Link Your Turns
When I am skiing and I am in a flow state I tend to be able to make all the turns I need to to keep my speed under control, weave through trees and not get flung down a steep mogul field. However, when I am not fully present I will tend to overturn. I can’t link my turns. The anxiety, fear, lack of concentration comes over and under the worst conditions I can end up going backwards down hill. Skiing, and mountain biking, are pretty good analogies for decision making under pressure. They are flow-dependent sports, you need the fitness and skill to get there, but you also need the whole body focus that is synonymous with a flow state. In my experience it would appear that high performers in many fields are making decisions and corrections rapidly: balancing speed, control and enjoyment as they find their line down the mountain. They keep linking their turns.
The OODA Loop
So when I say “linking your turns”, what do I mean? I mean living life like a backcountry skier skis, you are preparing, doing your research, watching out for the conditions, making maps, and training. However, when performance time comes you are fully committed to the act, you are flowing through your decisions, using a combination of preparation and finely-tuned gut instinct. Applied to life this means that once you make the decision to start on a task, you are in it, you are not hesitating, you are not blind to the world. you may take a jump here or there if you determine it is safe, but you are dancing the line between what is in your control, and what is happening to you. This is in many ways similar to the OODA Loop which is often discussed by pilots, CEOs, and military personnel. You have a tight feedback look where you observe new information, you orient to the situation by using your experience and other information to figure out what is going on, you decide what you are going to do, and then you act. This loop is continuous and the pace is fast.
The key is not getting caught up at the outcomes of each decision, you are only guaranteed your actions, not any specific outcome. That is why it is important to re-orient yourself to reality continuously and lower the mental barrier to making decisions, sometimes big ones. You have to be thinking about the next turn, not obsessing over the previous one.
This does not mean that you are only going off of gut feelings. There is a plan, there is a line, and there is intention. But you are flexible in the how you get there, and unencumbered by the fine-grain specifics of the outcome. However, there is a level of intuition that comes into play here, and building that intuition is non-trivial.
“[…] Knowledge workers function like athletes — train and sprint, then rest and reassess.”
To build intuition we need periods of self-study and reflection to help feed our intuitions so that we can flow, sprint, and create something truly new. In “Thinking Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman discusses System 1 and System 2 thinking (fast brain, and slow brain). System 1 thinking is the reactive, fast paced, mostly involuntary actions we make. They are useful for survival and are essentially advance pattern-matching strategies. System 2 thinking is slower paced, more rational thinking. We are to some degree helpless to completely change our System 1 judgments and intuitions, but we can train and bias them and also build systems and reflexes for deferring to System 2 thinking. With careful practice, focused study, and systems so that we can overcome some of our worst tendencies and make progress. This is all to help us tune or intuitions, because in those moments when we need to make a bunch of fast turns, there may be no time to think. 1
Trusting the gut
If you have a fine-tuned intuition, this is one of the best guides. You can reflexively make good decisions. That said, this is only valid for certain types of skill based decisions. And you need to have generated enough wisdom to have a solid base for this sort of thinking. One of the wonderful things about intuition is it can cause you to go down paths you have never been down before. This is also linked to it’s downside, which is you might also ski right over the edge of a cliff if you are not cautious. That is why it is important to bulk up on knowledge before you start the day and study your maps! They will tell you where there might be inspiration, and where they might be cliffs.
This to me is linked to an interesting concept I have been playing around with called “Higher Order Free-will”. Which is to say that we do not have first-order free-will. So you do not have control over your immediate actions, but you certainly can rationalize about them. However, you maybe have a little more control over what you do to condition yourself for those actions, and a little more control over what conditioning you can do to condition the actions, and so on and so forth. So possibly through environment design, [meditation], discipline, and general thoughtful actions you can exert some free-will over your life. ↩︎