’t hurt anything per se. But, and here’s the key thing, if the study in question turns out to have been done on twelve graduate students forty years ago, or misinterpreted thanks to a shoddy understanding of statistics, you wouldn’t have been an idiot for reading more books. Reading stands on its own. It’s a wholesome activity, right there on the face of it.

Recently, a viral story went around arguing that flossing—flossing!—has no scientifically proven benefits. As Snopes points out, this has a lot more to do with the fact that there’s no Big Floss incentivizing the right studies. I mean, why would anyone fund flossing research? Have you not seen the gunk that comes out of there? Floss your damn teeth—it’s wholesome AF!

Writing in your journal. Going for a walk in the park. Hugging a loved one. All wholesome activities.

Watching hours of TV alone while eating pint after pint of ice cream. Staying out late to party the night before the big job interview. Spreading malicious rumors about someone you resent. Not wholesome.

Those are the obvious ones, but the test still serves for all kinds of advice you might encounter. Take the personal-development-organization-turned-cult NXIVM. (If you haven’t seen the episode of Cults and Extreme Beliefs about NXIVM yet, The Cut has assembled some of the more disturbing details revealed during the recent court case here.)

I have to admit, I’m familiar with a number of other organizations that look eerily similar to NXIVM as it was prior to all the branding of human beings like cattle et cetera. Where did things go south? I don’t know for sure, but I can guarantee that at a certain point, after the initial advice to “be your best self” but a little bit before the “line up to be branded like cattle,” the members of NXIVM were offered some unwholesome advice from their persuasive, though sociopathic, leader. It was at this point, again, before the branding, that my little heuristic might have been useful. I’m pretty sure even Chloe from Smallville knew that recording people’s secrets as “collateral” to keep them loyal was an unwholesome activity, yet she did it anyway. However self-actualized she became through NXIVM, the ends did not end up justifying the unwholesome means.

In fact, I would argue they never do, no matter how impressive those ends might look on Instagram or how many people on Facebook swear by them. It’s just not worth the risk, people. Wholesome is as wholesome does. Sort of a karma type deal, know what I mean? Better to accept my average American lifespan of 78.7 or so years with my average American BMI and my average American middle-class success than to endlessly chase awesomeness and abs in all kinds of nutty ways because A Study Someone Else Says They Read Told Me to Do It.

Think about all the wacky fads that have come and gone over the years when it comes to diet and exercise alone. Of course, we can make fun of crazy diet recipes from the 1970s, but at the time people took those very seriously. Likewise, many of us today accept other, equally unwholesome, advice just as easily when it’s peddled persuasively by various extremely popular podcasts and newsletters.

So little of any of this advice holds up to the single criterion of wholesomeness. Take “cryotherapy” as one of many examples. Spending hundreds of dollars to stand in a “cryochamber” being blasted by subzero air might aid “recovery,” whatever that is, but without the star testimonials and the science-y evidence, does that sound like a wholesome Friday night to you? Of course not. And, of course, when cryotherapy turns out to not do much of anything—aside from kill somebody that one time—people will spend exactly one minute wondering how anybody fell for such a ridiculous notion…until the next fad rolls along.

I offer this tool to protect you. I also share it in the hopes that, as you construct your own well-meaning advice for the people you serve, you subject your own suggestions to the same acid test. For all our experience and expertise, we can never be 100-percent certain that our suggestions are perfect, but we can certainly ask ourselves if they are wholesome.

Will your book pass this gate?