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What Karate Kid and the Devil's Advocate have in Common

14 Dec 2010

Danielson, remember you defense, points come, concentrate

I'm kicking off this morning's riff with thoughts of the original Karate Kid, starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita. A number of times in the film Mr. Miagi coaches Daniel to concentrate. But this simple sounding act is anything but simple. 

The density of information flowing to each our minds in any waking moment is dizzying, and focus requires ignoring the lion's share of it. Earlier this year I reviewed the minds image processing and the narrow pipeline of vision alone has massive data flow and compression.

Of the virtually unlimited information available in the world around us, the equivalent of 10 billion bits per second arrives on the retina at the back of the eye.

Add to sight other senses, smell, taste, touch, hearing as well as the entire nervous system that carries these messages, and you have enormous data rates. Don't forget the growing backlog of memories that beg for our attention as well. Fortunately for us, much of this data doesn't turn into information overload. Our minds have adapted massively parallel filters to process input signals for anomalies without requiring our conscious attention. The art of concentration requires us to narrow our attention down to a single task, hold it steady through a raging ocean of synaptic activity, and calmly yield (hopefully) impeccable work.

The overlap between productive flow and unbreakable concentration

Regular readers know I'm fascinated by mental work states, optimal work environments, and the  effect inspiration and autonomy have on the quality of our work. 

It's obvious to me that  legendary founders, technical wizards, and top investors all have a zone of concentration that sets them apart from other hard working and talented folks. The state of mind they cultivate is intensely driven and focused, exhibiting the animal aspect sought after in early Y Combinator applications. These few have developed an intensity that startles regular folks. 

Yet this priceless skill comes at a steep cost. It causes immense strain on relationships, due to extreme intervals where focused work causes them to be emotionally unavailable. A fantastic example of this type of drive is expressed in a scene from the Devil's Advocate (couldn't find the video clip).

John Milton: It's your wife, man. She's sick, she needs you... she's got to come first. Ah, wait a minute, wait a minute. You mean the possibility of leaving this case has never even entered you mind?

Kevin Lomax: You know what scares me? I quit the case, she gets better... and I hate her for it. I don't want to resent her, John, I've got a winner here. I've got to nail this fucker down, do it fast, and put it behind me. Just get it done. Then - then. - put all my energy into her.

John Milton: I stand corrected.