Stock and flow is something you learn about in economics.
To simplify it all there are two kinds of quantities in the world; stock and flow. Stock is a static value (the in-rest value): the money in your bank, and the houses on a block. Flow is the rate of change (the in-movement value): the money you make per month, or how many hairs you lose as you get older.
Economics should in no way interest you (it interests me, but I’m weird), but what should interest you is how Robin Sloan applied it to media.
In his own words:
Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.
Robin goes on to talk about how with the ever growing ease of communication we have with one another (thank you technology) the more we focus on flow and neglect stock. Robin emphasis a balance between the two. That we do both.
And I agree with Robin. Stock and flow are both necessities. We need to stop, hide in our caves for a bit, and build the truly great things while remembering to come out once in a while to connect with people and let them know we’re still alive.
Yet why do so many of us focus on only one and not on both at the same time? Is it because we haven’t become aware of stock and flow yet? I don’t think so.
Stock and flow happens whether or not people are aware of it.
Even if people can’t word it as well as Robin has I find that people will always lean towards doing the best thing for themselves (basic survival skills in us force us to go with what’s best for us afterall), except on one occasion – When things are difficult. When things are hard we tend to ignore what’s good for us and do the easy.
So why is it difficult?
Why is constantly changing between stock and flow that hard for us?
This I’ll explain by using simple physics and history. For the more I thought about stock and flow the more I realized that in order to properly comprehend, and explain, the idea of it applied to our lives the more I had to expand outside of economics and look into other studies. First of physics.
The physics behind stock and flow:
Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
Newton’s first law let’s us see why stock and flow is so difficult for us to apply to our lives. It shows us that our imbalance is not created by our failing to properly define stock and flow, but because physics works against us in creating that balance.
When we’re in stock (in our caves doing work that truly matters) overtime we tend to stay there.
A person in stock tends to stay in stock.
And when we’re out conversing, getting to know people, we tend to stay there.
A person in flow tends to stay in flow.
The difficult part, the part that moves counter to what physics has in mind for us, is something I’ve called The Switch; the constant switching between stock and flow. This is the unbalanced force in the equation.
A person in stock stays in stock and a person in flow stays in flow unless acted upon by an unbalanced force, The Switch.
The Switch is the hard part because it requires more energy to apply than both stock or flow. In order for you to stop you need to exert more energy counter to the direction you’re moving, and in order for you to move from a stand-still position you’ll need to exert more force than both the energy you were using to stand still and of that which you’ll use to stay moving.
Same goes for stock and flow. In order for you to switch from flow to stock you’ll need to exert a small, but powerful, burst of self-control (self control being the energy applied counter to where you are going). And in order for you to switch from stock to flow you’ll need to apply that same burst of energy again.
Physics shows that the greatest energy is not exerted in staying still or in moving, but in applying the unbalanced force. And same goes for stock and flow, the difficult part’s The Switch.
The history behind stock and flow:
Now I’m going to do something drastic here and say that stock and flow can be applied to historic life. I’m going to go and say that stock and flow is how we’ve survived as a species. And I’m going to go and say that for us human beings The Switch is also a necessity of life (now anyways).
I see flow as the work the men of old did – hunt. In order for the tribe to live they had to go out there, risk their lives, and hunt. Hunting let them live one day longer because it allowed then to provide for their families, their children, and themselves. While stock is the work the women usually did – the raising of children and the growing of the community. The men provided for the health of the tribe by making sure that it had enough resources to survive now and the women provided for the health of the tribe by making sure that the children were well taught, and that the community itself grew better so that it survived later on. One focused on surviving in the short run (men), and the other focused on surviving in the long run (women). Both jobs were equally important.
The same can be applied to life today but in a different context. Today, our tribe can be seen as ourselves, our work, and our reputation intertwined. We, as individuals, are the overall tribe and the figurative men and women that reside in them are the mindsets that reside within us. We must apply both flow and stock in order for the tribe that is us to survive. We must, like the men of old, go out and hunt – connect with people, converse, and show them that we’re still here in the short run. And yet, like the women of old, focus on our future, better ourselves and our work, and create things that last. We must flow to thrive in the short run, and we must stock to thrive in the long run. Both, are still equally important.
In the past our tribe used to be the community we lived in as a whole but now, the tribe has morphed. It’s come from something tangible to something intangible; from something that used to consist of countless people to something that consists of only ourselves. That’s why The Switch is now more important than ever.
So why is The Switch more important now?
Why was The Switch not as important 500-1,000 years ago?
As I put forth earlier what makes today different is that the tribe has moved from consisting of numerous individuals to just us. We can no longer depend on someone else to provide for our short-term health while we focus on the long-term, or vice versa and focus on our short-term health while someone else focuses on the long-term.
We must now be both the hunters and the homemakers.
And thus we must now face a problem we’ve never faced before; The Switch.
Constantly switching from hunter to homemaker is something our long history has not prepared us for. History has given us the means to stay as hunter or as homemaker by making it easier to continue on the path we’ve chosen (physics – a hunter stays hunting and a homemaker stays home-making), but it has not prepared us for the changing from one to the other (The Switch).
The Switch is something we’re going to have to apply without backing from history.
And that’s why so many of us don’t stock and flow in a balanced manner. Most of us made the choice to either focus on flow or on stock subconsciously, and with physics helping us delve deeper into one or the other, we continued to do so. But now we’re facing an issue where we must switch our focus from one to the other frequently.
This can’t be done at a subconscious level. In order for us to properly balance stock and flow we must, with our conscious mind, apply The Switch.
And in order to do that we’re going to have to go back and [re]learn everything consciously. In order to consciously master The Switch we’re going to have to go back and learn about stock and flow consciously (we have to know what we’re switching between afterall).
Our subconscious provided us with enough means to get here, but in order to move on we’re going to have to become more aware consciously; we’re going to have to get smarter.
But for all of you that find mastering The Switch too difficult, don’t worry – There’s a shortcut to skipping The Switch altogether and going straight into balanced stock and flow. It requires two people. Both working together as a unit. One staying in stock, one staying in flow (one hunter, one homemaker). As a whole (tribe) you’ll be balanced. Pretty simple. But frankly, I find that few of us can get along that well.
For the rest of us we’re going to have to realize that stock and flow do exist, and that The Switch between them is the most difficult obstacle to our balance of them. We’re going to have to realize that the balance of stock and flow is a necessary if we want to better ourselves and our work both in the short and long run. And thus, we’re going to have to master The Switch between them.
photo credit: Yutaka Tsutano