Being motivated isn’t pleasant

“It’s never as good as it looks and it’s never as bad as it seems.”

The 16-17 year old students I work with often ask me how to get more motivation.  They believe that it is some kind of fairy dust capable of turning you an accomplishment-machine, realising all your potential and aiding you in changing the world.

Perhaps. They forget that motivation resembles hunger. You may feel energetic but also increasingly agitated, nauseous and sore. Your mind is focused on getting your gullet filled, that’s it. You feel unsettled and uncomfortable. You feel anxious as you mightn’t last long enough to find food. You think of all the different ways to satisfy the hunger – doing nothing is just not an option.

Being motivated isn’t pleasant.

Sometimes, we all feel excitement at a new beginning, at how much we are going to accomplish. This pleasant sensation differs from what I would call motivation. We all need such an elated state sometimes to carry us through, but we borrow it from the emotional bank and will have to pay it back with interest. This loan covers over the obstacles that will get in our way and helps us to get started. If you want to feel elated, all you need to do is ignore reality.

Not a sustainable solution.

I think all productive people oscillate between feeling hungry and transiently being satisfied with what they accomplished.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BdOyZO0h5fw/

 

Want to be great at something? You simply need to like it

A lot of the literature in psychology, especially the type read by people not trying to get a Ph.D., is focused on success. How to be successful. What do successful people do. You know. It gets quite tiring after a while, especially because for the most part it is a thinly veiled sales pitch or click bait.

Inspiration or perspiration?

I’ve gone through the non-click bait writing/research on the matter and noticed some interesting patterns.

First, I will define success as being in the top 1% of something: swimming, earning money, cutting out adenoids… whatever floats your boat.

It appears that in the majority of cases, someone’s success in a particular field is mostly related to experience and practice, not to innate ability.

I’ve been very fortunate to have gone to school with some incredibly talented people. As we were growing up, I watched their motivations change: some people would get by on raw talent, after all school was never designed to be difficult, while some, who were mediocre to start, became unbeatable.

This observation of mine is echoed in the literature. Even if one’s first attempts at something are poor, it is bears no relationship to the overall outcome. Obviously, there are some factors at play, but they tend to be obvious: like, to be a jockey or a ballerina you simply have to be light.

However, when the mission is a little more intangible, such as becoming a good writer or being good at maths, the impact of practice greatly outweighs that of talent. This dynamic is also congruent with the idea that a mindset of believing in one’s improvement is fundamental to motivation (as distinct from the belief that one’s ability is fixed which ultimately leads to learned helplessness).

how to get good at anything

Aptitude tests show aptitude, not outcomes

Consider aptitude tests. I would argue that they need to be scrapped as they predict nothing at all. Research doesn’t support the assertion behind aptitude tests, namely that the X-factor is present in a person before they put in the work required in a particular field. I also want to prevent anyone from conflating the ideas of practice outweighing talent vs nurture being more important than nature, but I will come to that later.

I like to observe people. I especially keep a mental chart for anyone who I flag as having a high IQ or a high EQ. All of these people consistently make bad decisions in their respective fields of prowess when they aren’t paying enough attention. My musings are once again congruent with available data: SAT scores explain 9% of the variance in first year college grades.

Interest is far more important than aptitude.

Even if you have the aptitude, you still need to focus on what it is exactly you are doing to actually perform well. For example, I did well in my (what you would call equivalent to) SAT’s and in first year of college. But not in fourth year: I was only around 75% centile. Why? I lost interest, didn’t like it, stopped paying as much attention and didn’t put in as much time into the specific subject.

do aptitude tests matter when choosing career

What is the relationship between accomplishment and practice?

Can you max out your practice? Sort of: you can reach 100% in a test, but in reality practice always leads to improvement. There is of course, such a thing as inappropriate practice: overtraining, staying up at night to study instead of sleeping, but you get the point.

