Degrees of Freedom
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi popularized the idea of the “flow state”. In order to enter a flow state, you need to tune the difficulty of the task at hand so that it’s not too easy and bores you, but also isn’t too difficult and gives you anxiety.
In statistics there’s a concept called “degrees of freedom”. The number of degrees of freedom roughly corresponds to the “n” (number of dimensions) in n-dimensional space in geometry. In colloquial usage, degrees of freedom is the number of independent variables you can change in a given situation. You can think of degrees of freedom as the quantified version of “freedom”.
We have three degrees of freedom when moving through space. At any given time, we can move up or down, left or right, or forward or backwards. Many tasks can vary in the degrees of freedom they offer. If I pay you to paint a fire hydrant red and give you the brush and paint, you have zero degrees of freedom since you have no choice over any of the relevant variables (color, brush, design, etc). Contrast this with sitting down and painting on a blank canvas, which offers many degrees of freedom. Off the top of my head, there are the two dimensions of space on the canvas, the brush you decide to use, the color you decide to use, the order in which you execute the brush strokes, and the number of layers you decide to put down on the canvas before finishing.
As you can see, “degrees of freedom” doesn’t have a rigorous definition when used colloquially. It is a fuzzy measurement that is more of a relative approximation that is used to compare and order tasks. In the previous example, we can say that painting on a blank canvas offers more degrees of freedom than painting the fire hydrant.
How does degrees of freedom relate to flow state? In order to achieve flow state consistently, you need to be able to consciously adjust the difficulty of the challenge to match your ability. A major component of a task’s difficulty is the number of degrees of freedom and the number of options you are offered in each degree of freedom. Generally, the greater the degrees of freedom, the more difficult the task is, and the greater the number of options you have per degree of freedom, the more difficult the task is. Difficulty here refers to the mental difficulty of the task.
The reasoning behind this is simple — more independent variables and/or more options per variable result in more possibilities that you need to consider and choose from. This means you need greater computational power (i.e. intelligence) to iterate over these possibilities in a reasonable amount of time. If you can’t run through the possibilities fast enough, you are said to be a victim of “analysis paralysis”. (Heuristics in this context serve to decrease the number of independent variables and options in a way that minimally degrades the end result.)
In most cases, adjusting the difficulty of a task involves adjusting the number of degrees of freedom and/or the number of options per degree of freedom. In life, we are subject to physical and mental constraints on the number of degrees of freedom and options we have. Even so, we have far more degrees of freedom than we will ever be able to fully use, and the vast majority of the time, our job is to decrease the degrees of freedom and options by framing the task at hand in a simpler way (e.g. using heuristics). This is the key to maintaining flow state. It’s easy to add variables, but the true art lies in decreasing the number of variables and options without sacrificing the result.
When matching someone to a line of work, it is important to take into account their intelligence, risk tolerance and creativity. On one end of the spectrum is work that has few degrees of freedom (i.e. not much decision-making latitude, not much creativity required). Think of any entry-level position in a licensed or regulated profession, like the trades, military, medicine or law. On the other end of the spectrum is work that has many degrees of freedom (i.e. lots of decision-making latitude, lots of creativity required). Think of CEOs, entrepreneurs, musicians, and artists.
The traits that dictate what type of work you’ll be drawn to are intelligence, risk tolerance and creativity. Someone who has high amounts of all three will be easily bored by work that offers few degrees of freedom. On the other hand, someone with a low amount of any of the three traits will not enjoy the extra latitude and risk that a job with high degrees of freedom offers.
What I said about work also applies to life in general. Those who are drawn to and excel at work with high degrees of freedom generally approach their life in a similar way. They are more willing and able to destructure and restructure their assumptions and mental frameworks, and as a result, are more likely to go down an unorthodox paths. Doing this is more risky than taking the traditional, orthodox route because it involves wandering off the safe, tried-and-true path into unexplored territory. The dangers are greater but so are the rewards. The people (artists, inventors, entrepreneurs, authors, etc) who do this and succeed are the ones who end up shaping society and culture.
In short, exercising a higher degree of freedom requires greater intelligence, courage and creativity. Also, someone with greater intelligence, courage and creativity requires a higher degree of freedom in the tasks that they do.
Endnote: There are two other reasons to decrease degrees of freedom and/or options besides as a way of moving into flow state. The first is that your brain can only do a finite amount of decision-making each day. If you manage to decrease the degrees of freedom and/or options on one task, you free up mental energy to make more/better decisions elsewhere. Over time, the efficiency and effectiveness gains will be significant. The second reason is that all decisions are time bound. If you don’t decide in time, either because you were caught in analysis paralysis or you were too busy deciding on other things, somebody or circumstance will decide for you. In the wise words of the The Last Psychiatrist:
But whatever happens, your future happiness is entirely related to your ability to impose your own limits on your freedom. The time has come to not be everything you want to be, but to be one thing you’ve wanted to be.