There is one constant undercurrent to my journey learning to work within the visual thinking/graphic recording world.
I’m so far behind.
Reading the stories of other people who do this, there’s a recurring theme of I always drew things and I started working in design in High School and I started calligraphy when I was eleven and the equivalent.
Meanwhile, here’s me at age fifty trying to learn gesture drawing and left-handed brush-lettering. Don’t get me wrong: I’m loving every minute of it, and I’m absolutely being supported by my friends and loved ones. And I’m showing improvement, and things are going well.
There just keeps on being this whispering voice in the back of my head: Think of how well they’d be going if you had started earlier. Now, I’m familiar with that voice; I got a dance degree at the venerable age of 28, after all (“28?!? You don’t look THAT old!” I remember one fellow student exclaiming during technique class). I’m well aware that the voice lies, that the experience I have gained doing Other Things will continue to serve me well, and that It’s Never Too Late and blah blah all the other things personal development blogs will tell you.
It’s just another version of the aphorism about when the best time is to plant a tree: ten years ago. Second best time? Right now.
This isn’t about that. No, it’s one of those Hey, I noticed this thing about myself; you might want to check and see if it applies to you, as well.
See, here’s the thing: it’s not that I never drew things. My parents can attest to the constant rotation of Ed Emberley books I checked out of the library. I still have notebooks covered with doodles (swords and spaceships, mainly) and even early typographical experimentations with handwriting and lettering.
But at some point, I stopped. And I don’t know why.
Ghosting Your Own Joy
I’m not sure exactly when it happened. Somewhere in my early teens; somewhere in between the fading of my BASIC programming and D&D hobbies and the start of my musical and theatrical obsession in high school.
I can’t take the easy route and blame some authority figure in my life who told me art would not be a realistic career choice (though I do remember my mother asking me why I was so obsessed with this “computer fad” – why would anyone want one of those in their house?).
It may just be that I didn’t have time – <sarcasm>Unlike now, I was always finding new and interesting subjects to delve into and try</sarcasm>. Whatever it was, at some point, in my brain, I divided the world into two parts: those who make visual art and those who don’t. And I put myself in the latter category.
I wish I had kept it up, on some level. I wish I had kept that skill, even as a hobby, developing and growing. A daily sketch, even something like Patrick Rhone’s coffee cup, would have kept those particular creative juices flowing.
But I didn’t. And now, I regret it.
That’s the point of this post. Think about that thing you used to do, that you liked, that for some reason, you stopped doing.
There’s not much point in wondering why you stopped. Maybe, instead, you do it, just a little, again. See what it feels like. It’s possible within a few moments you remember exactly why you stopped, and that’s good to know.
But maybe it’ll be like a reunion with a best friend you haven’t seen in years. Maybe it’ll be the re-starting of a new passion, a new joy in your life.
Don’t you think you owe it to yourself to find out?
Lately I’ve been in kind of a “maker frenzy”; for some reason, I’ll see something online like “Build your own screen printing press out of scraps” and the next thing you know I’m raiding my girlfriend’s basement for lumber and buying springs…and that leads down a rabbit hole of finding squeegees and ink and transparencies on CraigsList and eventually to selling bandanas and notebooks and t-shirts that I printed.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. When I was printing the covers of the moleskine notebooks, I was thinking “Hmm, I wonder how hard it would be to make my own notebooks…” Which leads to learning stab-binding and then poof, I’m making an orange glittery cover for my friends’ daughter because she saw mine and wanted her own.
And then the thought came…”Y’know, this is cool and all, but wouldn’t it be cooler to screen print my own logo on a stab-bound book I made out of paper that I also made…”
Which is a long way to explain why last night I was in my girlfriend’s basement again, making a deckle. (Side note: one of the fun things about making is all the new words you learn. “Majuscule”, “deckle”, and “dottle” are all words! Scrabble will never be the same).
How do you find time for it all?
