Towards a Gay Science

March 4, 2019

In the vast stream of information I’ve ingested over the course of my life, the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche have been consistent anchor points. Reading Nietzsche for me—in his complexity, irreverence, and joyfulness—feels like remembering, like a homecoming. Many of my privileged memories from adolescence involve reading his books outside by a fire. These ideas propelled me through multiple degrees in philosophy, helped me navigate life’s challenges with integrity, and balanced seriousness with playfulness in a seemingly contradictory way.

I left the academic tradition of philosophy because I found that it couldn’t balance this seriousness with playfulness. Philosophy, for me, had become academic. I saw philosophy in universities become a game of allegiances and tenure, another example of mistaking the map for the territory.

Thoreau once claimed that there are no longer any philosophers, only philosophy professors. I knew of this quote from an early age, but it wasn’t until I was in grad school that I finally admitted that he was correct. The tradition became serious. And so I left.

While I left the university halls of academia, I never lost track of the Nietzschean project. Instead, it began to take on new forms.

Flow is a state of consciousness characterized by full absorption in the present. It’s the key to performance, as we perform at our best in flow. It also answers the existential question: what meaning does my life have? As Kafka once said that “the meaning of life is that it ends,” in some weird recursive way, I’ve come to feel that the meaning of life is to live life. The more time you spend in the present—rather than ruminating about the past or anxious about the future—the more meaningful life becomes. Flow is, after all, really just deep presence.

We could make the connection between flow and Nietzsche in any number of ways. The most interesting for me is by way of a larger question: why do we care about philosophy, science, or truth anyways?

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche wrote the following: “what was at stake in all philosophizing hitherto was not at all ‘truth’ but rather something else—let us say health, future, growth, power, life…” Nietzsche’s project departs from the conventional sense of truth. It’s not about understanding the external world with certainty. It’s not about mapping a universal and unchanging essence behind fleeting appearances. For him, the desire for certainty is a mark of sickness. The project is to make science gay in the sense of orienting it towards health and playfulness.

This is where the science of flow comes in. Nietzsche’s project can be seen as what he calls the will to power, or a self-overcoming force. He never defines this force concretely, likely to leave it open to the interpretation of the reader. Flow science as the science of human performance has inherited Nietzsche’s project.

Flow became the latest incarnation of this project I inherited from Nietzsche. It’s another term for the theme of health, vitality, and flourishing. But using the more technical term flow has made this idea so much more actionable. It allows me to talk about a state that is, after all, knowable and programmable.

What we know about flow is that if I change different inputs, I get more flow. For instance, the challenge/skill balance is the so-called “golden rule” of flow. If the challenge of the task at hand is a bit above my current skill level, I’m more likely to drop into flow. Too much challenge and I’m overwhelmed; too little and I’m bored.

So this means that I’m programmable: I can change my actions and get different results. Not only am I programmable, but it is I who can do the programming. This is the heart of a gay science. It’s a unification of theory and practice all for this larger goal: the will to power.

Equipped with these ideas, I made many changes in my life. I’ve skydived hundreds of times because danger is a flow trigger so action sports athletes find more flow than anybody else. I now work in technology since the immediate feedback loops of programming and the fast-paced cadence of startups mean more flow. I also volunteer early mornings and weekends doing research on flow and neuroscience. I do this because working as a technologist has shown me that the limiting factor in building great things is how well we understand underlying mechanism. More knowledge means more flow.

What I’ve found in this process is that there are many people like me. Many people have struggled with making meaning in their lives, stumbled across flow (whether they use the term or not), and are willing to take risks and undergo drastic changes to orient their lives around the state.

I receive many emails each week showing interest in understanding the state, lending a hand on the research, or trying to build companies or new communities around flow. Take a step back to examine what that means: people are willing to volunteer their time free of charge for this state. It’s paradoxical. It defies the logic of humans as pleasure-seeking animals who are stumbling around the planet avoiding pain and looking for a good party.

This has led me to be a lot more public with some of the things I’ve been working on. This blog is an attempt to capture that. In the words of one luminary, whether you love him or hate him: “Find the others…”


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