Accepting Imperfect Conditions

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While writing my first article, I felt a great deal clarity. While I wrote I felt I was, by and large, expressing what I wanted to say. The words seemed to flow naturally from my mind onto the computer in front of me and I could see clearly how everything fitted together.

In retrospect, I was in a state of ‘Flow’, a term coined by Csikszentmihalyi, whereby cognitive processes are aligned on tackling the task at hand and the rest of the world seems to transiently disappear.

Naturally, as I try to write again, I desire to re-enter this state where I felt confident I could express what I wanted to say. However, how feasible is it to re-capture emotions and states of mind from the past? And is it wise to attempt to do so?

As someone with perfectionist tendencies, I have a natural desire to be in the ‘perfect’ state of mind for any given situation that I find myself in. Yet more often than not in doing so I impede myself from entering the very state that I am trying to obtain.

I will give some personal examples to demonstrate the point.

When playing basketball in front of a coach or fellow players that I want to impress, whether that’s to earn a place on the team or for the sake of impressing others, I play far below the standard I am capable of. I try to talk myself up in my mind and over-think things that I do. Whereas when I rock up to a casual game of pick-up, with no expectations other than to enjoy the basketball, things come off seemingly without effort and I play far better.

When sitting exams, if I set very high expectations of myself and subsequently try to force a good performance, it rarely works. Yet when I maintain a degree of ambivalence about the result I obtain and just enjoy the challenges of the exam for what they are, again things come more naturally and I perform much better.

Traits such as creativity and spontaneity, which are useful in certain situations, are not something that can be easily forced.

Ultimately, trying to re-create the positive aspects of past occurrences is generally unfruitful, yet it can be in our nature to want to do so. But the very act of trying to recreate a joyful experience can be what prevents it from happening again. The original time it happened, you had no concept of trying to ‘create’ it — it just happened.

As humans we naturally fluctuate between different states of mind (some more than others, perhaps). I find this frustrating at times; if you are not in the state of mind you desire at the right moment, things might not happen as you hoped. Different situations require different states of mind for optimal performance.

Sometimes when I am studying everything seems to click in to place and I cover large grounds in short spaces of time. At others, as a friend of mine put it while frantically revising for exams, “it’s just not going in”.

You may be in a state of flow a few days before the exam, recalling everything with ease, then in the exam itself things just won’t enter your mind at the right moment. Although this may be compounded by additional factors such as the stress of exams. This can also occur in reverse.

I find the same in social situations. Sometimes things come to me naturally; I think of the right thing to say at the right time, and have a great time. At other times, the right things just don’t come to me and the conversation can be boring or a little awkward.

To what extent can we ‘engineer’ our frame of mind for our relevant situation at that time? There are things we can do to maximise the likelihood of certain mental states arising. Things I have found useful include getting lots of sleep, meditating, exercise and eating well (what works well is likely to differ for different people). But outright chasing a certain emotion or state of mind can be counter-productive.

Maybe it’s also important to accept that things won’t always be perfect — that sometimes things won’t ‘click’ and that’s okay.

I took me about four times as long to write this article and I’ve not the made the points I intended to make as clearly as I would have liked. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but I’m glad I did it anyway.

Data Scientist + Junior Doctor in London, Cambridge medicine grad, striving to improve healthcare through technology and education.

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