That’s the question, right? This is where, as a good upstanding Personal Development Blogger, I’m supposed to tell you that you need to give up your favorite TV show, or get up an hour earlier, or somehow adopt some fancy scheduling system guaranteed to put 43 more minutes into your day!
Another person very dear to me pointed out what my “secret” is, in a text message (profanity warning: she is delightfully verbose, including swear words):
Can I tell you something I like about you?
I’ve been meaning to do screen printing for over a decade. Probably 15 years. I love it!! Want to do it!! So cool!!
You? You’re all like “hey!” This is cool. Let’s do it.”
And you’re printing.
That’s fucking awesome.
No excuses. Just done.
Now, I don’t want to pretend this is really a secret; that’s why I put it in quotes above. But there is a kind of philosophy behind it – one that Nike put into an ad campaign, but which I like to reframe by improving a classic Star Wars adage.
“Try Not!Yoda, from The Empire Strikes Back
Do. Or do not.
There is no try.”
And this is where I look back at the kid and even young adult that I was, who loved this saying, and want to shake some sense into him:
Of course there is “try!” You don’t have to be assured of success in any endeavor before you benefit from it. Life is nothing but trying, and failing, and trying again. If you’re lucky, one of those “tries” succeeds – but the ratio of attempts-to-successes will always be skewed to the former.
No, what Yoda meant to say was that you can’t really hesitate. You can’t let the uncertainty of the outcome keep you from trying, nor can you let the failures of the past discourage you from trying something different.
Most of all, to me, this was a battle cry against procrastination, against the idea that “someday, I’m gonna try this thing.” That’s where there is motivation. You’re either doing the thing – and yes, preparing and researching and learning counts – or you’re still keeping it in the future, and therefore not doing it.
Ready, Fire, Aim
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Currently I’m drowning in projects, and there are some that are going to need to be moved from the “do” to the “do not” pile. And both of those piles are fine.
But what I wish Yoda had said was this: “Do. Or do not. There ain’t no ‘gonna.” It’s not “I’m gonna try this.” It’s “Yep, I’m trying this.” which really is the same as “I’m doing this!” right up until the point where it’s “I’ve done this.” Remember, time is what keeps everything from happening at once, and sometimes the reason we’re not “trying” is simply because the time has not yet come.
But often the thing that holds you back is the fear of the “try”. Whether that’s for fear of comparison to others, or to some idealized version of yourself, or simply the unknown…we hold back. We “do not.” And we try to make ourselves feel better by saying “I’m gonna do this…later.”
That’s where the characteristic in me seems to come to the fore: Sure, why not? Let’s do it! And I’m scrounging and adapting and usually finding myself in over my head. My first attempt at screen printing, which I decided should be a silly little pin-up because I was sure it would be pretty bad? Turned out perfectly. My second try? Not perfect at all. Not horrible – but that’s the one where I learned all the lessons, and I’m still learning.
Why? Because I’m trying. I simply start my hands and body and brain moving in a direction, and I continue until something makes me stop.
It’s not a secret technique. It’s not even that hard; any idiot can say “Ok, let’s just do it.” And it does mean shutting down that abstract part of your brain that wants to put things into the future. “I’m gonna do it…later.“
Nope. You either do it, or you don’t. There ain’t no “gonna”.
Long-term goals are wonderful things, and some of them are shiny enough to be enough, in and of themselves, to inspire a regular practice.
Other times the goals are more nebulous, and the temptations of the GravyHose are far more present and close. So rather than pull up the word processor you pull up Facebook, and rather than laying out the yoga mat you turn on Netflix. Hey, it happens, and there are times when an episode of Arrow is what you need more than writing an entry in your journal. And there’s a neat secret (that I’ll mention later) that is yet another reason not to beat yourself up when you just don’t feel like it.
But at the same time, I would like to share three things that help me reach the “Don’t Wanna – Did It Anyway” state of mind.
Check the Box!
