Challenge and flow
You are filled with determination
My quest to find meaning has taken yet another clichéd turn: returning to my roots. Last post I mentioned how "making cool stuff" is my guiding principle. Well, in an effort to get back on that wavelength I've been diving back into generative art. I took Matt DesLauriers‘ Audio Synthesis and Visualisation course recently and I've had a great time experimenting with the techniques. I’ve found myself coming back for more each day since, to the point of consciously having to pull myself away from the desk (an unfamiliar feeling in recent times). I have an endless fascination with video games, music visualisers and the demoscene and I'm slowly accumulating the tools to fuse them all together.
I think there's something profound in the combination of the mathematical/systematic and the emotional potency of audiovisual experiences. Even more-so when they are interactive, multi-user and/or incorporate real-world data. I see so much beauty in the patterns and connections of reality, and generative art seems like microcosm of it all. When I study and contemplate a generative piece or series, the patterns slowly come into focus and can provoke the same humbling awe as a koan.
As much as I love pretentious art, I also love videogames and coming back to work on The Song of The Fae after a generative art vacation has given me pause to reflect. It seems like, rather than the activities themselves, my creative flow and joy stem from meeting an appropriate challenge. I've read about the science of flow in The Art of Impossible and this is indeed one of the key findings, flow is a response to challenge but not overwhelming challenge. It's the intense feeling of determination, a slight furrowing of my brow as I think "hm, I bet that I can get this to work..."
This begs a deeper question, are there varieties of challenge that produce this determination more readily in me than others? Or, perhaps, is it that a lack of determination means I’m ill-prepared for the task at hand? I doubt there is a clear division, I imagine both these forces are acting in tandem with many others. Clearly different humans have different affinities for different kinds of work1 but all work feels like work some of the time. When does "putting in the work" give way to torturing yourself?
According to this article I found on reddit, valuing your work is more important than enjoying it in terms of well-being, and I think anecdotally there's truth to this. A common quip you'll hear in productivity circles is "instead of thinking that you have to do it, think that you get to do it" and I believe this is pointing at this same notion, reminding oneself of the value in the work. However, I've mostly only found that quote helpful in theory, in practice it can sound something like "you don't have to punch yourself in the face, you get to!" Personally, If I don’t feel a strong connection to the overarching goals and underlying principles of a project then it’s a matter of when, not if, I stop working on it.
I suspect that whatever value function my brain uses to classify work is weighted heavily towards ethics, difficulty, learning potential, novelty and the lofty concept of beauty. Conversely, my brain’s valuation of making numbers go up, gaining status and accumulating power seems near zero. I know determination and flow are not necessary to accomplish work, but surely if you can find fulfilling work it’s the better choice?
In a response to my last post, a reader (thanks Billy) suggested that instead of LARPing being a game developer, I could try simply being one2. Immediately I understood that I was acting out a preconceived notion of what a commercially viable game developer is, and not enjoying it (which isn’t surprising at all). Despite my love of games as an artform I have very little respect for the way the industry operates, on both the consumer and creator sides. I’m not really sure what my viable version of being a full-time creative looks like yet but to find out I have to keep evolving my ideas and processes beyond the limited examples that exist today, and most of all when it's self-alienating and scary.
I think my worst moods arrive when I shy away from the challenge of paving my own path. I've seen over and over that summoning the courage to defy social norms and external expectations leads me to a breakthrough, but courage can be uh... fickle, for me. Lately I've found myself pondering the difference between courage and ambition. To avoid confusion I'll define these as I think of them:
Ambition - pursuing a grand or prestigious goal, with great determination
Courage - standing up for what you believe to be right, with great determination
Clearly there is a some conceptual overlap between the two and as a result I think I've often confused them. I suspect I actually dislike the mindset of pure ambition, but still enjoy the delicious downstream determination it provides. Turns out I'm not alone, Paul Graham (Y-Combinator) is wary of prestige itself:
Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you'd like to like.
Paul Graham, How to Do What You Love
I scrambled to copy this down as soon as I read it, I should probably write on the back of my eyelids. There’s something deeply uncomfortable about the phrasing of spending my life doing “what I'd like to like”.
The challenge of being a creator (without fixation on prestigious or egotistical goals) requires mostly courage, not ambition. Courageous pursuits may yield no material reward but they feel right and, in my opinion, that has to count for something. To be totally clear I'm not condemning ambition (I enjoy the benefits of others’ ambition daily) but I think that for me it’s a self-destructive source of motivation. Courage is harder to summon but seems safe to work with, so long as my moral compass stays calibrated.
Until next time,
Stuff I’ve been thinking about
Maria Popova on the Tim Ferris Show (thanks again Billy)
or our entire society is founded on a mistaken notion of specialisation being fundamentally important, which is possible
yes, I have found another chance to mention non-doing