Anders Ericsson did some great research in this area. He confirmed a few interesting things:

  • Improvement is subject to diminishing returns. In other words, one makes more progress in the first 1,000 hours practicing something than they do in their most recent 1,000 hours.
  • Interestingly, he found that these diminishing returns often create the illusion of a plateau, however, progress continues as evidenced by a ton of studies.

is it important to like your career

What is deliberate practice?

Ericsson uses the term deliberate practice to differentiate junk hours from practice that will actually make a difference in one’s level of achievement, and this is how he defines it:

1. Focus your attention on the work with the intention to improve.

2. Your practice should be targeted to your current level of skill. 

3. After you attempt something, you should get to immediate, informative feedback until you have complete clarity in relation to what you did right and what you did wrong.

If practice is all I need, how do I motivate myself to practice?

All of this sounds very laborious: having to chip away at something, constantly look for feedback and address endless mistakes. There is only one way to avoid this hell: to like what you are doing. They say that if you pick a job you like doing, you won’t have worked a day in your life. It is sort of true.

My parents’ generation nearly all switched jobs. My parents, being Russian, were in their 30s when the USSR collapsed and so were forced to find a new way to make it. My generation is also constantly changing jobs. I know so many young doctors, nurses, solicitors, accountants who end up changing their field of work: however, they aren’t forced by harsh economic perturbations. They are forced by the discrepancy between what they were taught would be good for them as a career versus what is it actually like.

Aptitude tests and risk-averse parents had aspiring accountants believe they will be good at their job. They are good at it, but they soon realise they are ambivalent about it.

And it is hard to get up early in the morning 5 days a week when you are ambivalent. This is the reason so many people who were so “promising” end up having lacklustre careers: if you don’t like doing what you’re doing, you’re not going to find it easy to practice and if you don’t find it easy to practice, the competition will quickly leave you behind.

I recall taking a deep breath in and out to simply refocus as I was writing a note in a patient’s chart towards the end of a 14 hour shift in the emergency department, the last 9 of those without any breaks. The nurse sitting beside me took this to be a sigh of desperation and said: “It’s just another half hour until you’re finished.” Clearly, this nurse has been in a place where she was literally counting the minutes until she can go home. She was being supportive and relating to an experience she thought I was having. I was just tired. The way she said it was: “I know how much you don’t want to be here; I feel the same”. I bet there was a time when she was really excited about her work. She is good at her job. But she will never get better. And because lack of progress causes tremendous unhappiness in and of itself, she is likely to leave that job.

practice beats talent

What if I like something that I can’t turn into a career?

I think that that’s just a story we tell ourselves. Wearing a suit and going to work 5 days a week isn’t a career. Or maybe it is, but in that case we don’t all need a career. It’s hard for me to guess what people need, but I hypothesise that people need meaningful impact. And in this case, it is possible to make an impact doing virtually anything. Is it possible to make a living out of it? I would argue that it is. It requires some creativity, but with the internet people have been able to find their tribe much more easily. By listening to the audience, it will soon become obvious how to make what you are good at extremely useful to people – and monetise it. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur, you can be a freelancer, or even an employee. As for security, I also believe that that’s more of a story. Corporations collapse, technology makes professions irrelevant, cheaper labour elsewhere leads to job losses… Employment is far riskier that it is made out. 

The point is that it is being good that sells.

If you manage to get amazing at something odd (break-dancing, why not), you are at least as likely to sell it as if you’re mediocre at something for which there is a lot of demand (accounting). I will let you judge the level of happiness attained through these two routes for yourself.

It’s not all that simple of course. If you’re relying on being the best at something, you need to constantly put in the practice or create systems around you that will allow you t grow, e.g. creating things that last like organisations and leveraging other people. If you are relying on being mediocre where there is high demand, you will probably get away with it for the rest of your less-than-happy life.

What if I don’t know what I like?

You do, but it’s hard to be honest with yourself because it may lead to a lot of uncomfortable conclusions.

