Don’t Fear the Rabbit Hole
Working in upper-division Computer Science as an Art/Literature/Cinematography major with no lower-division Computer Science credits has taught me a number of useful and surprising lessons.
One I’m focusing on for this post is a concept I call the Rabbit Hole of Computer Science, but it really applies to any field, any endeavor, including creation.
The basic idea of the Rabbit Hole is simple: when you’re trying to figure out how to do something, you look for the answer. When you find it, you realize you need to answer some new questions in order to understand the answer to your previous question. And when you find those answers, you must find new answers, etc., and you tumble down the Rabbit Hole further and further and further.
This makes most people frustrated and want to give up. But you shouldn’t.
Why? Because at the end of the Rabbit Hole, you get to Wonderland.
This lesson was important for me in figuring how to make digital paintings out of my sketches. I loved the result, but I had to tumble down for a while before I got to Wonderland.
What’s Wonderland? And why do you want to go there?
Why go down The Rabbit Hole?
Because the more you tumble down, the more you get a complete, rigorous understanding of the material. Importantly, you start developing an intuition about it, and you will start to know and understand things without having to stop and think.
Then you get to Wonderland.
Wonderland is a new perspective on the material that comes from depth of understanding. You see that things are different from what you thought they were from surface understanding. Things transform, and there is a beauty that you see from the depth that is awesome to behold. If you go deep enough, things become mystical, and then magical. It doesn’t matter what skill, field, or ideal you’re pursuing.
When you crawl out of the Rabbit Hole, things are different. Wonderland doesn’t really leave you. And you can start creating and performing on much higher levels, and many people don’t even understand why what you’re doing impresses them. Master Composers, amazing painters, masters of all sorts have been to Wonderland.
What’s Wonderland like?
I humbly admit that I have only seen glimpses of it, all too short, but when you’ve been there, you can achieve Flow, a concept I hold dear.
Wikipedia defines Flow as:
“…The mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”
Flow is part of why it’s worth getting to Wonderland. Flow is typically achieved when high skill meets high challenge, challenge matched to the skill of the person. By the time you get to Wonderland you’ve picked up all sorts of skills and knowledge. You take these with you and you go into a Zen-like state that is in my opinion one of the most exhilarating parts of life. Flow is also usually achieved when the person can have some sort of direct feedback as to success or failure. This enables us to grow rapidly. Pursuing flow drives us to self-improvement, to higher challenges to meet our increased skills so we can continue to flow. In this way, Wonderland is a world that drives us to become better, and it is exhilarating
Flow is also the core of my art process. Transfixation is what I value in both the creation and the experience of my artwork, and flow allows me to become transfixed in the creation of it. This is the only way for me to create artwork that is genuine. It is also the tool through which I may create artwork that may transfix the viewer.
Games are a common way to achieve flow. I was playing a fighting video game that involved some pretty complex powers and interactions.* Among these were the power to teleport to dodge attacks, unleashing chained teleportation counter-strikes, and other massive, game-changing attacks.
When you first play the game, you end up doing a lot of basic punching and kicking, awkward dodging, and attempts to teleport with random success.
As I continued to fight my way through progressively harder modes of difficulty, I acquired more and more skill, and complex fights occurred When I beat the game, it turned out there were three progressively harder difficulty settings.
Ascending through these, I noticed the game transform more than once. After a while, teleport-counters and such became second nature. For a while I could dominate the computer because I could avoid everything they did, teleporting behind them and beating them badly with no fear of reprisal. But as I got into the two hardest ranks of difficulty, this wasn’t true anymore. The computer had the same reflexes and capacity I had.
I kept facing stronger and stronger opponents who beat my bad. I would take my lickings for a while, and then as I got better, eventually everything else fell away from my focus. Suddenly, I would excel, unleashing combinations, dodging attacks, and controlling the match in a way that dwarfed what I could do before. I started developing instincts that told me “attack now” without knowing why, and they worked. The low-level details disappeared, and most of what I was doing I wasn’t thinking about, and the conscious component became a matter of exerting my will and high-level strategy, and when I wanted to do something hard that required alertness and complex timing, it was merely a matter of deciding to do so and I was lost in it. That’s flow. When I came out of it, I couldn’t remember how I did everything, yet I was awake and exhilarated the whole time.
Early on, the game was about trying to avoid being on the losing side of combos, and jockeying to unleash massive energy attacks. I would reach opponents that were just better at this and beat me hard. As I got better at that I would win, only to see the computer get stronger, and realize the next level of play was about controlling the field with teleportation. Even this transformed as the computer started excelling at this. Eventually it became about managing your energy levels, trying to have enough to be able to do more teleport-counters than your opponent, and trying to find the right time to gamble on an expensive but powerful energy attacks.
That’s about as far as I got before college pressures intervened. But I caught a glimpse of something more. When I got completely lost in flow against the strongest opponents, the computer had more energy than I did. My energy-management tactics, were only enough to give me a chance, and soon that wasn’t true anymore. The weird things was though, that I was developing instincts as I mentioned above. Without knowing why, just recognizing some vague patterns, I knew there were times I could launch an attack which should’ve been obviously stupid, at the opponent. I was being able to sense openings that shouldn’t be there, with no idea how I was sensing them or why. I still think about it today, and it’s tantalizing. That’s the magic of Wonderland, where you start feeling things you don’t understand, but can use. Those strokes of genius that are indescribable. The sudden bursts of competence with Flow.
It’s waiting for you beyond the Rabbit Hole.