0160 – Motivation is an odd thing

This post was written in February 2014, but I’m only publishing it now.

Motivation is an odd thing. What does it mean? Let’s find out:

mid-14c., “something brought forward,” from Old French motif “will, drive, motivation,” noun use of adjective, literally “moving,” from Medieval Latin motivus “moving, impelling,” from Latin motus “a moving, motion,” past participle of movere “to move” (see move (v.)). Meaning “that which inwardly moves a person to behave a certain way” is from early 15c.

Interesting how, prior to the 15th century, motivation probably just meant “the act of putting into motion”. There probably wasn’t the additional complexity of internal vs external. If it gets you moving, it’s motivation. Extrinsic incentives count as motivation too.

Today I think we get the sense that motivation should be a little more noble, more “fundamental”. It should come “from within”. We might say “I bought a cute dress to motivate myself”, but that itself seems to be the use of extrinsic incentives within a broader framework of internal motivation.

I think there are two different reasons for that- one is that people often find blatant, overt materialism to be in bad taste. A person has to be motivated by more than raw power. But even power is complex- power over self, power over circumstances… let’s not get into that.

The more important personal reason is that pursuing the optimization of any single metric- money, for instance, or number of sexual partners- is very fragile. Just as it makes sense to diversify one’s portfolio when investing one’s assets, it makes sense to diversify one’s motivations… If that’s possible. Perhaps it’s not.

But I don’t even know what I’m motivated by- that changes every day. Sometimes I think I want this, sometimes I feel like I want that… it’s always changing. What I know for sure is that I like exploring my curiosity, I like learning, I like helping people.

But I’ve also liked making fun of people, being rude and even cruel to others on occasion. Why? Because I could, because in that short-term moment it felt good to assert my dominance over others in one limited sphere or another.

So we really do have a which-wolf-you-feed scenario. How do we choose? Why am I trying to be a nicer, kinder person? It’s rooted in self-interest, of course. But being cruel and selfish is also about self-interest. What’s the difference?

I think it boils down to a difference of mental models. By model I mean your idea of how the world works. Narrative.

At some level, I choose to try to be kind because I want the approval of one group of people over another. I like kind people more than I like unkind people- though again it must be conceded that unkind people can be likeable too. They can be smart, witty, and actually, they can be kind 90% of the time. But that last 10% can somehow ruin everything else.

At another level, it’s a story of self-interest. I’ve come to believe that kinder people are happier people, and I want to be happy. The assumptions underlying that is- I believe it’s possible to become a happier person, I believe that I am worthy of happiness (as are you), and I believe that it’s something I can work towards and strive for. I like who I am when I’m kind. I regret who I am when I am unkind. I would like to reprogram myself to be kinder. You could say that I’m motivated to be kind.

Going back to basics- motivation is about movement. Movement is about the destruction of balance. So motivation is about becoming unbalanced.

It’s easy to see how that can be manipulated. How it IS manipulated. People convince other people that they’re somehow imbalanced materially- inadequate, insufficient. That’s what keeps us consuming, shopping, smoking, drinking. We’re not enough. So we work to buy stuff we don’t need to impress people we don’t care about, etc.

One of the biggest oversimplifications- study hard, get qualifications, get a job, make lots of money, earn prestige, status and spending power, make your family proud. For some people this is an idea that motivates them- the idea seems exciting. For others, this is a painful slog, a death trap. They’re just not interested in what they’re studying. They don’t buy into the bargain, it doesn’t make sense to them. They aren’t motivated by excitement or delight but by obligation, fear, shame. That’s seems to me to be a horrible way to live. And yet it’s really common.

I suppose once upon a time, and maybe today in some circumstances, survival is all that matters. If you are struggling on the streets, putting food in your mouth is a priority. Someone said something along the lines of- society is 6 meals away from chaos, violent revolution. If you don’t know where your next six meals are coming from, you will be driven to actions that you didn’t previously think possible. I’m reminded of stories of people looting the dead after tsunamis and disasters- they’re just too desperate to rule out those options. That’s motivation for you- hunger. Hunger is a motivator.

But what about for people who are reasonably comfortable?

If motivation is about movement and movement is about destruction of balance, again it boils down to your perception of balance. People who build/create great things feel that the world is somehow imbalanced- they live in the future that they envision, and they pull the present forward to meet that. They are resourceful and relentless. Are these traits inborn? Probably, to some extent. Are they influenced by upbringing? Probably, to some extent. It depends on the world you see around you. What are your parents like? What are your friends like? What is your information diet like? What do you consume?