I understand a lot of the ways evolutionary behaviorist explain things, but one that I don’t quite get is why humans like checking off things in lists. There’s something about that blank box or circle that makes you want to put a big green check mark or red X or Please fill in the circle completely when the time is right.
Has anyone tried selling books that are nothing but blank test forms, along with No. 2 pencils? Kind of like a cross between bubble wrap and a coloring book? Seems like that’s a missed opportunity…
Anyway, you can make your own. I’ve got a little row of seven circles each week in my bullet journal for my Morning Rituals of journaling and yoga, as well as my goals of drinking enough water each day and reminding a weekly Master Mind partner to move further towards their goals.
Does it always work? Nope. Notice that picture? That should be starting today, Monday, and you’ll notice that I haven’t checked anything off yet. But that’s just it: I’m motivated to do so. I’m about 65% on the water so far, I just sent the reminder (check!) and the yoga and journaling still has time to happen. Assuming I don’t let things distract me, the unchecked boxes will nag at me until I can fill them.
Sometimes a Bullet Journal isn’t obvious enough; my partner Natasha uses a dry-erase board on the refrigerator to use the same method for her goals. It really doesn’t matter if it’s written in sharpie on your arm or painted on your lawn in chalk; if you want to give yourself an easy nudge towards your practice, make an empty space that only the practice can fill.
Guilt By Association
The second method requires that you not be a sociopath. Simply put, tell people you care about that you’re going to do it. I mentioned that I started up this blog again because someone told me it helped them; I’ve heard that from others, and even have been given support via my patreon when I wasn’t writing. There are particular people who I know will read this, and I care about them, and that makes me write.
I asked my MasterMind partner to encourage me to do more drawing practice, preferably with an eye towards process instead of product, because I need to develop skills, not sellable materials. I will swear, and grumble, and come just short of pouting as I pull out the sketchbook and the pens to draw things that I don’t think are good at all – but I know that when they remind me next, I can triumphantly say Yes, I have drawn! I did the thing!.
Natasha and I even do weekly meetings just to set short goals and hold each other accountable for them. I should note that when I say that “guilt” is the motivating factor, it is not that she lays a guilt trip on me. That’s not her job. It’s the job of my own internal voice to be useful for a change and make me feel guilty if I haven’t done what I told her I would do.
Your kid. Your cat. Your future self. All four billion people on Twitter. Pick one, and let them know you’re going to do the practice. And then, when you’re feeling like it’s just too much, think about them being disappointed, because you have denied them the unique pleasure of knowing that they helped you get closer to what you want. Think of the sad eyes. The shake of the head, the slump of the shoulders.
Then do it.
The Improbable Life of Kathryn Joost
This is not my story to tell. Read the thread on twitter. And remember that the only way to get anywhere is step by step…and the next step is your next practice session doing whatever it is you need to practice.
Oh, and that neat secret? Well, it’s kind of related to those empty boxes in my Bullet Journal (aka “BuJo”). See, normally I don’t have trouble checking those off, because I do them first thing in the morning.
Today, though, we had to get on the road early for an 8-hour road trip. And that meant that I missed that window this morning. But that’s the secret:
There’s always another window.
When we get home, my yoga mat will be waiting there for me. My journal and a pen and a neat new chair to write in. And those boxes will be filled. So even though I’ve been spending most of the trip driving and singing along to musicals and reading sci-fi books, the practice will wait until the motivation catches up with me.
What’s your secret technique to Do The Thing when you Don’t Want To? These work for me, but the point is: whatever it is that kicks your tuchis into gear, do more of it.
Practice makes progress.
It’s a pretty simple and common problem: practice means “more than once”, and that implies a repeated action. Life has it’s own gravity, though, and there are times when it really sucks (ha). One of the ways we try and make it less sucky is through comfort (think of it as inertia; a safe place you can stay). That leads to comfort food, binge watching, Amazon shopping sprees and endless Facebook scrolls.
There’s nothing wrong with comfort, any more than there’s anything wrong with inertia (without it, things would not ever stay in the same place, and that would make finding your car keys even more difficult than it already is).
