We’ve been told for years now that what our parents and kindergarten teachers told us is not, in fact, true — we are not each and every one of us special unique snowflakes destined for greatness. In this essay I want to offer a new theory of productivity for those of us who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still believe there is something valuable about our particular point of view. I will argue that the fundamental driver of creative work today is not values, goals, or processes, but unique states of mind.
Let’s start by taking this idea to unreasonable extremes: hyper-advanced aliens and digital souls.
My favorite alien race is The Festival from Charles Stross’ sci-fi novel Singularity Sky. It is a civilization evolved thousands of years beyond our own, for whom space and time and matter are mere playthings. Having long ago outgrown the drudgery of science and progress, they use their godlike powers to roam the universe in a carnivalesque menagerie of spaceships, partying through each galaxy in search of intelligent life.
What The Festival are looking for is not life for its own sake, but unique stories. They’ve reached the conclusion that only the life narratives of sentient beings hold intrinsic, ultimate value. In exchange for the stories of an Earth-like planet’s inhabitants, they supply “cornucopia machines,” unimaginably advanced 3D printers that can make anything on demand. The result is predictable: everyone immediately makes weapons and annihilates each other (amusingly, this story was cited by a senior lecturer in war studies at King’s College as inspiration for a proposal to undermine the Taliban by giving every Afghani a cellphone). This series of events is entirely satisfactory from The Festival’s point of view: they value stories more than life itself, and Extinction by Overabundance is a satisfyingly ironic one.
In Altered Carbon and its sequel Broken Angels, Richard Morgan describes a future society where people’s minds and memories are stored on small chips inserted at the base of the neck. These “digital souls” are bought and sold in “soul markets,” dingy street fairs displaying baskets of chips categorized by function: hackers, artists, mothers, assassins. Some minds are highly prized and come at a premium; others can be bought in bulk. Older ones fall in value, but eventually rise again as they become antiques sought by people who want to experience extinct states of mind.
The story revolves around traditionalist Catholics who are being targeted for murder. They don’t believe the true soul can be stored on a chip (Luddites!) — thus their refusal to be “resleeved” into new bodies means they cannot be resurrected to testify against their murderers in court, making them easy victims. The plot device that unfolds is a common trope in sci-fi: the problem (or in this case, crime) can only be solved by a particular personality, a unique configuration of beliefs, memories, perspectives, and quirks that can be virtualized, but never simulated.
Both these stories hint at an idea found in both sci-fi novels and current artificial intelligence debates: that subtle shades of subjective consciousness are the only irreducible, indivisible things in the universe — the quarks out of which souls and narratives are built. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, the implications of this idea can shed light on a much more immediate problem: productivity, from the day-to-day “checking of boxes” kind all the way to the “living a generative life” variety.
Let’s rewind a bit. Productivity as we know it is based on delayed gratification, which described a world that was predictable and structured. It was clear what you had to do and in what order — it was just a matter of scheduling and pain tolerance. But delayed gratification is obsolete in a world dominated by VUCA, because the pain you’re pulling into the present might not even be necessary, and the gratification you’re pushing into the future might never materialize. It is not at all clear what must be done and in what order; in fact, it becomes ever more clear that most of the tasks we execute don’t make much of a difference, while a tiny percentage randomly and dramatically influence the course of our work and our lives. It makes sense to invest more and more resources in making that distinction, because the absolute fastest way to complete a task or reach an objective is to realize you don’t have to.
As the number of things we have to know and do to achieve that traditional level of security has exploded, a new generation of process-first productivity frameworks has emerged with step-by-step flowcharts and diagrams to help us decide between them. These frameworks sidestep questions like “What COULD I do?” and “What SHOULD I do?” in favor of a much more tractable, interim one: “What CAN I do?” This is most clearly embodied in the concept of “contexts.” It says that the governing organizational principle of your To Do list should be the context you find yourself in at any given moment. Instead of one massive To Do list that you have to decipher every time you glance at it, you should divide the list into “context lists” based on the tools at your disposal, the location you find yourself in, your energy level, the person you’re with, or other constraints. You only look at one of these lists at a time, since there’s no use seeing tasks that require a phone call when you’re on a flight, or seeing difficult creative tasks when you’re exhausted on a Friday afternoon.
