How to find aliveness (in Excel)

How to find aliveness (in Excel)

This post’s for the “F9 Monkeys.”

Now this can be a diminutive term for a first-year analyst. One who lives in Excel building indestructible financial models.

And for those unfamiliar with F9, it’s the special button that runs the model.

You smash F9, and your perfectly fine-tuned (and 50-tabbed) model spits out an answer.

Sell the stock!

IPO the company!

Hedge the commodity risk!

Once that answer pops out, it’s a momentary feeling of bliss. All of your efforts harmonize into a work of art.

This moment is all yours.

You feel… Alive!!!!

What makes you come alive?

I regularly ask my coaching clients this question.

And if I’m being nice, they’re answers are – uninspired.

A serial entrepreneur will say, “Starting another company.”

And a hedge fund analyst will say, “Solving complicated problems.”

Come on, fellas (yes, they’re mostly dudes)! Can’t we be a touch more creative?

Easier said than done

It turns out that “aliveness” is a tricky feeling.

Aliveness sits somewhere between flow, pleasure, struggle and satisfaction.

And that’s one hard intersection to land upon.

Thankfully, we get some guidance from C. Thi Nguyen’s book Games: Agency as Art. The book evaluates all types of games (i.e. Monopoly) through the lens of human incentives and desire.

Nguyen points out a feeling that’s akin to that magical F9 feeling from Excel.

It’s called Harmony.

Harmony is that feeling when a chess player discovers a move that eloquently escapes a trap.

It’s the ecstatic joy of a beautiful corner-kick-to-header-goal in soccer.

It’s wrestling with words until a seemingly effortlessly beautiful sentence gets birthed.

Here’s Nguyen expanding on the requisite conditions for this feeling to arise:

A special experience of harmony between their abilities and the challenges of the world. When your abilities are pushed to their maximum, when your mind or body is barely able to do what’s required, when your abilities are just barely enough to cope with the situation at hand – that is an experience of harmony available primarily to the players themselves.

And how this inner tension explodes into something beautiful.

It’s a harmony between self and challenge, between the practical self and the obstacles of its world,. It is a harmony of a practical fit between your whole self and the world.

How about those Emmys?

I recently found another example of this tension in via a Hollywood animator who had won a bunch of Emmys.

He described the shame in the lack of satisfaction that they brought him:

It’s an interesting conundrum; we all crave acknowledgment for our work and yearn for the spotlight and the moment to deliver our acceptance speech. But I can safely say, “It’s cool, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

So where does true satisfaction – true aliveness – show up? It turns out that it’s in the “quiet victories:”

True satisfaction often sneaks up in those unseen moments, like when an animation finally ‘clicks’ at 3 AM. It’s a bizarre and fleeting moment, yet immensely fulfilling. And then? You’re off making the next cool thing that probably no one will ever see or hear about. And you know what? I absolutely love it. Because I know that, eventually, I’ll have another 3 AM moment. And it’ll be even better than the last because I’ll have now built upon what I learned the last time. That’s what keeps me going. These shiny trophies are pretty and nice to have, but I also really cherish those 3 AM moments of creative success.

So to find aliveness? Look for those bizarre and fleeting at 3am.

Hit F9 a few times.

If you open your eyes, you’re gonna find them.

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