My wife recently gave me a piece of driftwood with a quote from David Foster Wallace laser-engraved into it. It reads, “Almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it.” As an engineer, a doer, and a goal-oriented person, this statement is pretty revolting to me. I almost can’t stand it, which is why I had to mount it on my wall at home. This is medicine I need.
I feel very scared of the idea that I am not in control, that I cannot engineer my future. I have excellent planning skills, and I’m able to see into all the different possible outcomes, to take account of them, and to protect against harm. Yet, I do know, from experience, that the more I try to prevent negative outcomes, the more I try to control my future, the more constrained and unsatisfying my life becomes.
When I look back on my life, I see the evidence to support Wallace’s statement. After graduating from college in the UK, I started looking for work, and I interviewed at one company where they showed me a real-time 3D animated fly-over of the San Francisco Bay Area. As soon as I saw that, I felt excited, and I wanted to make computer chips that did that. None of the other places I interviewed with had sparked that kind of excitement in me. I followed the excitement, allowed it to grow, and it translated into a job at that company.
I loved developing computer chips so much that I often worked into the evening on my passion. I found myself in an empty and dimly-lit office, reviewing and revising my designs for complex digital systems, trying to make them simpler, faster, and more efficient. When I asked one of my colleagues why he left every day at 5 pm, he said, “I work to live, not live to work. This is just a job.”
A project manager at our partner company, a struggling start-up in Silicon Valley, invited me over to the US to work with him on a bigger and more complex project. I felt very excited to go.
In Sunnyvale, California, I found myself waking naturally and enthusiastically at 6 am, and heading over to the mysterious and enchanted world of the scrappy little start-up. There I worked, played basketball, and ate shitty food with other engineers who were as passionate about engineering as I was.
I remember spending all day sitting next to one of the founders of the company. He was a grey-haired, old-timer of Sun Microsystems, yet a trail-blazer in the new realm of synthesizing computer logic in chips. He was the VP of Engineering at this little start-up. He’s now a mega-millionaire, perhaps even a billionaire.
We worked effortlessly, seemingly endlessly, late into the night. I showed him test-cases that my random 3D triangle generator had produced, which broke his graphics engine, making it behave differently from our model. He fixed the bugs, while I watched him code. I learned so much from him about being a principled engineer, about how to create quality code. I was so excited about what we were doing that I couldn’t stop working.
I won’t go into the details here, but I continued to follow this flow of excitement and enthusiasm, and it led me to becoming an employee of that start-up, making a ton of money, and gaining masses of experience.
I didn’t apply this principle in all areas of my life back then, so I only experienced the benefits of it in a small domain: my career. Later on, I also become fearful of losing what I had, and started to make choices that were not in alignment with the path of least resistance. These choices led to much less beneficial outcomes.
I have been learning more each day how to notice when I am experiencing resistance, where the path of least resistance is, and then flowing with that. I am learning to keep on pivoting, no matter how much success I have achieved, into the next path of least resistance.
Some people say, “follow your bliss.” I always found this statement irritating. A statement that resonates much more strongly for me is, “trust your good feelings.” Trust your excitement, your enthusiasm, your happiness, your playfulness, and your curiosity. All of these feelings are associated with flow, with the flow of your energy. When you engage with them, everything in your life will flow more easily.
When you perseverate on the thoughts that lead to unpleasant feelings, and you take actions in an attempt to stop those unpleasant feelings, it generally leads to less adaptive outcomes. Unpleasant feelings include fear, anger, loneliness, and jealousy. Bring yourself back to asking “what would I like?” and then notice where your pleasant, flowing feelings lead you. Trust those feelings.
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