Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Paradox of Control

If a person loses a chess game or botches his hobby he need not worry; in "real" life, however, a person who mishandles a business deal may get fired, lose the mortgage on the house, and end up on public assistance.

Thus the flow experience is typically described as involving a sense of control—or, more precisely, as lacking the sense of worry about losing control that is typical in many situations of normal life.

"A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me, I have no worries of failure..."

What the response is describing is the possibility rather than the actuality, of control. The ballet dancer may fall, break her leg, and never make the perfect turn. But at least in principle, in the world of flow perfection is attainable.

This feeling is also reported in people who take high risk activities. Their enjoyment derives not from the danger itself, but from their ability to minimize it. So rather than a pathological thrill that comes from courting disaster, the positive emotion they enjoy is the perfectly healthy feeling of being able to control potentially dangerous forces.

There are two dangers involved "objective" and "subjective". Objective dangers are unpredictable events that may happen, a sudden storm, an avalanche, etc. Subjective dangers arise from the lack of skill—including the inability to estimate correctly the situation in relation to one's ability.

The whole point is to avoid objective dangers as much as possible and eliminate subjective dangers entirely by rigorous discipline and sound preparation.

What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.

It is not possible to experience a feeling of control unless one is willing to give up the safety of protective routines. Only when a doubtful outcome is at stake, and one is able to influence that outcome, can a person really know whether she is in control.

Almost any enjoyable activity can become addictive, in the sense that instead of being a conscious choice, it becomes a necessity that interferes with other activities.

When a person becomes so dependent on the ability to control an enjoyable activity that he cannot pay attention to anything else, then he loses the ultimate control: the freedom to determine the content of consciousness.

Thus enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative aspect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes a captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Components of Enjoyment


The phenomenology of enjoyment has 8 components.

  1. The experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing, is challenging and requires skills.

  2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.

  3. Concentration is possible because it has clear goals.

  4. Concentration is possible because there is immediate feedback.

  5. One acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.

  6. Enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.

  7. Concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.

  8. The sense of duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.

The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.

Singapore Marathon: Lessons Learnt


Originally uploaded by nicodemus_chan.

Final results, I came in position 5497th out of a field of 6588.

Chip Time: 6 hours, 24 minutes, 19 seconds. (Gun Time: 6 hours, 33 minutes, 12 seconds.)

Lessons Learnt:

1. Comfortable clothing is a must. Spend money and buy those expensive singlets from Adidas, Nike, Reebok, etc. Going 42km with repetitive rubbing can cause abrasions. Buy short pants. My mid-thigh shorts, even though they were from New Balance caused some abrasions. But not as bad as when I didn't use such shorts for the 12km New Paper Big Walk.

2. Good shoes are a must. I didn't even get a single blister over my whole run. One of my friends got blisters on both feet midway through. I bought the Adidas Adizero LT shoes. About S$145 (after 20% discount).

3. You need preparation. Start at least 9 months before the marathon. A marathon teaches you the lesson that for some tasks, you can't just do it the next day. You can't just say I want to run a marathon tomorrow and hope to complete it. It applies for jobs and even business. Sometimes you need to prepare for business by learning it on the job elsewhere before doing it on your own.

4. Get a book to help you prepare. Borrow one from the library. I used "Marathon Manual" and followed the beginners program which is based on just increasing your endurance by time and not by miles. Take it easy and hit your target running times.

5. You can do it. Write down your goals. I wrote this goal down at the beginning of the year. The key to any goal is to make it achievable, yet be one that stretches yourself. You also have to sacrifice some time for it. I had to sacrifice some dinners with colleagues and friends to make time for 2 solid hours in the gym to hit my training targets.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Autotelic Self

The difference between someone who enjoys life and someone who is overwhelmed by it is a product of a combination of such external factors and the way a person has come to interpret them--that is, whether he sees challenges as threats or as opportunities for action.

The "autotelic self" is one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony.

The term literally means "a self that has self-contained goals," and it reflects the idea that such an individual has relatively few goals that do not originate from within the self. For most people, goals are shaped directly by biological needs and social conventions, and therefore their origin is outside the self. For an autotelic person, the primary goals emerge from experience evaluated in consciousness, and therefore from the self proper.

The rules for developing such a self are simple, and they derive directly from the flow model.

1. Setting Goals. To be able to experience flow, one must have clear goals to strive for. A person with an autotelic self learns to make choices—ranging from lifelong commitments, such as getting married and settling on a vocation, to trivial decisions like what to do on the weekend—without much fuss and the minimum of panic.

Once you choose a goal, you must learn skills. And in order to learn skills, you must pay constant attention to feedback. Without that, you will become less effective.

One of the basic differences between a person with an autotelic self and one without it is that the former knows that it is she who has chosen whatever goal she is pursuing. What she does is not random, nor is it the result of outside determining forces. This fact results in two seemingly opposite outcomes. One the one hand, having a feeling of ownership of her decisions, the person is more strongly dedicated to her goals. Her actions are reliable and internally controlled. One the other hand, knowing them to be her own, she can be more easily modify her goals whenever the reasons for preserving them no longer make sense. In that respect, an autotelic person's behaviour is both more consistent and more flexible.

2. Becoming immersed in the activity. An autotelic personality invests attention to the task at hand.

To do so successfully one must learn to balance the opportunities for action with the skills one possesses. With unrealistic expectations, hopes will be dashed, despondency sets in, and the self withers from the loss of psychic energy expanded in fruitless attempts.

At the other extreme many people stagnate because they do not trust their own potential. They choose the safety of trivial goals, and arrest the growth of complexity at the lowest level available. To achieve involvement with an action system, one must find a relatively close mesh between the demands of the environment and one's capacity to act.

