Last night, I went to see The Social Network, aka. the "Facebook Movie," starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake. I'm sure that I'm biased because I, myself, am in the web development industry, but I really enjoyed this movie. I thought the writing and the acting were both spot-on; and, the way in which the three stories - two lawsuits and back-story - were integrated was quite effective. On top of that, the plot itself was very compelling. I knew very little about Facebook as a company (or Mark Zuckerberg as a person), so most of what I was seeing in the movie, I was seeing for the first time.
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The movie is good, I highly recommend it.
But, what I want to talk about isn't so much the movie itself, but rather, a behavior in the movie that struck an emotional chord with me. Mark Zuckerberg is Facebook. And by that, I don't just mean that he created it - I mean that he lives and breathes the product. While I am sure that the movie exaggerates this for dramatic effect, it definitely made me think about my own experience in the web development world. Have I ever lived and breathed a product? Have I ever been one with a piece of software that I was creating?
There is this cliche of the extreme programmer that survives on caffeine and codes to all hours of the night - that their most "creative" time is at 4AM. In the movie, this kind of attitude was well represented and was often referred to as being "wired in." In fact, it was several times openly praised when a developer was so "wired in" that he couldn't even take the time to introduce himself or get up to answer the doorbell.
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I've never been like that. By 10PM, my mind is shot, and if I try to push it farther, I won't be able to fall asleep. I'm a morning person - getting up early fills me with a sense of potential. But, I think that I do have the ability to get wired in. In the last few months, I've experimented with running my own solo "hackathons" - 12 hours of uninterrupted coding. During these times, I definitely feel like I reach a very productive zone - what Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin would refer to as "Flow."
"Flow" is a mental state of complete absorption in which one is so captivated with practicing a skill that hours can drift away and one might even lose awareness of one's surroundings. Referred to as an "alpha state", the experience of flow is so pleasurable that necessities of food and sleep can be forgotten or seem like unwanted distractions. Flow transcends definitions of "work" or "play".....work IS play, and research shows that flow is in fact more enjoyable than our traditional definitions of recreation or relaxation. Flow is a world of one's own. It is the mathematician deeply absorbed in an equation, the artist obsessed with a painting, the writer or musician pondering a composition, an athlete "in the zone". It is previous experience and skill combined with just the right level of creative challenge as to fascinate without overwhelming.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Source: Brand Autopsy
Movies like The Social Network touch me in a way that makes me long for this feeling. I have tasted this feeling. I believe that I am capable of reaching Flow and I believe my solo hackathons get me there. So when I watch these kinds of movies, I am always left feeling both inspired and saddened, wondering If and How I can get more Flow in my life.
If you ever ask me what I would do if I was rich and didn't need to work, I would tell you this: I would just program all day long. The irony here is that if I didn't need the money, I would be freed up to do the very thing that I do to make money. One might look at this and come to the conclusion that I must be the luckiest person in the world - that what I do for work is also what I do for fun.
This is mostly true - I am very lucky; but, it also makes the assumption that "Flow" programming and "work" programming are one in the same. Now, in cases like Mark Zuckerberg, I think this is absolutely true - you can see it in the way that he is always "on." But for most of us in the web development world, I think we can agree that this is, at times true and, at times completely off-base.
In his book, Total Leadership, Stewart Friedman talks about the "four-way win" in which we could benefit tremendously from getting the four aspects of our life - work, home, community, and Self - to better overlap. In such a setup, a win in any one particular area is also a win in one or more other areas. Living life in this way prevents us from having to view existence as a zero-sum game.
While I think his ideas are great, it's hard for me to make them happen. What I think might be more practical is to think about work as having two aspects: Flow and Non-Flow. I think a much higher degree of happiness can be reached if we could get our Flow and Non-Flow lives to start overlapping a little bit more.