Which means that you have this kind of Newtonian Physics of habit formation, where a practice at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force. And it has to be an outside force greater than the force of comfort/inertia – as expressed through the common aphorism: Change only happens when the discomfort of staying where you are becomes greater than the discomfort of moving.
How to Make Yourself Uncomfortable
It follows, then, that the real secret of motivation (hey, look, more physics, as the root of that word lies in the idea of movement) is about making yourself uncomfortable where you are. Again, our sayings reflect this benevolent sadism – “That coach really lit a fire under her team”. But while the cruel kindness of the educational system is well known, when we become grown-ass adults there is a solemn awakening: It’s up to us now.
The science of motivation is big business now; I’m not going to rehash things like “streaks” and “accountability buddies” – at least, not in the way they are usually parroted. No, these five suggestions are for those people who (like me) look at the streak of X’s on the calendar, measure it against the inertia/comfort I’m feeling that particular day, and say “Screw that X. It’s a silly game anyway.
- Mentor’s Guilt: Lots of methods use guilt for accountability, but there’s a special kind of guilt when you have someone who looks up to you checking in on your progress. Kids work for this, but it’s better if it’s an actual adult who you would dread getting that “disappointed” look from.
- The Un-Friendly Competition: We live in an age of causes we either support or hate, whether that’s punching Nazis or writing our Congresscritters about the horrible law they just passed. Tie your practice to that action; I don’t get to go to the anti-Nazi demonstration until I’ve done my yoga. I’m sure that’s what the Buddha would have done (well, maybe not. Still works).
- Here, Hold My Whine: I’ve written before about the idea of creating Tasks of Uncomfortable Growth for yourself and others. What you’re looking for here is a good story about how uncomfortable you were, about the obstacles you had in your way on your way to do it, about the triumph of the spirit as you broke through that last wall and did the damn TUG. It plays on the natural tendency of people to want to one-up each other (use this video as a good example) and has the side benefits of improving both your storytelling and your empathy skills.
- The Thief of Time: This one is remarkably cruel, and may require the assistance of a partner/friend, though you can always just use your alarm on your phone. The basic idea is this: why don’t you do your practice? Because you don’t have enough time, right? So we steal a little time each day you fail to do your habit: set the alarm for five minutes earlier. Yes, I realize you can fight this with a snooze button, but that would be with the knowledge that you would then have to hit the bar five minutes earlier the next day. At a certain point, it’s easier to get up and do the damn practice (and know that you’re gaining an extra five minutes of sleep back the next day).
- The “Oh, yeah?” Technique: This is a version that only works for a particular brand of malcontent – the kind who will go to absurd lengths to prove someone else wrong. I know it works, because it is literally the reason I made it through Marine Corps boot camp. Not because of love of country, or love of my bride-to-be; it was because my future father-in-law had told me I could never make it. There was no way I was going to let him be right about that. You can do the same (minus the father in law). Just find someone to tell you “I don’t think you can do that…” Maybe pick your least-favorite politician and create your own meme that says “You think you’re going to meditate? Sad!”
Yes, I do realize that the last one is basically stealing the Pick-Up Artist technique of “negging”. That’s ok; the real point of this post is to understand that while it’s great to learn about “the Tools of Titans”, when it comes to motivation, one size does not fit all. Find your own discomfort zone, and then leverage it to get yourself moving in the direction you want to go.
If you know a friend who could use some motivation, how about sending them the link to this article – and maybe even showing a little love with the links below.
Want some more direct help? I’ve provided mentoring and coaching to people to help them reach their goals, and I’d love to do the same for you. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s see what we can accomplish together!
You know what I’m talking about. It is the Achilles heel of those “chain” habits, where you get a streak of days doing That Thing that you want to make into a habit. “Don’t break the chain,” is what Jerry Seinfeld recommended.
But what happens when it breaks anyway?