But access to tools, locations, and people is no longer the primary constraint in doing valuable work. Nor do “energy levels” come close to capturing the subtleties of human motivation. I believe we’re entering a new era: Mood-First Productivity. States of mind, or more colloquially, moods, are bubbling up to the surface as every external constraint on work falls away, one after the other.
A good example is melancholy, which research and old literature indicate is associated with creativity, but is not easy to create on demand. Another is the “New York state of mind,” that inspiring mixture of sophistication and grittiness. It is inspiring, but also expensive (requires a plane ticket), illegible (who can define it?), affective (not based in facts), and ephemeral (comes and goes).
This leads us to a definition for “state of mind”:
- difficult or expensive to reproduce (in contrast to simple emotions)
- illegible and more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts (in contrast to cause-and-effect habits)
- primarily somatic and affective, not intellectual (in contrast to belief systems or worldviews)
- temporary and ephemeral (in contrast to mindsets or attitudes)
Other examples of mood states that fit this definition include ennui, nostalgia, transcendence, optimal drunkenness, motivated curiosity, petrichor after-rain smell, flow states, Burning Man, and eustress (just enough stress to motivate you to get things done).
A given state of mind is difficult to reproduce even for someone who’s experienced it in the past, often requiring elaborate rituals or particular combinations of past experiences (or drugs). They often elude those who seek them for purely instrumental ends. Long meditation sessions can produce some highly useful states (for example, enhanced focus ability), but reaching that state is terribly expensive in terms of time investment. This is why you’ll be disappointed if you do meditation only for specific outcomes like “increased attention span” or “Big Picture thinking.” It only makes sense as a more fundamental firmware hack, with any side benefits counted as lucky bonuses.
What makes this interesting in the business world is that states of mind, unlike productivity frameworks and business models, are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to imitate. Cultural states of mind powerfully resist measurement and analysis, because they flow through the little understood channels of the human subconscious. A new crop of “culture summits” and “culture analytics” companies has arisen with new step-by-step frameworks and measurement tools for “creating a good culture,” but let’s just say I’m a skeptic.
States of mind drastically influence the amount of energy it takes to complete a given task, which gives them leverage. When you’re in Errand Mode, running an additional errand not only doesn’t take much extra energy, it actually increases your energy as you feel the delicious alignment of necessity with inertia. Similarly, we often forget that the first stage in reaching that “state of flow” we all crave is actually struggle. You cannot reach the state of “optimal experience” — what Daniel Goleman describes as “a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task” — without that initial feeling of anxiety and fidgetiness. This is the true toll of constant interruptions: with each distraction you stop and start the process again and again, never quite getting past the struggle stage to the flood of mood-enhancing neurochemicals.
There are tantalizing hints everywhere of an awakening around the importance of states of mind for creative knowledge work.
For example, Sarah Perry recently described “borrowed-scenery creativity,” the practice of using background scenery as an element in your composition. I cannot think of a better example of a “background” to mental processes than moods.
David Allen, in the 2015 revision of Getting Things Done, describes the long-term path to GTD Mastery: “…optimally taking advantage of self-created contexts and triggers to produce creative ideas, perspectives, and actions that wouldn’t normally occur.” What is a “self-created context” if not a purposefully created state of mind?
But my favorite one comes from Josh Waitzkin, in The Art of Learning:
“In performance training, first we learn to flow with whatever comes. Then we learn to use whatever comes to our advantage. Finally, we learn to be completely self-sufficient and create our own earthquakes, so our mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus.”
The key words there are “feeds itself.” Learning new facts and gaining new perspectives is valuable as raw material, but the moment of creative breakthrough is almost always driven by a mysterious internal process variously called the Muse, the Resistance, and the Gift. Only internal feedback loops can reach the speed and internal coherence necessary for the act of synthesis.