I’ve always liked writing, but I was always told it is a road to nowhere. Of what use is writing? When you’re 17, you listen to adults and trust them. Having said this, I liked science just as much. However, my interest in science was encouraged, but my interest in writing wasn’t.

It can also feel like it’s a very individualistic thing to say: “I like X”, X being piano, fashion, philosophy, whatever. We’re taught that it’s not about liking things, it’s about finding a good solid field where you can be successful. Whatever that means. So saying “I like X” is immediately contrary. There is an implicit “it doesn’t matter what you like, the choice you make it about your future! This isn’t a game!”

This kind of attitude plants a lot of doubt of course: what if X is just an infatuation? What if in 3 years’ time I am sick of painting and all I want is to start a family which is far easier to do if I become an accountant? It’s a risk, I guess, but I’ve never met anyone who really liked something and actually got sick of it. They may have been repeatedly rejected, something bad may have happened that became associated with X – but I’ve never met anyone who just lost their passion from first principles.

It can even cause guilt: doing something that you like feels like it isn’t work and is therefore not valuable. The insight here is that it feels like work to most people. 

It’s also important to remember that we like things we are good at. It’s therefore good to at least try and differentiate between positive feedback and genuine interest.

should-i-do-what-i-like-or-what-makes-money

How are accomplished people’s brains different?

Isabelle Gauthier and Michael Tarr created a new field of study: Greebles. These are a family of 3-D structures, they are made up, none of the participants of their studies knew anything about them and had to learn from scratch.

As the participants practiced identifying and classifying these ridiculous Greebles, Gauthier and Tarr observed the developments in their brains using fMRI. When participants were first learning about Greebles, a huge portion of their brains was active. As they practiced more and more, fewer regions showed activity, but they ones that remained active became more active. Greebles are a nice example, but there are a number of studies like this that all point that brain activation gets more precise and efficient.

The meaning of meaningful glances

I also like to observe experienced doctors. Every morning, a senior physician would do a round and be presented with the case details of the patients who were admitted through the emergency department overnight. A lot of these presentations are really vague, that’s just the nature of the activity. The experienced senior physicians have a way of narrowing it down effortlessly: and most of the time they are correct. There is one minor detail that I noticed: they tend to fixate on something for a few seconds before they pronounce their verdict on the working diagnosis. It’s like they aren’t really here. The transient but significant fixation is especially juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle of the emergency department.

It turns out that that’s a thing that experts do. Studies of eye-tracking movements of by Joan Vickers call it the quiet eye.‹ Ordinarily, our eyes jump from one object to another, about 3 times per second. The movements are controlled without our conscious involvement. As we focus on a task, these movements become more deliberate. Especially accomplished people tend to stop their eye movements for as much as a whole second as they are about to act (or make a decision). Once again, we are looking at precision and efficiency: limiting the information input to be able to focus on what is relevant. This seems to be the real skill behind being accomplished at something (incidentally, it is also the skill that is directly trained though mindfulness meditation). 

Having reviewed the mechanics of being good at something, it is obvious that it comes at an obvious cost. By going in for the kill each time, the accomplished performer is likely to miss something in plain sight simply because their optimised equation didn’t factor it in. There is valuable flexibility in being a novice.

You may also like:

Paul Graham: What Doesn’t Seem Like Work?

FT: How a ‘no-plan’ plan launched a career at Facebook

Steal my checklist and stop feeling overwhelmed in the mornings

When I hear the word checklist, I think of bored looking men with clipboards standing by conveyor belts, doing quality control in a soulless brave new world factory worshipping Henry Ford. However, things changed when I first had to actually use one – during a flying lesson. It didn’t seem that bad at all, providing reassurance and a sense of completion. The negative reinforcement of doing 2g must have kept this thought dormant for a long time, but I decided to revisit these beacons of productivity that I imagine all the perfect people from Instagram tick off every day.

checklist to use in the morning
My first flight was out of Biggin Hill near London with flirty Irish-Italian instructor who insisted on doing 2g straight away

There are things that are inherently hard to do.

