5.1 // Building on your Strengths
Welcome to season 5 of Flow State! A new year and a new season - and hopefully a lot more episodes ;).
I hope you enjoyed some time off to rest and recover with family and friends. As we enter the new year I wish you a year of clarity, self-discovery, focus and of course, flow!
When the work is frustrating
I want to share an experience I recently had that opened up my eyes to a new approach to work. I recently started working on a new feature for the Patreon page related to merchandise. It’s a simple feature that automates merch rewards for Patrons, enabling them to receive notebooks, hoodies, posters and more automatically. This feature actually exists in Patreon, but thanks to a few bugs on their end, I’ve had to spend time fixing their mistakes. So I decided I needed to automate this and build it myself. Something I’m very capable of as a software engineer, however just because I’m capable doesn’t mean I should do it.
Here’s the thing, while I can write code it doesn’t mean I love writing code in all contexts. Ask me to write security for an authenticated website and you’ll find me passed out on my keyboard from boredom. But ask me to build a beautiful UI with pretty fonts, images and buttons? You’ll find me headphones on in my flow state.
So as I started building this automation to reward patrons with merch, I became very frustrated, impatient and anxious. I didn’t notice this right away though. I spent all day working on it making little progress. I went to bed that night feeling tense - angry even. “I just need to push through and work longer hours to make this happen!”, I thought. I even beat myself up questioning my skills and abilities. Not a good way to treat oneself. But then I thought, “maybe this is not how I should be spending my time?”
What are my flow triggers?
I started to reflect on the different types of work I’ve done for this podcast. I was reminded of the incredible flow I often experience making the podcast episodes. Before Patreon I would actually record a podcast episode every week! I’m quite amazed at the output looking back. And even with the Patreon, my ability to create new content and music episodes weekly has improved a lot, creating weekly flow episodes in less time, with more flow!
Contrast this experience to the process of automating the merch program. I find I’m mostly trying to finish the work fast just to get it over with so I can get back to writing, recording, curating and more. This is not a good sign. Truthfully the work of automating is not a one and done process. It will require maintenance and updates. It'll be an ongoing process. Do I want to sign myself up for a type of work that doesn't seem to trigger flow - that doesn't seem to be my strength?
Find your Strengths
This takes me back to the book, “Strengths Finder” by Tom Rath, in which he says
“the key to human development is building on who you already are”.
He goes on to say,
“When we're able to put most of our energy into developing our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists. So, a revision to the "You-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be" maxim might be more accurate: You cannot be anything you want to be—but you can be a lot more of who you already are.”
Tom Rath goes on to define the word strength as Talent multiplied by Investment. Talent is something you naturally have, a natural way of thinking, feeling or behaving. Whereas investment is the time you spend practicing, developing the skill and building your knowledge-base.
“The most successful people start with dominant talent—and then add skills, knowledge, and practice to the mix. When they do this, the raw talent actually serves as a multiplier.”
This is exactly what I’m coming to understand of myself. That I could be spending more time developing skills and practicing my natural talents.
You are not designed for all things
How does one understand what their strengths are? I believe the signals are all there. We just need to pause and listen.
For example you may have noticed with some types of work it's very easy for you to get distracted, or frustrated or anxious. Contrast this to the types of work where you seem to just get focused quicker and stay there for much longer. These might be pointing you to your strengths - to your natural talents - your flow triggers.
Writing and recording this is a perfect example for me. It actually took me quite some time to write this, but I never got frustrated. Instead I only became more curious, more focused and more interested in the words that would flow through me. Contrast this with the work I described earlier where I was immediately frustrated and overwhelmed. I was focused on finishing rather than the doing.
I believe this is the difference between working on your strengths and not. And I believe these signals should be listened to rather than ignored. It’s these signals that guide us towards a more autotelic personality.
For those of you who don’t remember, autotelic personality refers to a person who does things for the experience rather than the reward. This actually describes the experience of flow more directly. When we’re in flow, we’ve forgotten about the outcome and are simply in the moment, enjoying the process. So how does one develop an autotelic personality? Through idleness, observation, flexibility and openness.
Remember, that at one point I truly believed the answer was to “push through and work harder, longer hours”. By letting myself be idle I started to question that belief and it was there that my eyes were opened to a new possibility - that maybe my energy was better spent elsewhere.
Developing an autotelic personality requires becoming aware of what activities push you into flow and which ones do not.
Striking a balance
This can be quite difficult for us, because we live in a society that has taught us discipline and hard work above all else. I’m not here to say those things do not matter. There is a need for discipline, hard work and grit. But like most things in life, we must strike a balance between the two ends of the spectrum - we must balance our discipline with openness and flexibility. Otherwise we may end up chasing unworthy goals our entire life with little to no enjoyment of the process.
Maybe the saying, “enjoy the process” should be prefaced with, “find the process you enjoy!”.
Here is Celeste Headlee from the book “Do Nothing”:
My argument is not that we are moving too fast or changing too quickly. In fact, I’m saying quite the opposite. I believe our constant pushing is now impeding our progress. We work best when we allow for flexibility in our habits.
Pushing harder isn’t helping us anymore. We can and must stop treating ourselves like machines that can be driven and pumped and amped and hacked. Instead of limiting and constraining our essential natures… we can better understand our own natures and abilities. We can lean in not to our work but to our inherent gifts.
To be clear, this is not to say we should expect all of our work to be easy or to feel flowy all the time. That would be unrealistic. No matter how much I love music, there are still some days when it feels hard. But I would say working with music triggers flow far more often than not. That is the signal I’m looking for.
Here’s to leaning into our inherent gifts, talents and strengths.
Signal to Noise
So what pulls us away from our strengths to begin with? Maybe it’s our parents who pushed us to be a doctor or an engineer (hey fellow Asians!). Or maybe it’s society that’s painted a picture of who we should be.
None of this is wrong and it’s the reality of living in a world with other humans. We will always be influenced by our surroundings. This is a good thing. But it’s up to us to balance that influence with finding our own internal signal amongst the external noise. To connect with ourselves and find what resonates with us. What do I find find curious? What triggers my flow? What is my standard for work?..
Define your own standards
This reminds me of one of my favorite excerpts from the book Fountain Head by Ayn Rand:
I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.
Making a unique impact and living a life of joy requires being intentional about how you work. Learn from others, but only take what works for you - it’s ok to ignore the rest. You set your own standards… you stand at the beginning of one.