There’s also research support. This HBR report and this Scientific American article describe studies showing that unusually creative people are characterized by “their ability to mix seemingly incompatible states of being depending on the task, whether it’s open attention with a focused drive, mindfulness with daydreaming, intuition with rationality, intense rebelliousness with respect for tradition, etc.” (also called “blends of emotions”). Affective engagement — the extent to which people are open to the full breadth and depth of their emotions — was found to be a better predictor of artistic creativity than IQ or intellectual engagement. Meanwhile, Gallup reports that 87 percent of global workers are either unengaged or actively disengaged from their workplaces.
This leads to one of my more controversial beliefs: that in the near future companies will offer their employees a full range of psychotherapeutic, psychosomatic bodywork, cognitive behavioral therapy, and related services as a means to expanding their emotional engagement and enhancing their performance. They’ve caught on to the power of external spaces and experiences as a means of enhancing perceptual filters, and this inner work will be a natural counterpart. The emerging organizational framework of Psychological Capital (PsyCap) seeks to “evaluate the overall resourceful state of workers” in terms of self-efficacy, optimism, resilience, and hope — this is the right idea, but I think these are better described as ephemeral states of mind, not some sort of commoditized resource.
My point here is that I believe states of mind are not just cool trips, but concrete competitive assets. Their irreproducibility makes them a good candidate for the “stash of hoarded unfair advantages” that makes entrepreneurship hard. The more states you have access to, and the better you are at juggling them from situation to situation, the more you will be able to leverage intellectual knowledge with more-difficult-to-Google tacit knowledge.
For me personally, giving states of mind their due has helped me understand how misfortunes, undesired circumstances, and mid-life crises can become the seeds of great strengths: people avoid these things so aggressively that the states of mind they impart are rare, and valuable. I used to regret growing up in insular suburban Southern California, but have come to treasure what it gave me: naïveté, the ability to throw myself into new things with evangelical zeal, which I trace directly back to my upbringing in an evangelical Christian mega-church and a conservative social bubble. I’ve left behind the beliefs but fortunately retained access to the state of mind. Likewise, the most useful book I’ve ever read isn’t a non-fiction self-help tract. It is a historical fiction novel called The Source, by James Michener. It follows a fictional archaeological expedition as they dig up an ancient settlement in modern-day Palestine. At every layer they uncover an artifact, and each chapter tells the story of that artifact, from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War all the way back to the first hominids. Reading that book again and again as an impressionable teenager, it slowly gave me a sense (or state of mind) that history is inherently epic and meaningful. Whether you agree or not, it is a useful state of mind to have at your disposal during moments of existential dread.
I’ve also come to appreciate that every state of mind is highly adapted to a specific context, like a specialized tool. The two foreign cultures I’m most familiar with are Brazil (part of childhood) and Ukraine (Peace Corps) — they each represent radically different but effective responses to environments of great uncertainty. Brazilian culture says that the social reality is the only reliable reality, which is not a bad guide to what research tells us is essential for happiness. Eastern Ukraine has more of a grim, stoic determination — excellent for intellectual pursuits. I once sat in the living room of a Ukrainian family in a small village, being schooled at chess by one of my English students. His mother yelled from the kitchen, “Vlad! Stop playing that game and do your homework!” in exactly the same tone of voice an American mother would use for video games. I thought: how useful a state of mind it must be to think of chess as a guilty pleasure, instead of a chore? And we wonder how the Slavic world continues to churn out world-class mathematicians and scientists with a fraction of our education budget.
So what do we do with this information? We’ve muddied the waters beyond simple prescriptions like “follow your passion” or “develop useful skills.” Mood-first productivity may even seem disheartening, like we are slaves to our emotions. But I think states of mind can shed new light on an old idea: that we are actually different selves across time, and reaching our goals requires getting them to cooperate. The main difference between these selves is not information content. It is in their respective states of mind—how they feel about themselves and their place in the world.
