Freedom to constrain ourselves: No one likes to be confined, but we do love containment as much as a dog loves his kennel or as any of us prefer the walls of our homes, or a booth at a restaurant. Being walled in is a nightmare but so is a life without any structure. Infinite freedom gives us the free willies. We want freedom so we can choose our own walls rather than having them imposed upon us.
Getting “Flow” within our grooves: What we really love is being channeled within grooves, contained within our pursuits, flowing smoothly with no guesswork about which path to follow or where it leads. We love feeling focused, undistracted, purposeful and disciplined, making so much progress that we don’t have time, attention or energy to wonder and worry about what else we might be doing with ourselves. Happiness is finding your deep and groovy groove. It’s not a comfort zone, it’s a comfort channel. We’re not loafing in it. We’re grooving down it, as exhilarating yet safe as a water slide, a groove we count on to carry us safely into the future. That’s the idea behind the now-famous psychological concept of flow. What’s often overlooked about flow though, is the walls or railings that hold us in it. The opposite of flow is not stagnation so much as the dreaded expanse, being lost in some flat, desolate prairie not knowing which way to go.
The dreaded expanse: Insecurity arises when we feel groove-less. When we don’t know what we should do, when no matter what we do, we wonder and worry that we should be doing something else. Without our grooves we feel unsettled, our channel not holding us snug enough, its walls too low, its floor to shallow making it too easy for us to peer rubberneck envying others their smoother, deeper grooves.
Unsettled: We enter this insecure state when the walls of our groove are perforated by discouraging news or when the evidence that we’re on track gets faint and our groove gets shallow. We find ourselves in it when we’ve been ejected from our groove, fired or dumped. Or when we quit our groove, jumping its securely confining walls, because our groove begins to feel more like a rut, a containment, but not one that will take us where we want to go.
Empty Next: Grooveless, we float disconcertingly. We suffer “empty next syndrome” not sure what our next priorities should be. To avoid such insecurity we try to keep the walls of our groove as high and sturdy as we can.
Loving our to-don’t lists: You know what it’s like when, in group conversation you’re disappointed in yourself. You’d like to able to contribute but can’t because you don’t know anything about the topic. And you know what it’s like to be perfectly fine about not contributing because it’s not a topic that interests you. It’s a topic that isn’t on your to-do list, but on your to-don’t list. “I don’t do windows. I don’t do Macs. I don’t do spectator sports.” We thrive on our to-do lists, because we have contentedly forsaken extraneous activities to-don’t list, things that reside outside our groove-walls.
Our de-liberations; our bags, our lessens: Doing things deliberately, is doing them with focused concentration, in other words, de-liberated, un-freed, constrained to what matters and not distracted by what doesn’t. We learn our bag of tricks, our constrained specializations. We do so by taking lessons, which yes, teach us what to do, but mostly by teaching us what not to do. When you enter lessons, you might try all sorts of ways to accomplish the task at hand. The lessons lessen the possibilities. Masters make their skills look easy because they have limited themselves down to what works, lessening their effort down to what provides maximum efficiency. These terrible puns can help us remember that our focus is a product of our constraints.
What builds groove-walls? Our groove-walls are comprised of external and internal cues indicating that our expectations are well aligned with our circumstances. External cues include all manner of positive reinforcement for what we’re doing: compliments, pay raises, appreciation, job offers and flattery. They include people expecting us to deliver what we can deliver, and compensating us well when we do. Internal cues include all those qualities of a self-starter, a focused mind, self-affirmation or just gumption and self-motivation.
Dreaming of the biggest sturdiest groove walls possible: People crave fame and fortune in large part because they imagine that they would provide insurmountably sturdy groove-walls, megatons of containment. The image is lazing poolside at one’s mansion with thousands of adoring fans outside, but at core it’s the confidence, that we are living right. We don’t expect from them what many who have fame and fortune report: They can become oppressive constraints.
Groove walls made of other people’s shortcomings: We’re told not to compare ourselves to others, but we will anyway in part because other people’s limited success can contribute to the sturdiness of our groove-walls. Yes, schadenfreude. Perhaps we each need a requisite number of fools to laugh at, vital representatives of our to-don’t lists. The shallower our grooves the more we need them, and the contrast we get from singing our praises and laughing at their flaws. The people we think are on the wrong track are confirmation that we’re on the right track. Fortifying our groove-walls may be a chief reason we gossip about others who are losing. It can be useful to keep this in mind when thinking about whomever you’ve decided is wrongheaded. Be grateful for the way they support you by reminding you of what you don’t want to be doing.
How To Tell What Makes Your Groove-walls: One way to know what your groove-walls are made of, is to think about what we crave in reaction to their disappearance, in other words what we crave when we’re feeling insecure. For example, if, when insecure, you find yourself fishing for complements, recounting your past successes, giving yourself lots of pep talks, by telling everybody how well you’re doing, or checking social media a lot to see whether anyone still cares. That’s evidence of what you feel you’re missing, the absent groove-walls you wish were there.
Getting over the question of how you’re doing: The opposite of anxiety isn’t primarily pride, which can be as much an attempt to restore groove-walls as to revel within them. Rather, the opposite is focus on the tasks at hand, the work within the groove without even wondering where it’s going. That’s what flow provides. We become agnostic about the long-term results, contented to focus instead on the immediate endeavor.
Groove management:Faith in our grooves is a desirable state, not caring or even noticing what others think of them, just doing our best by our standards. But it’s not the only desirable state. Even more desirable is having faith in good grooves, not bad ones. We’re glad Gandhi and MLK had faith in their grooves, we’re all sorry that the heads of ISIS have faith in theirs. Or even some current US presidential candidates. As much as we avoid the dreaded expanse, the empty next that meets us when we eject ourselves, or are ejected from our grooves, it can be exactly where we need to be. We feel most heroic when we’re in our grooves, but sometimes we’re more heroic still to abandon them and face the anxiety that follows.