Good Friction:

Finding Emotional Wellbeing in the 21st Century

I was ten minutes early when I arrived at Frank's building for our interview. Just outside of his lobby entrance, I zombie-scrolled for about five minutes, and decided to knock out two emails with one hand as I entered the building.

Once I arrived at the elevator door, entering it and pressing five, I confirmed my Instacart order and let my wife know at what time to expect the delivery. In the hallway, my tech-luddite-Belgium-uncle FaceTimed me, again, during working hours. God bless his soul, he never remembers to click the "phone" icon next to my name.

Then, once I arrived at Frank's door, my phone pinged a loud, resonant sound in the dead-air of the hallway. I felt that tiny surge of acknowledgment course through my body; someone out there likes me!

Does any of this sound familiar?

Frank opened the door just before I could complete my second knock and check to see who liked an earlier post. Darn it! Who was it?!

There's no question that we are addicted to tech. That's in part because it helps reduce life's friction points. But is all friction bad? I say no. I love toiling over a deep insight for a client, or painstakingly learning to surf, or figuring out what Plato is really saying in his dialogues, or even messing up a dish before getting it just right. Why? Because I pushed past the challenging parts and experienced a breakthrough. In a way, I am defined by my triumphs, both tiny and big ones.

In a world that continues to sell a life of reduced friction, I have been recently searching for more friction in my life. In fact, so-called "Good Friction," a term I've been developing over the years, is why I'm interviewing Frank.

Since 2015, I've been exploring why the "addiction" narrative surrounding our tech use misses the point. While tech can be "abused," it doesn't work like a substance from which to abstain. I don't know about you, but my tech is fused with my daily life. With the addiction narrative, we fail to see what tech really is. Tech is not a substance from which we can abstain. Tech is the central force of our time. Living a full life today means living with tech. That begs the question: Is there a better framework to find emotional wellbeing in the 21st century?

When Frank opened the door, he played to his strengths. He smiles big and remains soft-spoken, but in a way that invites curiosity and grabs attention. At first I was struck by his height, and his Gumby-like stature — long arms, thin frame, and a welcoming presence. Frank is a stand-up comedian by day. He is known for telling jokes while riding a unicycle and juggling a cacophony of objects. It's something to behold. He is also a master magician. Frank has performed around the world, and he even landed a spot on Letterman, but I was talking to Frank about his other passion in life.

Frank is a sort of spiritual guide at the Dances of Universal Peace, a sufi practice of dancing meditation. I decided to interview Frank because I was curious to learn about the connection, if there is any, between our relationship with technology and spirituality. Frank shared something so much more than my wispy premise. He illuminated what it means to live creatively.

When Frank found the right corner on his couch, we were facing each other with a camera by my side. Before the interview began, officially speaking that is, Frank asked me, "why are we here again?" He grinned.

I answered him with a little spiel. Since the iPhone first dropped in 2009, I have devoted my research to understanding the psychological effects of an increasingly frictionless world in which we have access to a never-ending well of dopamine hits. I told him about my working thesis, that I had developed the idea of "Good Friction" as a counter to the "we are addicted to our tech" narrative. Tech was premised on reducing life's friction, like the effort it takes to go grocery shopping. While convenient, we lose out on that connection to our food, for example. "Good Friction" is a framework to help tech examine its guiding myth: tech should always optimize and reduce life's friction.

He nodded with tentative approval. I could sense he was formulating a response.

I asked him the obvious question about his upbringing, so that I could spend a few moments understanding Frank's rhythm of thought. Interviewing is a lot like playing in a jazz band. With new musicians, a familiar tune helps to get a sense of each player's strengths, like quality of the sound, feel for the rhythm section, and straight up chops. Speaking is no different than musical improvisation. I rely on the easy questions to help me to gauge the type of speaker with whom I'm riffing. Do they have a presence of mind, a willingness to deviate from the script, a desire to go to unexpected places beyond rehearsed sound bites. In this sense, Frank is a virtuoso.

By now, I was engrossed in Frank's story. He began by admitting that, at the age of ten, he had no idea what to do with long, lanky limbs. He was an easy target at school. Admittedly, they are formidable even at the age of fifty-two. A young Frank had the genius idea to pick up juggling. He was clumsy. He thought he'd take a perceived disadvantage and turn it around into a strength. At ten, he was called to meditation. He grew up in Berkeley, where streets are lined with various yogic meditation practices. Before he completed high school, Frank was a master magician, juggler and aspiring clown. He had also studied with a local guru. By now, if you haven't noticed, Frank is a special being.

As I listened to his story unfold I was formulating my next question, waiting to drop my next riff to guide his performance.

"What if our unchecked relationship with tech was forcing us to develop a new outlook on our wellbeing? In the same way gyms have created an environment of friction to combat an increasingly sedentary physical life." I wandered along with Frank. "What if our task is to seek out friction in tech's frictionless world. But why? Because we need to strengthen our atrophying prosocial muscles."

I paused as he mulled it over.

Much has been written about the psychological effects of excessive binge-watching, zombie scrolling, and anonymous hating online. Teachers, for example, have noticed a steady decline in their student's ability to empathize with others, sustain their attention for long periods of time, and undergo extreme mood swings. Teachers blame tech, unanimously.

The issue is not only about our unchecked relationship with tech, but how easy it is to access a wellspring of pleasure hits, customized to our preferences, without having to deal with much friction like people, location, or time. We seem unable to find the willpower and self-discipline to self-regulate our tech usage. I call it "moderation failure."

Frank was ready to take a solo. He asked himself a rhetorical question but a good one: where do we find the "Good Friction?" The answer is deceptively simple: in any creative pursuit. Frank went on to describe his creative process when he is working with a new prop, or working through a new magic act, or reflecting about a character persona to adopt for a new show. He described how the creative process is filled with friction, like pull-out-your-hair friction, or what-does-it-all-mean friction, or, my personal favorite, what-am-I-doing-with-my-life friction. In a creative process, we face all kinds of friction. It's necessary. We need friction to achieve a discovery. Friction slows us down. We can only focus on that thing.

Frank, who was letting his thoughts cascade like a river with no rocks, illuminated the idea that a creative process is an antidote to the tech-addiction problem.

"But how?" I asked.

"When we're painting a new subject or cooking with new ingredients, we enter a headspace governed by real constraints. We face barriers, challenges, and obstacles we can't sidestep in the middle of the creative process." He paused and went on. "In these friction-forward moments, we use our imagination, rely on our ingenuity, or ask for help. We have to think outside the box and alter our perspective. In "slow-time," sometimes we have to stare at the same object until it bores us to death, listen to the same melody until it's borderline maddening, or harvest yet another patch of mediocre, home-grown vegetables."

Friction is not only needed in the creative process, it is in overcoming friction that we discover, and share, our best qualities.

Frank and I riffed on the various ways he develops his acts, shows up everyday, and balances his life with his spirituality. While I may come up with a list of good practices by Frank, I find myself already thinking about my concluding thoughts during his interview.

Instead of blaming tech for our excessive usage, what if we embraced what it seems to be forcing us to do: take up a creative practice. In just the same way a sedentary life forces us to be intentional about our physical selves, tech's frictionless world has created the conditions to be intentional about our creative selves. Rather than "will" a limit, we "enter" a different mental space.

Working under this conclusion, it wouldn't be far-fetched to envision a future where "creativity gyms" are an integrated part of society. Intentional spaces where people can gather — individually and collectively — to strengthen their creative muscles, one pursuit at a time. Rather than fix our emotional world like an "inside/out" control board, it might be easier to pursue a creative outlet that gives just as much back as you put in.

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