Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, December 18, 2023
by Neil Senturia
All of us, athletes, scientists, bus drivers or nurses, know when we are in the “state of flow,” that magic combination of factors that make it easier to complete the task.
Stanford professor David Melnikoff says that flow is the “feeling of being completely immersed and engaged in what you’re doing.” It is being both out of body and in the moment when time slows down and your vision becomes perfect. We call it being in the zone. Every shot goes in.
There is another zone, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind — a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination (at this point, one might consider substituting the words artificial intelligence, large language models, machine learning). That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the “Twilight Zone.”
May I call your attention to the 1959, season three, episode 26 of the “Twilight Zone.” Aliens from outer space promise earthlings all good things. They bring a book titled “To Serve Man.” Their technology is effective, and the world gets better, peace appears on the horizon, wars are a thing of the past. We lemmings assume beneficent intentions, and we board the space ship, only to find that the book they brought is not about serving mankind, rather it is a cookbook on how to best broil, roast and saute man himself.
So is there a connection between the zones? Maybe, but for sure, artificial intelligence appears to be both able to serve man as well as, if we are not careful, serve us up on a platter.
Melnikoff seeks to explore how we can get into that place where “goal pursuit” is replaced by joy, and less effort results in greater gain. We see that in athletes all the time.
He says, “The magic combination to flow is starting out highly uncertain, then reducing that uncertainty predictably through your actions, so that you are constantly satisfying your curiosity about what the future holds.”
If you combine high initial uncertainty (think startup) with reliable ways of reducing it (mentors, advisers, high-quality team), you can create an environment “most likely to induce flow.”
I am fascinated by the idea of uncertainty. I argue that entrepreneurs need to not only tolerate ambiguity, they need to embrace it. Melnikoff is saying that being in an uncertain state creates the opportunity for flow to show up.
If you know exactly how to play Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2, then there is no flow, there is only execution. If you put yourself in the space of uncertainty (as in variations within the performance), then flow can emerge. You play it differently. It can become magical.
Melnikoff goes further and says that “flow is highest when a given task of interest falls somewhere between routine and unreachable.” You need to continually have something that sparks your curiosity. To find that zone, the entrepreneur has to believe that the project is “challenging, but not impossible.”
Initial uncertainty, reasonable belief, rigorous execution, but open to signposts is what leads me personally now to the infamous pivot.
I have written a couple of times over the past two years about my little software company. In the fall, I came to the conclusion that it was a failure, and I decided to close it this December and send back a couple of dollars to the investors. Always good to look the devil in the eye.
I felt defeated and unsure of next steps. The rule in the book says that when you don’t know what to do, do nothing. We cut the burn rate to almost zero, and the software sat on the shelf for three months. Patience. Then something unexpected showed up, the clouds cleared, and it is possible this dog will finally learn to hunt.
Like all entrepreneurs, I hate to give up. Play for the long game, stay alive and maybe, if you are lucky, you get one more at-bat. The other side is still throwing high heat, but maybe. Extra innings.
And finally, this is the last column for 2023. All best wishes. Stay safe. See you again in early January — assuming the creek don’t rise.
Rule No. 789:
Batting helmet, don’t leave home without one.