Realistically, getting out of bed is something that comes easily to a very select few – and these select few change every day, depending on what they expect from their day.

For those of us, who are less than euphoric on most mornings (i.e. slightly less than 100% of people, the slightly less bit accounted for mostly by people in acute mania or still high from the night before), a checklist could be a good way to ease the drift towards existential questions or reflection on the pressure of a brand new day, another attempt to achieve, another day to seize and make the most of, squeezing out the last drop where anything that wouldn’t make NutriBullet engineers blush simply isn’t enough.

That’s the real Nutribullet challenge. I cannot emphasise the usefulness of waking up at the same time every day. I use the iPhone Bedtime feature for this. It’s generally good for the circadian rhythm and creates a sense of control.

how to use checklists to make mornings easier
Sometimes you have to be on autopilot to enjoy the view

How do I keep up with being a doctor, an editor, a blogger, travel, house-hunt, read Nietzsche and get 8 hours of sleep? Well, my success rate is a little volatile.

In order to stay moving ahead, there are certain things that I simply must do every day. I have a startup checklist – things I do every morning – and things I do throughout the day. I use an app called Checklist+, or sometimes I just print it on a page.

My morning checklist achieves one main purpose: it takes out the need to make decisions.

Decisions are extremely consuming for our metaphorical RAM, especially when it is the morning and the possibilities seem so vast. It’s not like I will forget to brush my teeth if I don’t look at the checklist. It is that I don’t have to figure out: “what do I do first?” which can be extremely taxing when I just wake up.

checklist for the morning for a girl
There is something life-affirming about pink Edwardian letters

The alternative, on many mornings, is feeling out of control as I rush to work and resent having other people’s checklists imposed on me, or going straight to the laptop, surrounding myself with green tea paraphernalia and snacks, only to realise by midday that I haven’t actually done much other than worked in a virtual mailroom. The loss of productive time however, doesn’t stop there. It dictates how the rest of the day will unfold. It is the mood setting that matters:

You see the 10 push ups in the checklist? Do they build any real muscle? Hardly. What they do is they set me up to feel healthy and capable of overcoming challenges.

I am much less likely to go creeping on a former classmate’s Facebook page or drinking hot chocolate after doing even a few pushups than I would be if I had just spent the morning lazying around in my pyjamas. It’s that phenomenon of consistency that Cialdini talks about.

My next item on the agenda is the domino piece.

… As distinct from the Domino’s slice from yesterday’s dinner. The domino piece is the most important item on my work to-do list or the one that makes all other pieces irrelevant. I deal with the thing I resist the most first. Perhaps this is why I find mornings so cognitively taxing. [I will insert a proper reference for this soon]. However, having spent years chiselling out this productive approach, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

My 2nd checklist is the one for the day. It allows me to move forward. This isn’t work related, and it doesn’t change day to day.checklist for a successful dayMindfulness helps me to stay in touch with reality. Walking is simply good for us human beings, as N.N. Taleb says. He can nearly match a word count of his essay writing to his miles walked. It’s near impossible to stay cognitively refreshed unless one reads. Exercise goes without saying.

I have lots of other, more specific checklists. It’s an ENTP thing. We like lists. I don’t get them done perfectly everyday, but it is a good guide.

I mentioned the sense of control a few times here. The point isn’t to be a control freak.

One of the most important lessons I learnt from dealing with my own students is that a sense of control is the ultimate source of motivation and agency. It is the natural predator of learnt helplessness – which is far more pervasive in our lives than we think.

Checklists allow us to remain in control without investing expensive cognitive RAM – because they are our checklists, not Henry Ford’s.

Dearest reader, if you’ve read this far, you know what to do.

  1. Pick a wake-up time (or let your child pick it for you).
  2. Make your own checklist. Just one.
  3. Drop your expectations and keep it very simple.
  4. Do it for 10 days and reward yourself for doing it. Does Pavlov ring a bell?

