Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

The Paradox of "Flow"

Today I came to work all dressed up in my business suit, eschewing my usual business casual because I had a court hearing in the afternoon. When a morning phone call revealed that the afternoon hearing matter had been resolved, I felt like someone liberated, with extra time to work my "to do" list. In short order, I was able to draft the two pleadings that needed transmission today, the two pleadings I did not plan to finish for some days yet, meet with a number of folks, have important calls, and generally have the sort of productive day I dream of having every day. I even had the time to write a particularly unfortunate work of poetry, which I should have saved in my "private" journal, but instead posted publicly. I also correlated all my Mandatory Contining Legal Education, and answered an e mail or two.

I find "being busy" is a paradox. When I have the most work to do, if I can manage to stay relaxed, I can hit a "flow" in which I can accomplish things quickly and in abundance. On the work front, this partly stems from eighteen years of plowing away at it, making it second nature. The "paradox" really intensifies, though, on the "personal" side. When I am in this "flow", even with a mountain of work, I also read more novels, write more creative material, get in touch with people who matter, ignore the slings and barbs of those who hurl slings and barbs, and generally fire on all cylinders. The more work I need to do, and address, the more time I seem to have to deal with non-work matters. It makes no sense, but that is not the first thing I've said in this journal that has not made sense. Of course, I can only attribute for work purposes hours I actually spend at work, but even so, I seem to be able to spend the hours on the job and find the time for pastimes. Relaxation is a key, as well as a mind alive to challenge, but I don't have a "script" for flow.

The paradox intensifies when I consider that while "flow" sometimes helps really propel me, I have come to learn that a total failure of flow also serves me very well. Sometimes I learn from my down times and my disconnects that I must reconfigure what does not work for me. I'm not saying that I should only do things if they "feel good" or if they "flow". In my experience, speaking only for myself, my "flow" or "lack of flow" does not, strictly speaking, tell me the intrinsic value of the things I do. I appropriately soldier on sometimes at things I have no gift or good feeling about, because I know they are the right things to do. I desist from some things that feel particularly good because I know that I have more important things to do. Sometimes I even learn that my "flow" was in a wholly wrongful cause, or my "lack of flow" was correctly ignored as I finished the task. It may be that I over-edit, and apply my "head" to make decisions which my "heart" should be permitted to make. But I posit, speaking for my own situation only, that while following one's heart only can be quite energizing, it can also be very frustrating. Although I have read the requisite self-help materials and 18th Century poets, what I mean to accomplish in life is more than just the sum of what makes me feel good. I value my head, and if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor, sometimes I feel these thoughts in my head are my heart.

Although I do not automatically trust a lack of flow, I do treat it as a signal which I am sending myself. It's not a "stop sign", it's a blinking yellow light. To adopt the outmoded head/heart metaphor again, I feel that "lack of flow" is my heart sending an invitation to my head. The telegram runs something like "You are respectfully invited (damn it!) to consider whether the trip is worth the travel". I believe it is that pause, usually best done on a walk or in a quiet moment, that lets me add the counters together between how I feel and what I think to try to self-assess. When I am doing my "job" of decision-making right, I then self-correct. When I am not doing that "job" right, I must teach myself to trust myself more.

I wish I could say that all decisions become simple in this way. I love books with titles like "Do What You Love, the Money will Follow". I wish I could say that I've never reconsidered the decisions I've made, or that I never wondered "what if". To take a prosaic example, when I was in law school, I was confident that my "true calling" in life was to be a law professor. I tutored kids, I "led" my study group, and I loved to study law. I was convinced that I was born to teach law school. Because I had exemplary law grades, but went to a "lesser" law school, my appropriate career path "should have been" to practice two years, preferably at a place that would give me resume ribbons, and then go get an LLM degree from a top 10 law school. I would then have a much better than even chance of getting a good law prof job.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Socratic Forum, though. In line with the form sheet, I landed a good job with a solid downtown Dallas midsize firm. The salary was quite good, the work was very stressful, and the intellectual challenge extreme. I am not by nature a "downtown" type of person. I am a small town boy who feels much more at home among down to earth eccentric bright people than among people who live upscale or "insider" or "downtown" lifestyles. I found myself altogether challenged, and often very stressed. The first few years of "downtown" civil law practice are often Hell if you do them right.

At the end of a year, I was "on track" for my dream. If I notched another year of practice, I could depart for my LLM. I could spend a year in the ivory tower. I could strive for a profession in which I could work reasonable hours, do something I knew I'd love, and avoid the rigors of being a law firm associate (i.e., "young lawyer employee, as opposed to partner").