Can we train ourselves to be Gates, Zuckerberg, Musk, etc? Well first of all its important to know that these people are outliers- genetically superior in some way we can’t fully fathom or measure yet. They have better environments conducive to the work they do. They were surrounded with the right peers. They put in the work and they were in the right places at the right times.

How do we recreate that? Can I be like them? Can you? I think I’m reasonably capable. I think I’m incredibly privileged, compared to the billions who don’t have access to the opportunities and circumstances that I do.

I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think either gates or Zuck set out to be gates or Zuck. If they knew then what they know now, they would’ve had even more linear trajectories than they already do. They didn’t set out to build empires, they set out to work on interesting problems. I think same for Jobs.

Of all of these people I’m most aware of Elon Musk’s path, and I think… I think he made it a point to keep moving himself to where the action was. That’s why he left Africa for Canada, left Canada for the Valley, left school to build an Internet company, after that built a payments company. The willingness to uproot oneself from one’s present- to sacrifice who you are for who you want to be, I think that’s very difficult. I will have to study Gates and Zuck a little more closely. Also I think it’s important to study the trajectories of equally qualified but less illustrious individuals- these are outliers.

If we eliminate all the crazy outliers, what’s left, who’s left that’s worth emulating? Meeting my colleagues dramatically improved my quality of life and the way I think and perceive and do things.

What is the next step?

How can I create more value?

How quickly can I get better at my job and how do I identify the most optimal outcomes?

How can I best serve the world?

I should definitely identify the people who excite me the most and meet them.

I should identify the greatest opportunity in my job and execute heavily on that.

I need to focus harder/better and I need to learn to do that more effectively.

I spend way too much time dicking around. Why do I do that? Partially because I’m scared of working outside my comfort zone. I have to combat that with daily reminders and more structured habits, more rigorous measurement. Partially it’s because I don’t have a clear path in my head of how I’m going to create more value, exponentially. I have vague paths but I need to make them clearer and more deliberate.

What if I only have a couple of years left to live?

Then I need to do more word vomits, faster. I need to do them every morning and evening, and maybe extra ones on top of that. There’s no additional calibration necessary for this one- I really want to hit a million words, it’s a journey I want to undertake- I don’t think many people have done it- so let’s do it! I will open up new perspectives and opportunities at the end of it. Why am I taking so long? Because I can. Because I forget that my atoms are on loan and that I will cease to exist. Because it’s easy to get comfy in the comfort zone.

Okay, so how do I get out of it? Why am I writing this now? I think it’s at least partially a side effect of a few different things. (Confirmation bias warning.)

  • I slept earlier last night so I have some brain power right now to do this writing.
  • I’ve been watching motivational videos every day to battle against the general drudgery that the world feeds me.
  • I’ve been writing in my journal every night to do a quick, sketchy post-day review.
  • I would like to have spat out a vomit by the end of the day so I have something nice to write.

Each day is a mini life- born, live, die. A well lived life is hard to plan for. A well lived day is easier. I want well lived days. They become weeks, months, years, decades, a life.

I realize that having stuff on pen and paper somehow makes it more concrete for me. It worked for me during NS, and it’s working for me now. Calendars online are somehow insufficient for me. Apps are somehow insufficient for me.If I made an app about productivity I think it would require me to take pictures of my notes rather than actually write stuff down in an app. Perhaps that’s irrational, but that’s how I roll and that’s how I need to do things for the foreseeable future. Maybe I can reprogram myself eventually, but for now done is better than perfect.

The faster I finish these vomits the quicker I will be able to move on to the next stage of my life and I am ready for that. I’m tired of dicking around. Dicking around is the strategy of the lost, confused, uncertain, overwhelmed, afraid. I was and perhaps still am all of those things. But dicking around only makes it worse. Decisive action is a superior strategy. Even if you screw up, you can learn better and act better afterwards.

Why dick around? Fear. Tiredness. Uncertainty. Cynicism. Unenlightened boredom.

I think it’s okay to dick around purposefully, or in spaces that are genuinely interesting- but for clarity’s sake I would define that as tinkering and/or exploration. I define dicking around as purposeless bumbling. A random walk is healthy- you never know what you might see or learn. A daily habit of sitting online and reading the same things, doing the same things, etc… That’s dicking around. You’re not learning. Not growing. I think it’s important to be idle from time to time, but it shouldn’t be the dominant state, in my opinion. It doesn’t even really make you happy. Why do things that don’t make you happy? That don’t excite you?

What are you grateful for? What are you excited about? What are the fun, happy surprises? What is meaningful to you? The world won’t dump this stuff on you, you have to go get it.

Looking back, I feel like I never spent enough time trying.

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