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Furthermore, I think the concept of Flow can be a nice quality that can help us understand why we do or do not feel a certain way about something. Why would you wake up early on a Saturday to do XYZ? Because it allows me to reach Flow. Why do you leave the office exactly at closing time? Because the work here does not allow me to reach Flow. Perhaps thinking in terms of what does or does not allow for Flow will help us to find ways to bring those two circles closer together.
Anyway, The Social Network is a movie that is good both as a form of entertainment and as a platform for self-exploration. If you were on the fence about whether or not to see it, I would recommend checking it out. My friend, who is not in the web development world, enjoyed it just as much as I did - you don't have to bee a geek to get into it.
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I think the missing element here, Ben, is the difference between working on a project that's truly yours, and working on projects that a range of clients pay you to work on. Passion and flow are a lot harder to come by when the project is not one you would have chosen for yourself.
Well, you like girls too, and girls don't like it much when a guy gets TOO into something. (Women don't like playing second fiddle.)
In TV ads for the movie, that time is being portrayed as girls just THROWING themselves at everyone involved, as if they were the new rock stars. But rock stars relax after their performances. Computer programmers who gravitate to new and exciting technologies, and getting wired into them, often never pause to enjoy the ladies. And the ladies in turn get offended and leave.
Did the movie explore that aspect? The competition between being in The Flow and being with Flo?
I definitely agree - doing things for yourself definitely sets you up for Flow much better than doing things for other people. However, I would hope that even when doing things for others, if you are put in situations that cater to flow (the sweet spot of skills and challenges), we can still achieve it.
I know from my own client work that when I am doing something that is very far outside my comfort zone, it is hard, if not impossible to reach Flow as so much of the effort is put into just figuring out what to do and how to do it (rather than getting things done). But, when the mix of concepts gel nicely, I can get there.
The movie didn't really touch on that too much. It did bring female "groupies" into it; but, it did not really get into romantic relationships and the stress that constant Flow might bring to them.
Balancing everything is certainly something that I have always been sub-par at doing; and is something that I am always working on :)
Ben, I feel exactly the same way - if I was rich, I would just code all day.
I think I do get to a state of flow from time to time. It's generally not the 4am kind, but all of a sudden I will look up from the screen at it will be night.
I have started to get this kind of state on my own project. I am working on a big one atm where I work on every day day after I get home from work, and for most of the weekend. I dream about it every other night. At work my mind is focussing on my next step in my project. I do breathe it. I just wish I didn't have to go to work :)
Thanks for the recommendation, I think I will go see it :)
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I know that feeling :) I've had a project that I've been kicking around in my head for like 6 years. Just have never taken the time to really get it down in code.... one day.
@Lux - I agree! For the first time in my career i've just spent the last few months working full time on my own project, and I feel the difference every day
an athlete "in the zone". This expression is more often used in tennis and describes 'that special mental state where everything flows effortlessly and the player is playing at peak performance' (http://www.tennismindgame.com/zone.html).
This term also reminds me of Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece called Stalker where the Zone 'has the supposed potential to fulfill a person's innermost desires' or can be 'a space in which humans can live without the trappings of society and can speak about the most important things freely'. While there's no proof that the Zone is a real phenomenon in this film, there's the certainty that it's an act of faith.
I guess I am lucky, What you are refering to as "Flow" I call "zoned in". I can usually get there in about 15 minutes as long as I have the following: A quiet room; low lights; headphones playing euro trance and a goal. After about 15 minutes I am usually so zoned that nothing exists outside the edges of the monitor. There have been many times I have been surprised by the sun coming up in the window in front of me and felt like I just sat down. When in that zone I am incedibly productive, seem to be more intuitive and don't make as many mistakes. And I really do enjoy being in that zone.
However, being in that zone has consequences. My wife has been known to bounce a nerf ball (once a tennis ball) off my head to get my attention and my kids don't even try to bother me any more when the headphones are on. I could see how achieving the "Flow" could be hugely detrimental to having a social life.
