A Grandiose Theory Of Life As It Relates To Pinball

I play pinball sometimes. Not actual pinball of course, as that would involve going out of the house. I mean simulated pinball, on a computer, which is just like the real thing except that you can’t cheat using a powerful magnet. (Unless you use it very, very carefully.)

Anyway I was playing pinball the other day, and had some thoughts. Which I will share with you now.

What I noticed is that my best scores always come when I am not paying active attention to what I’m doing. If I ever notice that the score is getting high, or that I’m close to reaching a big bonus of one sort or another, then it’s all over: my timing goes to hell, I get tense about each shot, worry about open outlanes, and drop the ball for stupid reasons. It’s when I’m drifting along, thinking about other things, just idly flipping the ball when it comes near a flipper to be flipped, that’s when I can play for half an hour before realizing I haven’t missed yet. Then I miss. Immediately.

This is maybe not so surprising for basic, brownian-motion play: if all you’re doing is keeping the ball in the air and not worrying otherwise about where it goes, then all that extra attention gets you is extra tension; you’re better off just trusting your physical instincts to twitch when the ball comes in reach.

But there’s more to it than that. It works at higher levels, too; a carefully adjusted level of inattention can still help you aim for particular targets, make the strategic combinations of moves that give the big bonus points. Too much and you freeze up, too little and you forget what you’re aiming for.

Here’s where the grandiose theory comes in: that same deal goes for things other than pinball. Some days I can just sit down and bang out pages of bug-free code, or unknot a tangled application architecture without even thinking about it. If I think too much about it, I get lost and wander off the point, either spending way too much time building bits and pieces that aren’t really necessary, or building so many stacks of but-what-ifs and but-it-needs-tos that I never actually complete anything. I’ve noticed the same thing when I’m painting or cooking or really any nontrivial task: if I can just let go and let the thing happen on its own, it works out a lot better than if I try to drive.

The trick is figuring out how to get into that state on purpose. That part I haven’t really worked out yet. I mean I have some ideas but they have nothing to do with pinball, so they’ll have to wait for another day.

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