Involvement is greatly facilitated by the ability to concentrate. People who suffer from attentional disorders, who cannot keep their minds from wandering, always feel left out of the flow of life. They are at the mercy of whatever stray stimulus happens to flash by. To be distracted against one's will is the surest sign that one is not in control.

Yet it is amazing how little effort most people make to improve control of their attention. If reading a book seems too difficult, instead of sharpening concentration we tend to set it aside and instead turn on the television, which not only requires minimal attention, but in fact tends to diffuse what little it commands with choppy editing, commercial interruptions, and generally inane content.

3. Paying attention to what is happening. Concentration leads to involvement, which can only be maintained by constant inputs of attention. Athletes are aware that in a race even a momentary lapse can spell complete defeat.

Having an autotelic self implies the ability to sustain involvement. Self-consciousness, which is the most common source of distraction, is not a problem for such a person. Instead of worrying about how he is doing, how he looks from the outside, he is wholeheartedly committed to his goals. In some cases it is the depth of involvement that pushes self-consciousness out of awareness, while sometimes it is the other way around: it is the very lack of self-consciousness that makes deep involvement possible. The elements of the autotelic personaility are related to one another by links of mutual causation. It does not matter where one starts—whether one chooses goals first, develops skills, cultivates the ability to concentrate, or gets rid of self-consciousness. Once can start anywhere, because once the flow experience is in motion the other elements will be much easier to attain.

A person who pays attention to an interaction instead of worrying about the self obtains a paradoxical result. She no longer feels like a separate individual, yet her self becomes stronger.

4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience. The outcome of having an autotelic self—of learning to set goals, to develop skills, to be sensitive to feedback, to know how to concentrate and get involved—is that one can enjoy life even when objective circumstances are brutish and nasty. Being in control of the mind means that literally anything that happens can be a source of joy.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Cheating Chaos

Why are some people weakened by stress, while others gain strength from it? Basically the answer is simple: those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves, and emerge stronger from the ordeal. There are 3 main steps that seem to be involved in such transformations:

1. Unconscious Self-Assurance. One common attitude shared by such people was the implicit belief that their destiny was in their own hands. They did not doubt their own resources would be sufficient to allow them to determine their fate. In that sense one would call them self-assured, yet at the same time, their egos seem curiously absent; they are not self-centred; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.

This attitude occurs when a person no longer sees himself in opposition to the environment, as an individual who insists that his goals, his intentions take precedence over everything else. Instead, he feels a part of whatever goes on around him, and tries to do his best within the system in which he must operate. Paradoxically, this sense of humility—the recognition that one's goals may have to be subordinated to a greater entity, and that to succeed one may have to play by a different set of rules from what one would prefer—is a hallmark of strong people.

A good pilot knows her skills, has confidence in the machine she is flying, and is aware of what actions are required in case of a hurricane, or in case the wings ice over. Therefore she is confident in her ability to cope with whatever weather conditions may arise—not because she will force the plane to obey her will, but because she will be the instrument for matching the properties of the plane to the conditions of the air.

2. Focusing Attention On The World. It is difficult to notice the environment as long as attention is mainly focused inward, as long as most of one's psychic energy is absorbed by the concerns and desires of the ego. People who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves. Their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings. The focus is still set by the person's goal, but it is open enough to notice and adapt to external events even if they are not directly relevant to what he wants to accomplish.
An open stance makes it possible for a person to be objective, to be aware of alternative possibilities, to feel a part of the surrounding world.
In a threatening situation it is natural to mobilize psychic energy, draw it inward, and use it as a defense against the threat. but this innate reaction more often than not compromises the ability to cope. It exarcebates the experience of inner turmoil, redues the flexibility of response, and, perhaps worse than anything else, it isolates a person from the rest of the world, leaving him alone with his frustrations. On the other hand, if one continues to stay in touch with what is going on, new possibilites are likely to emerge, which in turn suggest new responses, and one is less likely to be entirely cut off from the stream of life.
3. The Discovery of New Solutions. There are basically two ways to cope with a situation that creates psychic entropy. One is to focus attention on the obstacles to achieving one's goals and then to move them out of the way, thereby restoring harmony in consciousness. This is the direct approach. The other is to focus on the entire situation, including oneself, to discover what alternative goals may not be more appropriate, and thus different solutions possible.
Most of us become so rigidly fixed in the ruts carved out by genetic programming and social conditioning that we ignore the options of choosing any other course of action. The moment biological/social goals are frustrated a person must formulate new goals and create a new flow activity for himself, or else he will waste his energies in inner turmoil.
How does one go about discovering alternative strategies? The answer is basically simple: if one operates with unselfconscious assurance, and remains open to the environment and involved in it, a solution is likely to emerge.
The process of discovering new goals in life is in many respects similar to that by which an artist goes about creating an original work of art. Whereas a conventional artists starts painting a canvas knowing what she wants to paint, and holds to her original intention until the work is finished, an original artist with equal technical training commences with a deeply felt but undefined goal in mind, keeps modifying the picture in response to the unexpected colors and shapes emerging on the canvas, and ends up with a finished wor that probably will not resemble anything she started out with.
We will never become aware of other possibilities unless, like the painter who watches with care what is happening around us, and evaluate events on the basis of their direct impact on how we feel, rather than evaluating them exclusively in terms of preconceived notion. If we do not discover that, contrary to what we were led to believe, it is more satisfying to help another person than to beat him down, or that it is more enjoyable to talk with one's two-year old than to play golf with the company president.