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The Conditions For Flow

Friday, June 8th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

I’ve found that I alternate between three ways of experiencing the world, three perspectives or ways of attending to thoughts and actions. These are broad, narrow, and a strange floating perspective, halfway between the two:

When my perspective is broad – usually, when I’m well rested, in the morning, and without stress or anxiety – I can literally see more things in my field of vision. I have trouble driving, because my eyes fixate on people and flowers and cars and animals, things on the sides of the road and in the distance. I can feel my curiosity, an active curiosity, looking at the world, open to new ideas, actively looking for things to learn about and experience. I have ideas, and think of opportunities, and consider how things might be. I can traverse relationships between ideas in a playful way, and those who know me know that this connective stream of consciousness usually comes out of my mouth, too. It’s a visionary perspective, one of potential.

When my perspective is narrow – usually after I’ve been drinking, or late at night, or when I’m concerned or anxious about something, or when I’m in the midst of chaos – I can feel my vision constricting. I ignore my surroundings – people, and the environment – and focus on a single problem. Typically (and unfortunately), my work involves a computer, and when I have a computer in my lap, it becomes the single focus of my attention – it actually becomes an extension of my thoughts. It enhances the tunneling, making it extraordinarily hard to attend to outside influences. I have solutions, and I get things done, and I check things off lists. I pay no attention to the world around me; there is no new, outside influences. This is a productive perspective, one of accomplishment.

My perspective frequently falls into a place between the broad and narrow, a floating perspective. It’s a weird feeling, a place without “edges”, where there is no inner dialogue or criticism, and simultaneously, no sense of vast and endless opportunity. This is a space of creativity potential; it’s also the space of emotion. And when I have competency in a given skill or area, this is the place of flow.

When I throw a pot on a potter’s wheel, the medium is clay, the form is literal, and the subject matter and form are one: the way the pot looks is the same as what the pot says. If there is “content” to the act of making pottery, it is formal. When I’ve achieved flow, the form, the content, the subject, and the medium all act in harmony. By definition, the flow-like state means rational consciousness is suspended. My thoughts are not “focused on the pot”, nor are they broad or curious. They exist in a state of motor response, where my hands and eyes respond to the medium and form of the clay. It is in this state of flow that prior experience and expertise drive action, and I’ve actually caught myself thinking about completely unrelated topics – groceries, or politics – while still managing to produce beautiful art. It’s as if I’m not so much doing creativity as watching creativity being done.

When I code, I’m aware of my deficiencies, mostly related to syntax. I know, theoretically, how I want to do things, but I’m hindered by a lack of familiarity and experience with the actual code to write, and so I find myself constantly searching Google for the appropriate syntax. I typically write pseudo-code to describe my intent, and then go back to actually craft the real code. When I write the pseudo-code, I arrive at a place of flow: the medium is algorithmic (sequences, logic), the form is English, and the subject matter is irrelevant. I have expertise, and so I can again suspend rational consciousness. My thoughts are not “focused on the code”, and I’m able to simply act, without conscious thought. But when I move to writing the actual code, my state of flow breaks. I visit google, learn the appropriate syntax for regular expression matching, visit stack overflow, synthesize some knowledge, and return to my code to try it. It typically doesn’t work, and so I test and refine. It’s a sloppy process, and throughout it, I’m aware of my end goal and my current state relative to it. I feel public: I feel like I’ve dropped my groceries in front of other customers in line. It’s a self-awareness that detracts from the actual medium, form, and goal. It’s the self-awareness of learning, and it’s one that my students feel nearly all of the time.

In design, the subject matter matters. The subject matter introduces artificial constraints. In code, the artificial constraints are limited: the architecture selected, the platform established. The primary constraint is my expertise. In clay, the constraints aren’t artificial, as much as natural – what the clay can do literally constrain what I can do with it. I know these natural constraints based on, again, experience; I’ve ruined beautiful works by pushing the material beyond its place of comfort.

But in design, the constraints are artificially based on both content and medium. To achieve the comfort and quality benefits of flow means mastering the content, and knowing about whatever it is you are designing. What’s more, it means knowing about the relationship between that content and people. There’s also a need to master the medium: to have an intimacy with code, or plastic, or marble, or print. And, there’s a need to know the relationship between that medium and people. This is a triad of expertise: to know a medium, to know the content, and to know behavior. And when I say know, I mean to know naturally, intimately: to have achieved, through experience, enough competency as to achieve flow.

And even then, with a rich expertise in the medium, the content, and human behavior, I still need to achieve that place of perspective that hovers between broad and narrow, and that floats between opportunity and pragmatism. This is partially outside environment, in that the conditions around me need to allow for this state. And it’s partially inside, in that my thoughts need to quiet, and my cares need to dissipate. Deadlines and requirements push towards a narrow perspective, a perspective of productivity. Vision and innovation push towards a broad perspective, a perspective of opportunity. A flow state of accomplishment lives between the two. It’s a fragile state.

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