We all want to experience flow: face a hard challenge, exhibiting great technique with laser focus, enjoy the creative drive and complete a great task. Very few of us do, and even those who experience flow cannot know when this wonderful experience will happen again. Maybe you want to explore the subject yourself here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Why flow is the opposite of perfection
Many great pieces of arts, books, inventions and computer codes can be traced to a short sprint of creation we call flow. It may seam that the flow is a form of perfection. So why would I claim the opposite?
Perfectionism is about dealing with the little details, adding the finishing touch and criticizing every aspect until there is nothing left to change. During the flow, the task is too hard and the time is too short to do all of this. We simply deal with the most pressing issues, using everything we have in our toolkit and hope for the best.
The result of flow is more about the raw power of our creativity, then flawless perfection. We will not have time to second guess. The small things will be unfinished. Our vision will be implemented quickly, and we better had the technique to match.
Rembrand is one of my favourite painters. When I think about flow I imagine Rembrand’s paintings: dark and strong with immense power and accuracy in every stroke of the brush.
The flow is preceded by long incubation and followed by a short clean-up
People who write computer code know that great programmers spend many times more on design and many times less on debugging than a beginner. Someone new to programming will write several hundred lines of code, then understand what is needed and modify the code several times, and only then start testing looking for problems. The job will be clumsy and full of errors, and the process of debugging painful, slow and unpredictable.
A good programmer will write down the requirements, prepare the tests and draft the design often before writing a single line of code. Then there will be a short sprint of code writing, which will be much shorter than the design process. And then there will be some process of testing and fixing the mistakes using automated tools.
A good programmer can time the coding sprint with a state of high focus and energy, and will often experience flow. Somewhere I read that 4% of programmers are responsible for 80% of code. I think programmers experience flow more than artists in every other profession.
Fear of failure
If the person performing a demanding task is not confident and second-guesses every step the chances of flow fail dramatically. While the incubation can be long, it is typically full of second-guessing. During the work, there will be a chilling understanding that something huge was left out, and it will typically wait for a second iteration, and possible redesign.
A person who fears to fail, will act somewhat slower, checking every step of the way. As a result, he might get tired well before finishing the job. This may require multiple sprints of creativity with costly alterations.
The debugging process will also be less effective and involve less automation and more manual steps. At the same time, there will be an attempt to reduce the scope of the work and remove the bigger perspective from the analysis. It is very easy to say: I did my part well, now take it and use it. For those who need to use it, the integration may be hard or impossible.
Another issue that may reduce efficiency and creativity is group thinking. Good managers have multiple meetings to reduce the chances of failure, share responsibility, allow new ideas to come from unexpected people, exchange information in the group. This is great as a concept but will interfere with the creative process of some team members as some meeting inevitably fall on the most creative time periods.
The state of flow once interrupted for an hour may not return for days. People in flow often forget to drink and do it so that they do not lose their focus. They are edgy and snappy because they do not want to have interfered. Quite often the nature of the problems they deal with will not allow correct effort estimation. The people who need flow as a part of their process are not the best material for office politics.
The state of flow will typically not happen consistently to someone who lacks preparation. The ability to match the problem to expertise comes with experience. The planning and incubation process becomes effective only when the person has all the knowledge required for good planning, and this rarely happens to someone inexperienced.
Somebody who is extremely experienced will also hardly go into the state of flow. There will be fewer tasks worth his efforts. He will be constantly interrupted both by his managers and his protegee. Some crucial details will be missing from his consideration, as everybody would assume he already knows them. At some point, his best chances are either when he is alone in the office or when his design is executed by his protege.
Once a guy who got a Nobel Price told me that he could do science until he got the award, and only talk about science afterward. During the WWII germans allowed their ace pilots to kill planes until their own death. Allies took the aces to schools where they could teach the young generation. German aces had more kills, but allies won the war.
Fake it till you make it
Several years ago I was new to artificial intelligence, and I undertook a very competitive task of building a neural network for the autonomous vehicle. I learned every meaningful article, yet the things I tried failed. After several months of failures, I had a hard talk with my employer. I asked for forgiveness since I did not know enough when I undertook the job. He said that the problem was not me not knowing enough, but me not doing enough.
Recently I mentored a young guy building a very complex network with me as a customer. Every time he needed to deal with a new issue, I had to explain him the best practices. He did everything wrong, and he did not understand his limitations, yet he tried different things until he was successful. Several times he completed tasks that I was not sure are theoretically possible, simply because he did not understand that the task was hard.
If a person is deeply commited to what he does, failing is not an issue. You can fail many times, you can do something that is almost impossible, just as long as you do not give up.
Joy of creation
Shame and fear often drive perfectionism. Flow is driven by joy and curiosity. Shame and joy rarely coexist, fear and curiosity cancel each other. Do not sabotage your happiness.
Some say that this masterpiece was created in a single day. Incredible!