This excellent paper on “Self-Organization in Communicating Groups” by Francis Heylighen at the Free University of Brussels (which I’ll be borrowing from liberally) describes the four requirements for any group of independent “agents” to reach a goal. I want to use this framework to ask the question: What if we thought of our different selves as literally completely different people, with different priorities, skills, and attitudes? How could we use principles of self-organization to get them to work together toward common goals, assuming they are driven primarily by ephemeral states of mind?
The four requirements are:
- Alignment: getting the selves to push in the same direction, so they’re not fighting against each other
- Specialization: getting the selves to complement each others’ efforts by focusing on the activities they are best suited for
- Workflow: getting the selves to hand off tasks to each other efficiently, so they can be completed in stages over time
- Aggregation: the assembly of the results of the previous activities into a final product
If we consider that our numerous selves have very different priorities, aligning their actions becomes more important, and harder. Instead of forcing all of them—past, present, and future—to line up with an unchanging predetermined outcome (a “mission” or “purpose”), it makes more sense to start with what excites your current self right now, and then work from there to define that motivation in increasingly subtle shades over time. The more precise your understanding of what exactly excites you about any particular project, the better your ability to generalize it to other projects and topics — to thread and follow that particular needle winding through the haystack of life.
Assuming these numerous selves have different skills, it makes sense for them to specialize. But that means we need a mechanism for matching each self to the right task. There are two basic ways of doing this: learning how to change your mood to match the task at hand, and to change the task at hand to match your mood. Both are useful under different circumstances. Changing your mood to match the task is the realm of self-talk and environmental cues, like the Cathedral Effect — a team working in a high-ceilinged room will use more abstract and integrated ideation, while a team in a low-ceilinged room will use more discrete and concrete approaches. Changing the task to match your mood is the goal of distributed, self-organizing tools like kanban boards and ticketing systems, where each person works on whatever matches their skills and state of mind at that moment. Personal kanban boards are an example of applying these tools to a team of selves, instead of a team of people.
Because these different selves show up rather unpredictably at different times, workflow is required to coordinate their actions across time. Heylighen provides a clue: “There is no need to plan when a particular agent should execute a particular task, as long as enough agents are available so that a sufficiently skilled one is ready to take over soon after the previous task is finished.” That’s a hefty requirement. This means that Calm but Focused Me needs to be able to hand off whatever he’s working on to another instance of Calm but Focused Me in such a way that both the current progress and the state of mind are preserved as accurately as possible. Because these two instances are often separated by days, weeks, or months (in an environment of numerous simultaneous projects and constant emergencies), this handoff cannot rely on storing these states in memory, nor can it deteriorate over time.
This requirement is the real motive for an iterative summarization approach to note-taking (briefly, summarizing notes, and then summarizing the summary, etc. in a pyramid-like structure, using formatting that allows you to see each level of summarization separately). It’s relatively time-consuming, but I’m willing to put in all of that effort because, when the creative mood appears, I want to be able to integrate as many sources as possible before that temporary state of mind passes (or the responsibilities of real life come knocking). I’m time-shifting as much mundane reading and summarizing as possible from that future, precious, creative state of mind to other, more common mental states: Delay on BART, Relaxing After Dinner, On a Plane, Dentist’s Appointment, etc.
In other words, the true purpose of note-taking is transporting states of mind (not just information) through time. This is why pictures, sketches, and diagrams often work better than text. We don’t usually think of them as notes, but songs, smells, and tastes work even better. As HBR puts it: “A visual model becomes one of the most effective tools for minimizing alignment-attrition; a visualization formalizes an emergent idea and solidifies it at a moment in time.” Or as Craig Mod more eloquently says, “To return to a book is to return not just to the text but also to a past self. We are embedded in our libraries. To reread is to remember who we once were, which can be equal parts scary and intoxicating.”
