The Brain at Work

Infinite state, the best kind of state out there

There are two periods of time regarding your job that I’m fond of quoting and they both involve the number three.

First, it takes three months to understand a new job. Until those 90 days are over, you don’t really know what hand you’ve been dealt. Second, it takes approximately three years before you’ll become bored with your current gig. While I can’t point you to the definitive research paper that confirms this hypothesis, I have been stumbling around Silicon Valley for a couple of decades and my advice hasn’t changed: 90 days to understand the new gig, three years before you’re bored with it.

In both periods of time, your brain is completing the same task building the same object. Whether you’re staring, wondering, and panicking about the intricate and unknown details of a new job or accepting the heavy grim reality that the daily dull monotony of your job of three years is slowly killing you, your brain is busily acquiring content so it can build state.

How to Build a State Machine

My introduction to the concept of state was my first computer science class. We were building a program that would generate the next license plate number in a sequence given a certain format and set of rules. The professor introduced the concept of a finite state machine, and when it comes to state, finite is the absolute best kind of state out there.

A finite state machine is a model used to design computer programs and digital logic circuits. Without getting too nerdy, a finite state machine can only be in one of a finite number of states at a time (“Increment to next license”, “Output the license”, etc.) Think of a flowchart except in code. Like a flowchart, you can only be in one state at a time.

The idea of a finite state machine deeply appeals to me because if it’s built correctly, it clearly describes all potential situations that can occur. There are no edge cases, there are no bugs, or messy unpredictable people. In theory, a finite state machine efficiently and clearly describes how everything works and whether you’re an engineer or not, it’s the pleasantly unachievable illusion that makes a new gig initially terrifying and ultimately a bore.

You’re Always Building State Machines

This is what is terrifying (and awesome) about a new job. You walk in on your first day and everything is completely unfamiliar, so your brain revolts. This is an odd feeling. See, in your prior gig, you used to be able to walk into a random situation with a random set of people and there was a good chance your brain would see this seemingly odd situation, look around a bit, and quickly assess: “Oh, situation X, I know this.” The work your brain is doing is using the state machine it built for this particular scenario and set of people.

See, you’ve been through a lot with these folks. You’ve seen how they react in different situations with different folks, you’ve gathered a lot of context, and from that context, you’ve built an efficient state machine. When Robert feels like he doesn’t have enough information, he turns red and he begins to rage. When Andi is asked a question that she doesn’t know the answer to, she talks on and on and on.

Your brain has spent a lot of time and energy gathering context so as to build a state machine that explains everything about everyone, but you’ve forgotten about this time and effort because you were busy taking the existence of this machine for granted. See, it’s a machine that you build to forget.

In a new job, you have little idea what type of state machine comprises this particular job. All states are no longer immediately knowable. This machine is no longer valid, so you become ultra-aware of your surroundings, you endlessly ask questions, and you overthink everything. You are busily building state. Now, everything is slightly different and no matter how hard you work, the only way to acquire a comfortable and workable amount of state is for time to pass.

You need to let the time pass so that everyone who treats you like The New Person will eventually argue with you. You need to see the social structure that everyone knows, but that is never written down. You need to see the people you’ll work closely with in a variety of scenarios and moods and they need the same of you. You can’t force state acquisition, you just have to wait for it to develop organically because it’s far more complex than you think.

What I believe transpires in the first 90 days is that you’ve gathered enough experience enough to build your bare bones version of the state within the team. With this semblance of predictability, you start acting like yourself because you’ve begun to believe the world is a reasonable and predictable place. You tell yourself, “You know, this place is starting feel familiar. I have built enough state.”

Familiar is how it starts to feel, but what has happened is that you’ve collected enough context and built enough state to begin to believe you understand how the machine works. Whether you actually know everything or not (you don’t), your brain has constructed the illusion — the finite state machine — that you do. It’s actually one of the ways you get through the day: the illusion that some left field event isn’t going to occur that will disrupt your carefully constructed view of the world.

Whether you’re a nerd or not, it’s a comforting thought. The idea that you can build a complete mental working model for your current gig. There are no surprises, there is just the predictable and the knowable. But Rands, variety is the spice of life. You know, I like a spicy curveball as much as the next person, but I don’t need my life spicy when I’m trying to get 57 engineers pointed in the same and correct direction regarding shipping a product on a deadline. I need a machine that gives me the impression that we know what we’re doing.

Three Years to Steady State

There’s another piece of mental machinery in the state machine that I’ve written about before – it’s the relevancy engine. Briefly, the relevancy engine is the means by which you can judge the completeness of your state machine. Think about it like this: when you start a new gig, everything is relevant because you know nothing – it’s all new and it’s exhausting. With each acquisition of content or context, your state machine becomes slightly more complete. What was a discovery now becomes a boring thing.

After looking at thousands of resumes and having observed my own professional career, I’ve discovered that it appears that we humans need roughly three years before we believe our state machines are complete. I believe this judgement of completeness is a function of the rate of discovery of relevance. When the rate of discovery has lowered below some arbitrary threshold that varies for each and every human, life becomes predictable.

Simply put, nothing new and interesting is showing up in our worlds, so we become bored. For the nerds I work with, the threshold appears to be three years. Three years and the state machine feels complete because the content showing up on a day to day basis is increasingly… redundant.

For me, once this threshold is crossed, I do exactly what you’d expect. I begin looking for the relevant. Having been through this process dozens of time, I’ve begun to recognize the early signs. In a job I believe I love, I find myself thinking about those recruiter mails rather than instantly deleting them. I glance a moment longer at job pages, and then I realize… there isn’t enough discovery in my life, my state machine is annoyingly complete.

Infinite State

A well-running state machine is one you’ve built to ignore. It magically produces intuition, it decreases the cost of decision making, and it makes you mentally agile. However, while you judge its effectiveness by how little you pay attention to it, occasionally you need to throw it away.

Think about the last long vacation that you really needed. You packed up, traveled somewhere exotic, ordered a Mai Tai (or eight) with all the fixins’, stared at the sunset, and thought, “This… is the life. Now I can relax.” Then you proceeded to obsessively think about work for the next 72 hours. It is during that time that you discover all the complex mental machinery that you need to collect and maintain state. I’m not talking about the tools you need to deal with sky-is-falling situations, I’m talking about what you need to simply feel the situation in your day and on your team. This is why vacations are essential. They hold up the mirror and show how much energy you’re spending simply to achieve baseline steady state in your day.

When you return from a significant vacation, it all feels new. The existing mental machinery is still there waiting to be used, but before it starts up – the world feels refreshingly and optimistically new.

When I’m either in the discomfort of a new job or mired in the boredom that permeates an old one, I remind myself of returning from vacation. I remember how much my brain likes it when I’ve shut down the state machine and see a familiar world as new. I remember there is always more to learn because the state is infinite.

Michael Lopp is a featured speaker at Cultivate, a new one-day O’Reilly event to help tech leaders. Cultivate takes place on Oct. 14, 2013 in New York City.