I think there's no doubt that a project that has the full weight of your passions behind it is going to precipitate the best "Flow" situations. However, I think that having a project that is challenging in the right way can lead to this as well, even if the project is for someone else.
I think the problem is that when you are truly invested in a project, it is easy to get past the non-Flow times; however, when you don't own the project emotionally, falling out of Flow has a much bigger impact (negatively) on your overall perception of the project.
The "zone" in sports is definitely a very interesting topic unto itself. Every now and then, I'll see a documentary where they hook some elite athlete up to brain monitoring devices and see what kind of brain activity they have when they are performing at their peak.
One such example that sticks out in my mind are marksmen who fire at targets. Right before they fire, there is a significant drop in brain activity; it's like all of the non-essential, potentially distracting parts of the brain get shut down such that the marksman can devote her undivided attention to the task at hand.
From what it sounds like in computer programming, some of these same effects might be happening, albeit to a lesser degree. People forget to drink or go to the bathroom or that it passes from the day to night - things that I assume are monitored by parts of the brain not devoted to problem solving??? (this is all just guessing).
All I know is that I often will go a good 30 minutes with headphones in before I realize that I never turned my music on :)
It sounds like you are really good at getting to this happy place. Is this something that you have noticed is more easy to obtain over time? Or has this always seemed easy to you?
As far as "euro trance", I was always very skeptical of being able to code to this kind of music; however, I have also found that when I listen to familiar dance music, I do feel very productive. Perhaps it helps you keep pace and concentration.
I have a full-time job, full-time business, full-time family and like you never sleep..
Over the years I have trained myself to work in either one of 2 modes, code mode or hypercode mode. Code mode is for experimenting, playing around, figuring stuff out - basically working with no pressure. Hypercode mode is when the client calls and says "I need this yesterday".
I spent so many nights working like a dervish when I started my business that I just started falling into the hypercode mode. I personally think putting the headphones on is a pavlovian response now. I think my ability to focus so intently may also mean I have ADD - I can multi-task like nobody's businees, but I cannot do 2 things at the same time. Instead I jump from task to task never losing my place in any of them. For instance I can watch TV and read a book at the same time and keep track of both but I cannot talk on the phone and drive.
You probably already do this - you work out regularly, right. I bet when working out you get in the groove, concentrating on what you do to make those extra reps. Just apply that to coding; its only a matter of context.
About the euro trance; believe it or not I am a die-hard metalhead, old school, black sabbath, ratt, BOC, Tull, Priest, etc. I found trance by accident one night and found that for some reason it completely zones me out. No lyrics, just a steady consistent groove.
Headphones (if you get the big ones with the padding instead of ear buds) also block out all the noises around you; cars on the street, dogs barking, the house creaking, etc so you don't hear the distractions..also close your email, stay away from twitter and put your phone in another room and you too will zoom into the code after a bit.
Sounds like you've really wired your brain to be able to concentrate; that's pretty awesome. I can concentrate really well sometimes... other times, it's super hard.
Not to throw heavy metal back in your face :P but maybe I should try classical music. I put on classical music when I read and I find it to really help me zone in on the book. Hmmm.
Also, I think a lot of it is just mental, as you are saying; I have to just force myself to get in the moment when I can feel that things are getting off track. Lately, I've been working well outside my comfort zone and it has felt more mentally stressful than rewarding. Hopefully, as the learning curve goes down, this will allow me to enter Flow more efficiently.
I thought Metal was classical music?
Ha ha, indeed.... Black Sabbath in D-Minor :)
Along the same music lines, did anyone realize the entire soundtrack was done by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails). I think this had a large impact on capturing the mood in many of the scenes.
I don't know much about Nine Inch Nails other than "Closer" is just a cool song.
In retrospect, after the Golden Globes, you were pretty prescient that this would be regarded as a fantastic movie. Thanks for the early recommendation.
Yeah, I hear they did really well at the awards! I missed the show, but I also heard that Colin Firth won for The King's Speech - a fantastic movie!