Suddenly you feel like a failure. And that’s when the “Why bother?” monster comes along, looks at however many days you did the habit for, and gives you some version of this: “ Wow. You couldn’t even manage (number of days + 1) of that? Why are you even bothering to try?”
That’s the problem with the “chain” method: it works great as long as life doesn’t come along and interrupt your best laid plans. It works wonderfully for people with a huge locus of control about their schedule and time – but for people with dependents, or jobs, or who happen to be inhabiting human bodies that get injured or sick – the “chain” habit is setting yourself up to fail. Because at some point, something will happen that will get in the way of your streak.
“Fail, Fail, and F*cking Fail Again”
That’s the motto on my partner’s coffee mug; I got it for her as she began seriously to dip her toe into the entrepreneurial adventure. One thing that happens to almost every successful entrepreneur: they fail. Products don’t work, campaigns attract no customers, businesses run out of money or become obsolete or just become uninteresting. That happens to almost everyone. There is, however, one particular difference between those that are “successful” (whatever that means) and those that aren’t.
The successful people kept on failing until they didn’t. The others decided they were tired of failing, and decided to succeed at something else.
You get that, right? Regardless of what your life looks like, you are succeeding at something. Maybe it’s nothing more than “I got out of bed and read a blog, but look! You did it!
If you find yourself less-than-overwhelmed by that accomplishment, then it’s possible that one or both of these things are going on:
- You are not giving yourself enough credit. We are always our own worst critic. Many of us are conditioned to not give ourselves the kind of compassion we would give others. Try stepping outside yourself, imagine what you’d tell someone else who faced the challenges you faced and did the things you did. Would you tell them they didn’t do enough?
- You’re not dreaming big enough. If you’re succeeding, but not feeling satisfied, then it’s time to raise the bar. Pick out something that is harder than the last thing you did. Heck, decide that your goal is to pick out something that you will fail to accomplish – so that you can succeed at getting better at failing.
One of my Mastermind partners set a goal months ago: I want a job with a paycheck. That was his goal, plain and simple. Last week, after months of persistent work, he got a job with a paycheck. The first thing he did was start to talk about all the ways the job wasn’t the kind of job he really imagined himself in at this point in his career.
My response: You set your goal. You achieved it. If it’s not what you want, set another goal.
Get Up Eight
In college, my Kabuki teacher gave me a card that meant a whole lot to me. I struggled in school as a single parent/freelancer/full-time student, and he saw that. He let me know with a simple and beautiful paper-cut art piece with the inscription:
Fall Down Seven Times,
Get Up Eight.
That card kept me going far more times than I think he ever realized. And it’s also the secret to what you do when you get the job you didn’t want, or your business goes belly-up, or you break the chain on your phone app, or, more famously, when you fall off the horse:
Get back up.
One of my friends and I challenge each other weekly to do something that we know is a good idea but that we are reluctant to tackle. It’s not big-picture stuff (Organize your home!) but rather one of the tiny steps towards the big picture stuff (Make your desktop look inviting). I spontaneously named these little challenges Tasks of Uncomfortable Growth (Ooh! TUG! We TUG at each other! I acronymed!).
The “Pie in the Sky” TUG
Her TUG at me recently was to do a "Pie in the Sky" list. That would be a list of things that would make my “best of all possible worlds.” The big ideas, the goals that seemed completely unrealistic. Rather than the usual pragmatism, I was supposed to write down the ideal thing.
It's a common goal-setting exercise that people do at the end of the year, but I've never cared much for it – much in the same way I don't enjoy window shopping. I don't enjoy entertaining thoughts of things that I want but can't have, and she knew that.
However, a challenge is a challenge – and so I began to make the list. I did it sketch-note style, with little stick-figures sketching and a big heart to represent my relationships and even a foot-pattern to highlight the idea of wanting to dance more.
I also realized that I wasn’t thinking big-picture enough – none of the things on the list seemed especially challenging. So I threw on a couple of entirely unrealistic dreams – my student loans entirely paid off and me driving around in a Tesla.
