A Problem with Flow: Delayed Consequences
To choose a good action rather than a bad action, your Inferential System has to know the consequences of these actions. As it turns out, your Inferential System easily learns the immediate consequences of an action. It is much more difficult for your Inferential System to learn delayed consequences, and your Inferential System probably needs conscious help in order to learn them.
For example, I like going to a lake in the summer. One time I realized I did not have a good time at the lake. Conscious thought helped me realize that I had not actually gone swimming that day. I consciously hypothesized that I needed to go swimming to enjoy my stay at the lake. Subsequent experience proved this to be true. But I needed my conscious thought to realize this fact. The problem is that when the water is cold, going swimming is not always immediately enjoyable. What I enjoyed most at the time was lying in the sun. However, as it turned out, I most enjoyed lying in the sun after I had gone swimming and cooled myself off. If I didn't go swimming, then my body overheated and I didn't enjoy lying in the sun.
So, going swimming increased my enjoyment of my day, but the enjoyment was a delayed consequence. My Inferential System could not have learned that consequence by itself. Similarly, you might consciously know you should not eat a piece of chocolate cake, because of its bad consequences. But the bad consequences are all delayed. Your Inferential System tends to know only the happy immediate consequence of good taste. So you experience a desire from your Inferential System to eat the cake, even though you have conscious knowledge that you shouldn't.
One important reason why sports, arts, and crafts are suited to flow is that the consequences of an action are always immediate, rather than delayed. At tennis, for example, you either win or lose the point; at painting, your picture becomes better or it does not. So you immediately know whether your action was good or bad. In vacationing, actions usually have just immediate consequences -- you enjoy or do not enjoy yourself. That is why vacationing is usually well-suited to flowing.
But occasionally actions have delayed consequences. For example, suppose you don't have reservations for where to spend the night, and motels and campsites tend to fill up by 7:00. Enjoying yourself from 5:00 to 7:00 will lead to problems later that night when you have trouble finding a place to stay.
Or, one time I was in Boy Scouts and we were nearing the end of our canoe trip. We were strung out in a line on a lake, and we could see rain approaching. One by one, the canoes were rained on. As my canoe-mate and I hurriedly put on our raincoats, we looked back and saw that the boys behind us were not wearing their raincoats. Instead, they were just enjoying canoeing in the rain. So we took off our raincoats too. It was a delicious experience, enjoying the rain rather than fighting with it. However, when we got to shore, we had no dry clothes. And while it had been warm when the rain started, it was now cold. And we weren't exercising any more. So we were all very cold and miserable.
So, when you vacation, you must be aware when your actions have future consequences. Then, there are two things you can do. First, you can simple stop flowing. You don't need to flow all of the time on your vacation. But if you want to keep flowing, you have to keep the future consequences in mind as you flow. This can sully the flow experience, but it is necessary for effective action. For example, you might be having fun and want to continue playing longer, but if you keep firmly in mind that you might not find a place to stay the night if you keep playing, your desire to keep playing will decrease.
One very common source of delayed consequences is a limited resource. Time and money are the most frequent limited resources. If your money is limited, spending too much money one day has consequences for the end of your vacation when you run short on money.
The best solution is to make a plan for using the limited resource, then flow within the plan. For example, you can make a plan for spending money if it is a limited resource. The other solution, which again tends not to be as enjoyable, is to get the big picture. For example, if money is a limited resource, you imagine the undesirable effects of spending money and then your flow will take the limited money into account.
Once I was at a 4-day conference in Washington D.C. I did not have a lot of time to spend sightseeing, so time could have been a limited resource. However, I decided that my only goal was to visit Lincoln's Memorial. Now I had more than enough time, so I could flow. I went to Lincoln's Memorial twice, once during the day and once at night. I took pictures of the outside of the Memorial, every part of the inside, and views from the Memorial most people would not imagine. I accidentally walked by the Vietnam War Memorial. It seems to me that the Vietnam War Memorial might be boring to visit intentionally, but accidentally walking by it was very moving. I also took two walks around the city that were not designed to visit anything important, but instead just allowed me to pick up the ambiance of the city. Nothing I saw on those walks was remarkable, but I enjoyed myself and still remember my walks fondly.
