Saturday, 14 June 2008

Getting into the flow

I had the good fortune last night to be introduced to two young engineering graduates from Canada. Fresh from university, their first professional assignment is challenging. They’ve been sent to London to construct an architectural installation in Trafalgar Square. They’re working to a tight deadline, and the techniques involved in the construction are complicated. Nonetheless, these two seem undaunted - they’re incredibly focussed on what they’re doing, and they become completely absorbed in their topic when you ask them to talk about it.

Everything is new to them at the moment - it’s a new job, a new city, new construction techniques, new colleagues. They’re clearly very excited about it all - talking with raised voices, animated and enthused. The experience is all consuming for them, and right now they’re relishing every moment of it.

Their enthusiasm was infectious, and it spread across the entire group I was dining with. We all became engrossed in their engineering challenges, and engaged by their anecdotes about visiting London for the first time.

The encounter reminded me of what it is like to be young - where everything is new and exciting. Where one’s mind is constantly stimulated and engaged by each individual moment of existence. The ability to become completely absorbed in an all consuming task, and to focus upon it entirely, and with passion.

I wanted to give the pair some advice. I wanted to tell them what a unique experience it is was, to be doing things for the first time. To tell them that they should relish every moment of it - to enjoy these times. But I struggled to put this advice into words.

It was then that it struck me that I should not be giving advice to them at all - it was in fact they who were giving me advice. They were leading by example. This kind of youthfulness is not about age - it’s more a state of mind. Every moment of our lives affords a new discovery - an opportunity to take a look at things from a fresh perspective. Wrinkles, grey hair, no hair or whatever, do not limit our ability to be youthful in spirit. Only our minds limit us in this way. If we want to be happy in life, we should watch people who are happy very closely, and learn from their example.

The kind of focus that these two had was what sportsmen and women call being in “the zone,” and psychologists describe as “flow.” It’s the state of mind that we get into when we do our best work - it’s confident, relaxed and playful. We all have our own ways of getting into this mental state, and it becomes easier to achieve with practice. When you’re in the zone, the last thing you need is someone pointing it out to you, and implying that it won’t last for ever - this kind of talk only serves to distract us from the zone, and lose the moment altogether. When you encounter someone who is evidently in the zone, don’t distract them from it - learn from their example instead.

Getting older is a rich and beautiful thing - it means we’ve had the good fortune to experience more of life, and the opportunity to learn from those experiences. But however old we are, we can always learn from those younger than ourselves. We should take care to always regard our world with youthful eyes, experiencing things as if we’ve encountered them for the first time, and allowing ourselves to become entirely absorbed in the moment.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Tread with care

I walk across a beach, leaving footprints in the sand.
Looking at my tracks makes me think that I know where I’m going,
So I don’t look at them.

Ahead of me, there are no tracks,
The virgin sand makes me think that I know where I want to be.
So I don’t look ahead of me.

Beneath my feet, footprints are forming with each step that I take.
My steps become tracks behind me, and they guide my path ahead.
So I tread with care.