The Strange and Unexpected Effect of a TUG
A weird thing happened as I looked at my “Ideal Life” as portrayed by my sketch note. An awful lot of the things portrayed there were not really “pie in the sky” – they were more “snack in the fridge”, as in “they’re right there if you just go get them.” Prioritizing time for sketching? Putting more music in my life? Finding workouts I enjoyed? Continuing to build Love Life Practice? The more I looked at my ideal life, the more I realized that it’s not so much a castle in a cloud as much as just around the corner.
That is very much what TUGs are about. It’s the dirty little secret: the Uncomfortable part of Growth is almost never as bad as your fear would like you to believe. Even when it really is uncomfortable, you usually find out that it’s still bearable. And even better: each Task you accomplish makes it easier to face the next one.
Since my friend TUGged me, I’ve been listening to more music, I’ve been enjoying a week of NerdFitness workouts, and have sketched something every day.
Ask your friends and loved ones to give you a TUG. See what happens. I’m betting it’ll be better than you expect.
As I write this, I’m growing a tree.
Not literally, of course. There’s this nifty little app called “Forest” that has a pretty fun twist on the whole “focus time” method. It’s kind of a productivity Tamagotchi, in that you set an amount of time – say, 25 minutes – and you hit “start”. A little animated tree starts growing on your screen. Right now it’s just a tiny twig and a couple of leaves.
Here’s the catch: if I pick up my phone for anything else, the tree will die. Right there on my phone, the leaves will drop off leaving nothing but a withered husk.
If I leave the tree there to grow, then it will chime merrily and I will see the fully-grown tree in my “daily forest”, as well as earning points towards “unlocking” other trees (personally I want the Japanese fir with a little Go board at the base). Kudos to the app for not making these upgrades “pay to play” (or at least making it hard to find a way to do that).
In fact, since the app is created by an organization that has been planting real trees for decades, you can even trade in your points towards having them plant a real tree. So maybe I am growing a tree as I write this. Just very, very slowly…which, as it happens, is how trees grow.
But that’s the point of this post.
Motivation, Where is Thy Sting?
Today’s one of those days when the voice in my head is full of “Don’ wanna!” Excuses, ranging from “Real people take a vacation this time of year!” to “Hey, you made some money yesterday, you deserve a day off!” I even have the voice saying “Your content publishing schedule is totally self-imposed and arbitrary and it’s not like anyone is reading/listening anyway. Why bother?”
None of those voices are true. There are “real” people working today. The money I made yesterday has no bearing on today. And you’re reading this right now, so even if it’s just you and me in this together, (cue Morpheus from the Matrix voice ) We are still here!
A lot of productivity tips are about things like motivation, headspace, affirmations, manifestos and such. That’s great, and when it works, that’s all well and good.
Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes knowing that you have access to thousands of yoga videos is not enough to get you on the mat. Having thirteen different apps for making daily schedules and forty three notebooks and seven calendars and a whiteboard and a personal assistant still won’t get you out of the chair where you’re scrolling through Twitter.
Sometimes it’s a little animated tree. Sometimes it’s a Spotify playlist, or just a moment to send a whiny message to your dear ones saying “I really don’ wanna!”
If you’re fortunate, like me, their responses will be empathetic, but unflinching: So sorry, dear. Wish life worked that way. Here’s some coffee.
Each of those tiny little things is like a grain of sand, both irritating you and also giving you traction. Eventually you work your way out of the rut and just a bit forward. It’s not miraculous, it’s not easy, and it’s not even pleasant. It’s grit, after all, and the best that can give you is a feeling of grim satisfaction: I am no longer there. I am here, now. And then you start over.
I may be wrong, but it’s possible that 2017 is going to require a lot of grit. A lot. Might want to start building the mental version of a “Go-Bag” – the things that will get you going when the going gets meh.
“Come on, you sons of b****es! You wanna live forever?”
