Buxton on Innovation

A BusinessWeek article by Microsoft’s Bill Buxton got a lot of links and after reading it I have to throw in my two cents as well. The article is titled How To Keep Innovating but offers advice that goes well beyond the stated goal. What Buxton seems to be talking about is how to stay engaged in your work and play by constantly challenging yourself.

Buxton’s method, in a nutshell, is to always be engaged in an activity that fuels his passion, and to continue to seek out new opportunities for doing this. The key is to accept being bad at something when you start it and to be willing to let it go after you’ve reached a level of competence in favor of being bad at something else new. Buxton’s article reminded me of a few different philosopbies of how to live a rich, satisfying and creative life.

Go With The Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow explains how one’s skill level at an activity and the challenge that the acitivty presents interact to create an experience. Flow (what MC calls the optimal experience) occurs when the challenge presented and skills brought to bear match each other. Buxton’s model plays into this but doesn’t really optimize for it. When you start any new pursuit, the challenge is going to be greater than your skill level at first, then your skills will improve coming into balance with the challenge. Eventually it becomes harder to stay interested as the pursuit becomes boring as skill outpaces challenge. Buxton recommends looping through this process again and again, which avoids boredom but also replicates the early period of excessive challenge.

What this tells me is the Buxton has a high tolerance for anxiety. He can keep starting new pursuits without being defeated by the learning curve. For most people this would cause anxiety, but there are some who flourish when faced with a challenge that is steeper than they can handle. Alternatively, Buxton could be a very fast learner, so he can meet early challenges in a short amount of time.

For the rest of us, Buxton’s advice may not work. In this case the key may be to continue to find new challenges in areas that we already feel comfortable in – otherwise mastery leads to boredom. Or perhaps it means starting a new pursuit in which you can use some but not all of the skills you have learned already.

Either way, it’s important to keep things fresh and expand your areas of expertise. This can make you not only more successful, but happier and more satisfied as well.

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