But though my heart told me I was not coping ideally with the stress, and that my dream awaited, my head intervened. I wanted to be good at law. I felt a need to "brave out" my circumstances. I knew, somehow, that I was apprenticed to the sorceror, and I wanted to be able to make the brooms move. I elected to buy a small home in an outlying suburb, to artificially "root" myself, give myself the burden of a mortgage, and force myself to strive on.

My inner voice was telling me that however much my heart sought a rest, the point of what I was trying to do and be required that I actually learn a bit of lawyering, and not merely escape to try to teach it, without real insight, to others. My inner voice, i.e., my head, saved me from the "easy" road, and "forced me" to a more responsible place.

The Dallas housing market tanked in the wake of the the savings and loan crisis, in which thrifts over-built the area and then promptly crashed (at one time in 1987, the "condo market" there had a supply projected to last until 2030 or so) My home went "underwater", i.e., its value declined to less than the mortgage debt (I had put virtually nothing down), I sometimes bewailed that I was "trapped" by my mortgage from "escaping" the rigors of my life. In fact, the minor loss I'd have to take was well less than my small savings. My "heart" was merely seeking its revenge, I suppose, in self-attack. I soldiered on, though, made partner at my law firm, and learned how to practice law.

By the time, years later, a bit of situational-politics work discontent made me next assess the potential for an academic career, the nineties had set in. A massive legal recession had sent bright young lawyers scurrying for academia. I established through a number of applications that I had no chance without an LLM. I faced the potential of having to uproot myself and my wife, do a year without my job income but with high tuition, and yet face an uncertain potential for academic hiring.

My "flow" feeling for academia told me that I should be in an LLM program. My "non-flow" feelings about work told me I should be in an LLM program. But my "head" told me that the opportunity cost was too great. Instead, I foresaw that rather than academia, someday I would have to own my own practice. This road seemed to me to offer an avenue to avoid the things I disliked about practice (which I need not elaborate) and yet give me some of the "make my own way" which academia seemed to "offer".

In the long run, I ended up, of course, owning my own little firm after I left my firm in Los Angeles many years later. I have never regretted that decision, which I took only after exploring a few other options that appeared workable, and might have yielded vastly different results. I'll save for another day the rigors of successfully studying for the patent bar examination, an examination now used by the Angel Gabriel to disqualify unworthy applicants from Heaven, when one is also trying to map one's personal future.

I cannot tie my life up in a simple bow, no matter how much this post tries to do so. I am always concerned, as any good trial lawyer should be, that years of advocacy makes self-justification (the dreaded "cheap grace" again) a bane to which I'm often prone.

But I think I've learned the following:
a. A work flow does not tell one whether one is doing the moral, just, or hard thing, but only tells one that one is productive, and if one can then align with the "right", flow is a wonderful thing, like a really fast computer processor;
b. An absence of flow is not a moral self-judgment so much as a wake-up call to makes my choices on purpose and not by accident. It is not worthwhile to "beat myself up" over a lack of flow or productivity. The dredge of flowlessness is instead a call to choose my poisons. When a poison is chosen, then I should not continually bewail that one chose strychnine. The poison flows through my psyche so quickly, that bewailing the obvious is merely putting subtitles on something that's already enunciated in very plain English. If it's time to choose another poison, I do so, in a committee involving head and heart;
c. I do not trust heart over head, and sometimes I trust head over heart. But I've learned that when both heart and head
coalesce into one decision, then letting a failure of courage keep me from that decision is an error; and
d. What matters is not only how it feels, but what it means.
It's okay, for me anyway, to live in a world of ideas, sometimes, just as much as it is okay to live in a world of feelings. It's also very much okay to set real goals, and then make them happen. I am a dreamer who believes in making things happen, and this is what I learned when I was awake. I still must remind myself of this daily--choose my life on purpose, make things happen. I fail at many things, and many of my choices go awry. I am no good at many day to day organizational type things. But I like that I can choose and act. Even if I choose wrongly, the ability to act on a choice is important to me.

I read the above, which borders on psycho-babble (if, thankfully, my own babble), and wonder if this is merely another needless exercise in self-justification. But I'll post it anyway, as I think that a key challenge for me is valuing my doubts, my thoughts and my analysis without quite yielding to the defensive fears all three can cause. If I've learned one thing in my life, it's that making choices, and having the courage to implement them, is what has worked for me. I am not confident I've made the right choices. But I've learned to be confident I can make them, as difficult for me as that can be sometimes. I think that the inner voice is more than how one feels, but a gestalt of thought, feelings and everything. The critical shortfall for me is not really only "self-esteem" or "positive thinking", it's the fundamental willingness to make and implement decisions. The ability to do that, really, is more important than how I "feel", or even than how it "flows". As I titled this post, speaking for me, and only for me, it's a paradox.

But I'll still hope that this week's "flow" lasts all year!
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