– Daniel Daly, Motivational Speaker
I have a guilty pleasure, which I can cheerfully lay at my Dad’s feet. I enjoy some pretty violent movies. I was raised on spaghetti westerns, weaned on Dirty Harry and cut my eyeteeth on Arnold and Sylvester. I’m not the only one; there’s a reason my older younger sister used to practice in a ballet studio with a large portrait of John Wayne on the wall.
And I’ve done my share of passing it along – as I armed my middle daughter years ago to go and participate in the live-action-role-playing Ring Game (a re-enactment of Lord of the Rings done every year here in Madison) she asked me if I had any advice. “Come back with your shield,” I told her, “or on it.”
“Huh?” she said, quite legitimately, and I explained that was the way Spartan mothers had said goodbye to their sons before they went off to battle. She was inspired enough to actually be named one of the most “hard-core” players that year (that windy, cold, rainy year…). In fact, they gave her whatever role she chose the following year, which is why I can claim to be the father of Arwen. Which either makes me the lead singer of Aerosmith or the star of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
“Fill Your Hands, You Sonuva -“
– Rooster Cogburn, Equestrian
But enough pandering to the film geeks amongst my readers. The point is that I went to a very bad movie, one that was embarrassingly filled with glorified action sequences of violence and brutality painted over with a thin veneer of honor and duty and then dusted with a fine gloss of historically inaccurate heroism and sadly inadequate feminism. I won’t even honor the movie with a name; it would be like describing the last time I ate a twinkie. There’s really nothing redeeming about it.
Except. There was this one part, a climactic scene, in which the leader of one of the armies watches her troops engage their foes. She sees some fall; she sees some triumph; and finally, she’s had enough, and she draws both her swords and screams:
“I am not here to be a WITNESS!”
…and charges into the fray.
That, frankly, made the entire movie worthwhile. Because I leaned over to my partner and whispered “That is a good battle cry.” Not that I have anything against witnesses, mind you. But just imagine saying that every day, before you walk out the door. Before you go to your job, before you enter that classroom, before you open up your computer. Imagine, as the bard says, taking arms against a sea of troubles and oppose and end them.
There are lots of great battle cries – Stan Lee’s “Excelsior!” comes to mind. Some are not so good – “Remember the Alamo!” pretty much relies on the fact that you actually won’t. “Confusion to the enemy!” and “Dum vivimus, vivamus!” are two of my favorites from the realm of science fiction. Ok, yeah, and also “By the Power of Grayskull!”, but I’m kinda biased.
What’s the battle cry for your life? What gets you to charge into the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Trust me, you need one. Because, as both Sergeant-Major Daly and Marshal Cogburn will tell you, fortune is a…
Well, you get the idea.
The Maze or the Cheese?
I enjoyed relaxing yesterday morning with a TED Talk by Dan Ariely about the motivation for work. Much as Daniel Pink talked about in his book Drive, it turns out the old Skinnerian behavior models don’t work so well in the knowledge economy. People don’t seem to want to work just for pay, especially if they don’t get to see their work applied to some higher meaning. In the experiments Ariely describes, people are given relatively mundane tasks (assembling legos) but are paid less and less with each consecutive assembly.
For some, the assembled pieces are stored, with the implication that somewhere there is a stack of completed models. Maybe they’re part of a gallery! An animated army for a film! Gifts for a children’s hospital! Not that any of those possibilities were mentioned; I simply could imagine the subjects thinking that as they assembled model after model for less and less pay. On average, people were willing to assemble eleven models before the pay-to-work ratio fell too low.
For other subjects, once a model was assembled it was immediately disassembled in front of them. Everything else was the same – they were still offered the chance to assemble another one for less money. Each time they completed it, the model was simply taken apart right in front of them. Unsurprisingly, when faced with this kind of meaningless repetition, they were willing to assemble far fewer lego models.