You may also like: Top 5 music apps for mindful focus

Is free will just another name for motivation?

The concept of free will – the ability to make our own choices – has occupied me on and off for some time. Recently, my interest has been reignited by Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Research seems to point towards the idea that awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. In other words, wanting to do something seems to occur n parallel rather than as a cause to it happening. There are a variety of experiments to support this. The explanation in Crash Course rather elegantly shows that there aren’t many arguments to support free will other than the fact that it just feels like it’s there.

free will vs instinct

Babies

In this context, it’s interesting to consider the instinct to reproduce. While planning a child involves conscious cognitive effort, instinct is a big part of the process.  This instict is far more subtle than let’s say the instinct to eat when one’s hungry. This doesn’t mean it’s less strong. We are pretty clear that the need to eat is largely outside of our control or free will – it’s just there and we work around it. If I had to make a decision as to whether children were a product of a cognitive decision making process or an instinct – I would have to choose instinct. However, that’s not how it feels. It feels like one made a mostly cognitive decision to have a child – rather than the feeling of a mostly instinctive decision to eat when one’s hungry.

So if it possible to have a child and think that you consciously decided to do so, what’s to say that everything isn’t driven through instinct.

Of course, one can argue that free will has the potential to override instinct. However, even in that case, free will only gets to speak after the instinct made itself known, adding to the conditionality and frailty of free will.

free will in animals

Cats

It is quite conceivable to look at a cat and explain all of its actions through instinct. Or a dog – does a dog love its owner so unconditionally because it is a better creature – or because we relentless bred it into them, by getting rid of all the non-submissive dogs in a given breed? We are obsessed with explaining how we are different from animals. Maybe, the distinction is blown out of proportion.

free will autonomic function

Breath

Alerting someone to their breath is usually quite fascinating (unless they are used to it through mindfulness or have a healthcare background). People usually have this slightly blunted uncanny realisation in their eyes – “what, I’ve been breathing all time? Yes, naturally I have, but… Anyway, play it cool.”

I am sure, if someone randomly asked me: are you in charge of our own breathing? Without much thinking, I would say, yes.

We can, to some extent, override our respiratory drive, alter our breathing pattern, etc (at least that’s what we think tudum-tshh). However, the bottom line is that breathing happens because it has been hard wired genetically. The temptation though, is to say we control it – probably fuelled by the fact that we can “control” any of it. I wonder what else happens that way: how many of our choices and thoughts happen just like the breath? We breath when we sleep – we think and feel while we sleep too, we call it dreams. Buddhists see thoughts as something external – they are like clouds that come and go. So who’s actually in charge?

Motivation

One of the reasons why it feels so… eery and empty to think about our lack of free will is that we are no longer in control.

Being in control is central to motivation – according to pretty much any study ever done on it.

Taking the lack of free will argument a step further, it is also possible that this sense of control is wired into us because it propels us forward. Most commencement speeches that get millions of hits on YouTube boil down to the same message: we have more choices and power than we realise. This feel good message is, in a sense, the opposite to the thought that there’s no free will. However, if free will doesn’t exist, by writing this, I -and countless people before me, prove that it’s possible to at least contemplate its lack. It’s possible to have insight, at least, even though it doesn’t feel good.

Maybe, this feeling of control is just like hunger and thirst – it is a drives us to accomplish, regardless of whether we have any choice over it.

There’s still hope…

That free will as we know it does exist.

Just because some actions occur without free will as evidenced through neurophysiology experiments, doesn’t mean that all actions occur this way.

… And if these bone fide free willed thoughts and actions exist, it is possible that they influence the will-less, or the subconscious, whatever you want to call it – just like you can teach your respiratory centre to stay quiet while diving for pearls for minutes at a time. This would mean that while decisions are made subconsciously, there is still a way to make them yours – and not predetermined.