There is one bright side to all this hard work: the only way to crystallize a state of mind is to use affective triggers to decide what to take notes on and keep. Instead of making a mini-outline of each book and article and podcast you consume, trying to preserve the logical structure of the argument, just wait in low-power mode for reactions like surprise, delight, intrigue, and outrage. This System 1 processing is much faster, less energy intensive, and more intuitive than the more analytical System 2. To take this approach means your notes will not be neat and ordered, like a Dewey Decimal system for the mind. They will be dominated by the contrarian, by paradoxes, by the inexplicable. Which is exactly the point. Contrarianism is the fastest method for discovering the paradox at the heart of every inexplicable phenomenon.
Aggregation is necessary to turn all these diverse efforts into a final product. Having access to more diverse states of mind allows you to create more diverse definitions of success — a crucial skill for shaping and moving into zones of expanding possibility. If you’ve endured just a taste of Kafka’s maddening bureaucracy, you can be ok with a little extra paperwork. This is Waitzkin’s first level of high-performance — flowing with whatever comes. If you’ve learned how to find boredom useful by, say, keeping a stash of reading material handy at all times, you can find that 2-hour delay to be an opportunity. This is the second level — using whatever comes to your advantage.
What I’m referring to here is multifinality. Whereas multitasking refers to seeking multiple outputs from multiple simultaneous inputs, and is impossible, multifinality refers to attaining alternative objectives from the same inputs, and is eminently possible. Can that ad campaign also be an opportunity to test the relative performance of different market segments? Can this presentation be recorded and used as a business development tool? Can captchas also be used to decipher street addresses? These questions allow you to kill two birds with one stone, each present self making life easier on multiple future selves in an expanding, branching tree of optionality. Crucially, multifinality doesn’t take more time or resources or effort — just a more diverse set of lenses to see that any action can have multiple non-rivalrous outcomes.
If you’ve been thinking it’s strange to think of diverse life experiences and inner work as a means to something as mundane as productivity, you’re right — the reverse is true. It’s more accurate to say that productivity, or creating more value in the world as efficiently and effectively as possible, is one of many paths on a journey of personal growth. We just happen to be lucky enough to live in a time when personal growth makes us better employees, which means our employers will pay us to pursue it.
Many have commented on the rise of chaos and complexity in the modern world, but we forget what the yogis have always known — our inner lives have always been chaotic and complex. States of mind are a better guide to modern work than values (which don’t always motivate), goals (which often change), and processes (which try to prescribe the unprescribable) precisely because moods are the only things that change just as fast as the world around us. I suspect this is where that elusive Level 3 of performance can be found — clearing the in-between space of enough biases, fears, and defenses that our inner inspirations can explode into creative “earthquakes” as efficiently as possible.
The idea that difficult inner work will go mainstream seems far-fetched, I know, but I see more and more evidence. Some of the most talked-about books in Silicon Valley have titles like The Untethered Soul, Radical Acceptance, and Spark Joy. Brené Brown explains on a popular podcast aimed at young male urbanites how vulnerability — “the willingness to show up and be seen when you have zero control over the outcome “ — underlies all acts of real courage. Courage, of course, being more necessary than ever, and vulnerability as difficult as it’s always been. This interest in the quality of the experience over mere outcomes reminds me of a quote by Joseph Campbell: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life,…[but] I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of life, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” There’s that uncomfortable word rapture again.
Thinking about the value inherent in every unique state of mind, and how one can actively pursue and assimilate these states, I’m struck by a quote by Picasso: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” You could say that his work was a technology of forgetting. It’s encouraging to realize that many of the states of mind we seek are not “out there” somewhere, to be hunted down and consumed. They are states of mind belonging to our past selves — we wouldn’t crave it if we had never experienced it. We have to go backwards and remember what we once knew, not forwards to some perfected version of ourselves. What would you pay to experience child-like wonder for a day? To watch Star Wars Episode IV for the first time again? To have the ability to snap your fingers at any time and see your writing, your painting, your app with the fresh eyes of a novice?
Your future lies in your past. Learning is forgetting. We’re getting close to a paradox here — a promising sign.
For the comments: what states of mind do you find most useful, unique, or interesting?
Thank you to Venkat Rao, Kartik Agaram, Lauren Valdez, and Joel Goyette for their ideas and suggestions.