Except according to the classic model of economics they should have been just as willing to perform the task, since the money involved was the same. Nope – turns out that it’s not the cheese at the end that motivates the rats, but it’s also the trip through the maze itself.
The Difficulty of Self-Motivation
As I read about the experiment, I found myself thinking of it from a zen perspective. If I were doing that experiment, perhaps I would try to find the most efficient way to assemble the pieces. I would examine my movements, trying to combine form and function into a level of grace similar the Japanese tea ceremony. Have you ever seen one? It is one of the most beautiful practices I’ve ever seen, ever since I first saw it in The Karate Kid II.
But I think my fantasy of how I would do the study has one major flaw, and it’s also related to the tea ceremony. The first time I was able to participate in one, I had to go through a training class. Not to perform the ceremony – to learn how to appreciate it, to be trained in the proper ways to show that appreciation. It wasn’t enough for me to simply watch, or simply drink the tea that was presented. I needed to be aware of what the various parts of the ceremony meant, why they were done the way they were done, and how to complete the act of thanks.
With the legos, the only person who would actually appreciate my progress was me. And while I am certainly egotistical enough to occupy my attention for a while, at a certain point even I tire of myself. Ariely actually backs up this observation with another experiment, where he discovered that even a token glance as some meaningful paperwork accompanied by an approving “Mm-hmm” can make a huge difference in how willing people are to do work.
The Hole & the Cheese
With any kind of new habit or endeavor or practice, I believe it is essential to determine what your motivation is for taking it on. Too often we conflate “reasons” with “motivation”, and they are not the same thing. I exercise because I want to maintain the ability to move and play with my grandkids. That’s a great reason, but is it a motivation? Not really, because when the couch and TV and donuts are beckoning I’m not usually around the boys. On the other hand, when I’m lifting Harvey out of his car seat and I get that warning twinge in my back, suddenly I am motivated by fear – but of course, at that point I’m nowhere near the exercise center.
It’s like the old saw about the man with a hole in his roof that lets the rain in. Why doesn’t he fix it? Because when it leaks, it’s too rainy to be up on the roof, and when it’s not raining, well, it doesn’t leak, right?
Almost everything I do suffers that same problem. I hate writing, but I love having written. I hate yoga, but I feel great when I’ve done it. I hated my dance technique classes, but I loved the feeling of applause after a performance. I hate doing SEO, but I love looking at my Google Analytics.
For the most part, the motivation behind the successful practices has been the reward after – which Mr. Ariely would also be unsurprised at. He uses the example of mountain climbers, who suffer frostbite, hypoxia, falls, danger, and worse, just to get to the top of a mountain. When they go back down, what do they do? Usually plan their next ascent. It’s not the maze itself, it’s the meaning they find by going through the maze that is the reward.
But isn’t the view from the top sort of the “cheese” reward? Aren’t my blog posts the reward of writing, and my being able to go upstairs easily the payoff for the yoga and elliptical? The answer is yes, of course – but it’s not usually what you think it is when you start the journey. I began yoga hoping to look like Rodney Yee. I started this blog with the hope of making a living from it.
Guess what? I look more like Harvey Keitel. And my initial investor is still waiting on his ROI. But what I have is a body of work, in both senses of the word, that I can look at and benefit from, as well as share with others. And I still exercise, and I still write, but not for the cheese I thought I was getting.
If you’re in the maze, find the right cheese. It will make the journey much, much easier.
with thanks to Miss Amy Red for pointing me to the article that inspired this post
It’s a very simple formula:
Desire –> Wish –> Will
The act of love begins with desire. This is often unexpected and can last for years as simply a vague feeling deep inside. “Deep” because desires have no rules, are often conflicting with each other or the desires of those around us. We may see others who are shamed for desires, variations of “What kind of person would want that?” swirling around us from pre-verbal stages. We are taught, in good old fashioned Judeo-Christian work ethic cultures, that our desires are at best subservient to our duty and only worthy of attention after the our assigned tasks are completed.
Desires are also frightening. Read More…