Aggressive selfishness is not the only path to success

On track with my goals to read more this year, I've finished the book Finding flow, and would like to share a few more thoughts on here.

The gist

To control attention means to control experience, and therefore the quality of life.

The great summary is this: direct attention towards the present, choose to do what you are doing, and choose to enjoy it. Excitement and enthusiasm come with the investment of attention.

Pay attention and you will be surprised

Why do some people experience flow much more than others?

Some will find such an attitude irresponsible: how can someone afford the self-indulgence of doing only what he likes to do? But the point is that Pauling—and the many others who share his attitude—like to do almost everything, no matter how difficult or trivial, including the things they are forced to do. The only thing they definitely don't like is wasting time. So it is not that their life is objectively better than yours or mine, but that their enthusiasm for it is such that most of what they do ends up providing them with flow experiences.

It all has to do with focusing our attention. With a certain kind of control (a sort of trapped form, as we'll see later). It turns out that purely paying more attention increases our enjoyment:

There are literally millions of potentially interesting things in the world to see, to do, to learn about. But they don't become actually interesting until we devote attention to them.

Many people will say that this advice is useless to them, because they already have so many demands on their time that they absolutely cannot afford to do anything new or interesting. Time stress has become one of the most popular complaints of the day. But more often than not, it is an excuse for not taking control of our lives. How many of the things that we do are really necessary? How many of the demands could be reduced if we put some energy into prioritizing, organizing, and streamlining the routines that now fritter away our attention? It is true that if we let time run through our fingers we will soon have none left. One must learn to husband it carefully, not so much in order to achieve wealth and security in some distant future, but in order to enjoy life in the here and now.

Appreciation leads to a better career

If you think leading a successful life follows a selfish path, keep on reading. These thoughts have caused me to reconsider my approach to job satisfaction and success. Not to sound naive, but is it possible that making an effort to actively reduce stress and increase appreciation at work will automatically result in a better career? In addition to being intrinsically rewarding, of course.

For instance, when there is reason to think that we are appreciated, job satisfaction is usually high; whereas the greatest source of stress in the workplace is the feeling that no one is interested in supporting our goals. [...] The roots of interpersonal conflict are often an excessive concern for oneself, and an inability to pay attention to the needs of others. It is sad to see how often people ruin a relationship because they refuse to recognize that they could serve their own interests best by helping others achieve theirs.

There are certainly the stereotypes. Perhaps the financial sector, the kill-or-be-killed, bring-the-biggest-clients-in ruthless competition of meritocracy. What about those as a path to success? Well, that is but one kind of success—and what good is success if you cannot enjoy it?

In American corporate culture, the hero is a ruthless, competitive person with a huge ego. Unfortunately some top entrepreneurs and CEOs do conform to that image. Yet it is also reassuring that aggressive selfishness is not the only path to success. In fact in most stable and well-run companies, leaders try to promote subordinates who don't invest all of their psychic energy in self-advancement, but use some of it to advance corporate goals. They know that if top management is filled with greedy egotists the company will eventually suffer for it.

Fascinating, being overly-driven can be bad for you. I don't often think about this, but it is as obvious as it is counterintuitive:

Only if attention is to a certain extent free of personal goals and ambitions do we have a chance of apprehending reality in its own terms.

One cannot enjoy things when selfishness and ulterior motives are constantly involved. When attention is focused on those, the process itself is much less of a reward:

Yet without disinterested interest life is uninteresting.

What is control? Do we control our lives?

In a strong sense, we control our lives to the extent to which we control our attention.

Normally, attention is directed by genetic instructions, social conventions, and habits we learned as children. Therefore it is not we who decide what to become aware of, what information will reach consciousness. As a result, our lives are not ours in any meaningful sense; most of what we experience will have been programmed for us. We learn what is supposed to be worth seeing, what is not; what to remember and what to forget; what to feel when we see a bat, a flag, or a person who worships God by different rites; we learn what is supposed to be worth living and dying for. Through the years, our experience will follow the script written by biology and culture. The only way to take ownership of life is by learning to direct psychic energy in line with our own intentions.

If so much of our attention is pre-determined, why go against it? In another way, if what we are doing right now is going to happen anyway, why not direct our full attention to enjoy it?

How to lead a good life?

The book discusses good, evil, and ways to look at our life that improve our experience of it. I'm paraphrasing when I say, what we can control the most is our attitude towards what is currently happening.

Be present. Even for just 10 minutes a day.

Fight towards good

For even when it goes badly... you still win.

Then it is possible to find joy even when fighting a losing battle in a good cause.

Direct your attention towards a good cause. You will not regret it. You know those people that wake up excited in the morning? That feel like what they are doing is contributing towards a better world? Who would rather be nowhere else? That could be you.

Stop and reflect when things are going well

Seriously. Often, when we are doing well, we want to keep going and forget to recognize our achievements.

Most people only think about themselves when things are not going well, and thereby they enter a vicious circle in which present anxiety colors the past, and then the painful memories make the present even more bleak. One way to break out of this circle is to develop the habit of reflecting on one's life when there is reason to feel good about it, when one is in an upbeat mood. But it is even better to invest psychic energy in goals and relationships that bring harmony to the self indirectly. After experiencing flow in a complex interaction, the feedback is concrete and objective, and we feel better about ourselves without having had to try.

In order to experience flow, it helps to have clear goals—not because it is achieving the goals that is necessarily important, but because without a goal it is difficult to concentrate and avoid distractions. Thus a mountain climber sets as a goal to reach the summit not because she has some deep desire to reach it, but because the goal makes the experience of climbing possible. If it were not for the summit, the climb would become pointless ambling that leaves one restless and apathetic.

What is good and evil?

Evil is doing nothing (as the famous quote says, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing"). Good takes effort. Making a real dent in inertia takes extra effort.

Entropy or evil is default state, the condition to which systems return unless work is done to prevent it.

What prevents it is what we call "good"—actions that preserve order while preventing rigidity, that are misinformed by the needs of the most evolved systems. Acts that take into account the future, the common good, the emotional well-being of others. Good is the creative overcoming of inertia, the energy that leads to the evolution of human consciousness. To act in terms of new principles of organization is always more difficult, and requires more effort and energy. The ability to do so is what has been known as virtue.


This book has reinforced my continued efforts to grow, but it has done so in ways that reach much more beyond myself.

I now pay more attention to the present, show appreciation for it, involve my peers, and really notice how interesting life is. Another reminder on why it is good to keep your inner child alive—curiosity makes everything more interesting. Of course, as inertia goes, these are incremental improvements that end up making a tremendous difference in the long run.

I am almost addicted to flow, constantly searching for ways to get even more involved (which explains my increased attraction to taking risks).

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