This post is a surprise to me. I set out to finish off a few leftover thoughts from Experiencing Reboot Part I but ended up writing a piece about focusing on NOW, a concept that is all too familiar but rarely practiced in a professional setting.
I must have been practicing elements of focusing on now for a while without realizing what it was. It is through the magic process of writing that the new system starts to take shape. All of a sudden, the following quote makes perfect sense to me:
“Do not dwell in the past, do no dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment” — Budda
Rebooting with a new mindset
Last week concluded my 5-week Bootcamp training on my new job. As my LinkedIn profile is updated to Software Engineer at X company, I know I have overcome a small struggle in my professional identity. I have been a researcher, a manager/director, but not a software engineer (Individual Contributor or IC as often called). After leading a large team for several years, I wonder, is my new position as an IC a career advancement or a setback?
It took me a while to reconcile with it. I remembered that it was my choice not to seek another “director-level” position because I was burned out after a few years into the last one. I also remembered that the last year at my previous job was one of the most satisfying in my professional career, despite (or perhaps because) my job responsibility shrank much in scope. My recent experiences showed that personal fulfillment could be decoupled from impressive titles. As stated in the book “Flow: the psychology of optimal experience”:
“To overcome the anxity and depressions of comtemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. … achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
This concept of achieving control over experience intrigues me. Indeed, it is often the story that we tell ourselves that gives meaning to our experiences. So my story in this new journal will be to do software engineering with attention, to optimize for flow and strive for mastery, and more importantly, to experience work in a way that is completely unburdened by the past or the future.
Decoupling from the past — beginner’s mind
As I aim to break free from the burden of the past, my definition of success starts to emerge. Success means achieving mastery and impact by who I am and without relying on any external introduction.
I got a taste of that recently. I was parachuted into workgroup meetings for the RISC-V community. The only introduction was a brief mention of the work we did that was relevant to the workgroup. Without knowing anyone at the meeting, my only way of moving the conversation was by how I reacted to what was said at the moment. I was, in fact, experiencing the beginner’s mind.
At the start of the new job, I decided to apply the beginner’s mind to offer fresh perspectives to my project, leveraging the fact that I know little of the project’s past. But as I benefited from a fresh view on the project, I realized that I had missed the bigger part of the beginner’s mind. The beginner’s mind is more about leaving our past behind than the project’s. It means that I would not judge any project based on how things used to or were supposed to be done. Instead, I would analyze a problem with the information at hand and in that particular context, and I would be open-minded to where the conclusion leads.
Applying the beginner’s mind to one’s inner conditioning is also liberating. When one does not bring in one’s past and focus on doing the best at the moment, a large part of self-consciousness and self-evaluation disappears, and one learns more.
Reaping the present — attention as psychic energy
Part of my reboot is to recover from attention deficiency accumulated over the years due to chronicle multi-tasking, structural information overload, and frequent distractions. My old system led to burn out after a few years. That makes me wonder if there could be another way. Is it truly possible to do less but achieve more?
I discovered the power of psychic energy. Intention and attention are the most valuable (psychic) energy of the mind (visualize attention as beams of laser), but they are often squandered away in our busy-ness. By setting clear goals (intention) and paying rapt attention, I hope to experience work in a completely new way.
“The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer” — Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
Nowadays, my workday is structured very differently. I time-box each work session with a specific goal. If a logical task is too big to finish in one session, I will break it down into smaller ones to make each session meaningful by itself. I design my workflow to help me stay focused on everyday activities. For instance, I experimented with tasks to do while waiting for a build to complete that would incur the least mental switching overhead. It turned out that, for me, writing on paper or meditation was non-intrusive, but checking emails or chats was. Finally, at the end of each workday, I reflect on what has been done, what I have learned, and what can be improved to give meaning to each day’s work.
Intention and attention create order in the consciousness, under which we grow in complexity (also known as learning). The value of intention and attention is not only the better quality of the work being done but also the rich experience it produces, out of which our better self emerges. This is how we grow.
Of course, there are still bad days. When the rubber meets the road, it is still unclear whether the new system will withstand the onslaught of a real fast-paced workplace (I will tell you in three months if it works or not :). But I would like to give the new system a try because I know that my old system of multi-tasking can no longer lead me to the next level.
The future will take care of itself
At the Bootcamp, the anxiety of how well we may adapt to this new fast-paced environment is palpable. How do we cope with the uncertainty of the future? The best advice I received from a fellow senior IC (which I faithfully followed) was to focus on making every day a good workday. If, every day, I thoroughly make every decision, intentionally define each task, reliably give my best energy to each session, and meticulously reflect on every lesson learned, my day would be a good one. And if most of my workdays are good days, I figure I shall be fine.
As we focus on investing in the system that generates the outcome day after day, the future will take care of itself and materialize in whichever form worth exploring.