Vacationing with Others
Flowing is usually a solitary activity. Even when you are part of a group, say in basketball, you are choosing only your own actions. But when you are vacationing with others, what you do is what everyone does. It is still possible to flow in this situation, though. Before having children, my wife and I did it all of the time. For one vacation, our plan, in its entirety, was to drive up through Vermont, then spend time hiking in the Adirondacks. We didn't even follow that plan well -- we spent longer in Vermont than we expected and did less hiking than we expected. But we were doing what we wanted and had a great time. Another time we just drove down the Oregon coast with no plans, stopping and visiting whatever we wanted, and staying as long as we wanted. We averaged about 100 miles a day. One day, I said to my wife "Do you want to go home now?" She said yes, and we drove home.
But I did not think it was possible to flow in a larger group until I received this report from Nancy Straka:
"I just recently took a vacation to upstate N.Y. to visit relatives whom I hadn't seen in 4 years. I had decided before I left that I was going to try and flow, make no plans, and do what I wanted, enjoy myself and only suggest things I wanted truly to do. Since this vacation was being catered to me, I had control over what we would do. I was given choices or suggestions as to what was available in the area and what we could do. Instead of being polite and thinking through each alternative and evaluating it and its effects on everyone else, I decided from my wants and urges that I wanted to go to Niagara Falls and we went. Although we made the plan to go to Niagara, we still flowed because no certain time was set, we just went when everyone had eaten and was ready, but no rush was taken. The atmosphere was relaxed, no pressure, or tension to be somewhere. Our plans were extremely flexible and easy to flow in. If someone wanted to eat, we ate and stopped looking at the sites. The whole car got into a mode of flowing. People including myself were only suggesting alternatives which they wanted to do, which made it so much easier to go with an alternative because you weren't wondering, 'does this person really want to do this or not?' You knew they did or they wouldn't suggest it. I had one of the best vacations I've had."
How to Vacation with Others
In group flow, when an option is suggested, people should chime in with their opinion. This opinion should be based on just what people want to do, which is to say, their Inferential Systems' opinions. If the group wants to do the option, it is performed. There is no checking to discover if a better option is available.
When only two people are flowing together, this moment for evaluation can occur quickly. Suppose my wife suggests an option. If I like it, I can respond positively and we can do it. It would take a little longer in a group for people to chime in with their opinions and for the group to come to a decision.
People can exchange information and offer evaluations of options. But the group decision should never be turned into a logical analysis with the winner being the option with the best support. What counts is only what people want to do.
Communication is important. Brainstorming, discussed in Chapter 3, directly links people's Inferential Systems to produce good answers to problems. One key of this interfacing is direct communication between Inferential Systems -- people just say what is coming out of their Inferential System, without inhibiting or editing it. The exact same principle applies to flowing in groups. I could rattle on for pages about the correct style of communication when flowing in groups. But the simple bottom line is that you should say, as accurately as you can, what is coming out of your Inferential System. This includes thoughts and feelings, especially feelings about what you want. Within reason, you should express your thoughts and feelings without inhibition, without editing, and without fear of making some mistake or getting some criticism.
However, elaboration is not editing. It's okay to try to explain why you want something, if you know, or just to most accurately express what you want. If you say "Let's eat here, I'm hungry," someone can answer without contradiction "Let's eat at that other restaurant." If you say "Let's eat here, I want chicken," an answer could be "Can we eat chicken later? I'm not hungry now." And saying "Let's eat here, I'm worried we won't find another restaurant," invites information about upcoming restaurants. But if you just say "Let's eat here", and someone doesn't want to eat here right now, there is no room for discussion and finding an alternative that everyone likes.
However, if you want to eat at a restaurant and don't know why, don't make up a reason. Just say you want to eat at that restaurant. And if you're hungry, just say you're hungry; don't make up a plan for what restaurant to eat at. Again, your goal in communication is to say exactly what is coming out of your Inferential System.
The glue that holds group flow together is converging Wants. What one person wants usually influences what other people want. For example, if my wife says she wants to go swimming, my want for swimming increases; if she says she doesn't want to go swimming, my want for swimming decreases. There is a limit to how much Wants can converge, but the convergence of Wants helps flow work better than if Wants were fixed and independent. However, the convergence of wants occurs only when people express their Wants.
So, don't think -- just say it!
The previous chapter suggested you should stop flowing when it is not working. This chapter now points out the dangers of flow when your actions have delayed consequences. You should be aware when this is occurring, and either keep the consequences in mind or stop flowing.
Flowing with others is trickier, but it is still possible and just as rewarding. Say what you want, without any editing or inhibition.