My Anti-Affirmation Manifesto


I hate Stuart Smalley.

Or rather, I love Stuart for his mockery of people I think are kinda silly. Stuart was a motivational speaker character on Saturday Night Live famous for his catchphrase “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.” He stood in for “fake it til you make it” gurus like Tony Robbins, who preached that if you can just tell yourself that you’re good enough or smart enough, then maybe you can act with confidence rather than whimper in a corner unproductively. Some of the best moments of the sketch paired Stuart with gods amongst men like Michael Jordan, the joke being that it’s absurd that Michael would need to fake confidence: Michael’s awesome!

In one sense, I applaud the Stuarts and Robbinses of the world. Confidence is a vital human need. The problem is that the method is fundamentally dishonest. What if you think you aren’t good enough? What if people don’t like you? Robbins’ advice equates to pushing that thought down and ignoring whatever evidence you might have of a real obstacle, ie repressing the thought. The obstacle remains, though now ignored. If you have ever come across an overly aggressive salesman who just doesn’t seem to listen, just keep in mind that the sales world is littered with advocates for fake it til you make it.

Bare with me for a second, because I’m about to get even more sappy than usual.

Instead of blind affirmations, I think that what you need in order to be confident is strategy–knowing how you will deal the obstacles to your goal if they come up. In a sense, while the “fake it til you make its” advocate ignoring reality, I think you need to plunge into it. To that end, I think that gaining confidence is all about asking honest questions and demanding honest answers. Instead of telling yourself that you’re good enough, the question is what are the skills you know you have that you can rely on here, and what are your strategies to avoid or lessen the impact of any weaknesses? Instead of saying that you’re smart enough, the question is what do you know, and what important material do you not know that you might be able to read up on quickly in the next five minutes? And how do you build skill in the future so that there really isn’t a question of whether or not you’re good enough? And instead of telling yourself that people like you–well, screw ’em anyway.

That’s a joke, and how you deal with whether or not people like you is a whole ‘nother topic, but I think the pattern is clear. You can’t pretend obstacles away. But if you look at them directly, then you can do something even better with your obstacles. You can deal with them.


Does Creativity Require Time Constraints or Freedom?


In the last week, I have come upon two completely opposing views on whether creativity requires strict time constraints or the freedom to work without limitation, but I think both are right.

In Jon Stewart’s view, creativity comes out of time limits, not freedom. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Stewart said that the Daily Show staff follows a highly regimented schedule, always meeting at 9 every morning to review the previous day’s events, identify the very few items they are to make jokes about, and then get to work on a rigorous process of writing and rewriting. Without this rigorous process, the Daily Show would be left to spin its wheels and create nothing of merit.

In contrast, Ayn Rand once recounted that she was unable to write creatively if she knew she had an appointment later that day. Her subconscious needed the knowledge that she would be able to pay off the huge effort required to gear up to write. With a looming appointment, she always suspected that she would have to stop just as things were getting good.

I respect the craft and output of both, so as far as I’m concerned, both must have had effective processes. So is this a case of different strokes for different folks, and there is no one right method? Or is this a matter of working as a team versus working by oneself? Or are they tackling different parts of the problem? Or maybe they are working on problems of differing difficulty?

Here’s my best guess, from my own experience. Creativity and motivation require highly defined problems and clear deadlines, but those deadlines have to be loose enough that you feel you can actually throw all of yourself into the solving and follow your thoughts wherever they may lead. When one’s deadlines are too tight, you are forced into a mode of efficiency, where your solution must be the most obvious and rote available. In essence, you absolutely require time constraints because that’s part of the definition of the problem, but you don’t want those constraints to get too constraining.

One important additional point here: productivity blogger Merlin Mann’s said once that the point of all the productivity stuff he writes about (like task management systems, for example) is to help you carve out big blocks of time to do good work. I think that productivity systems are clearly really important, but finding the time to do good work is still a big problem. If you want big chunks of time, you basically need to do that work on days off, become independently wealthy, freelance, or work for Google (or a similar company that allows you freedom). As I’ve said before, I write this blog in the margins of my life, and work often needs to be broken up into small chunks. I think that can and does still work, but it requires making sure that the goals you set for that period of time are appropriately sized.

So that’s my big advice for the day: time limits are both necessary and good–an important part of having a well-defined problem. But whatever time you have, if you want to do work that is better than the most obvious and rote solution, make sure to choose goals for that period that can be accomplished with time to spare.


The Motivation Checklist


A week ago I asked the Internet what it does to “cultivate their motivation,” rather than just treat it like an unchangeable thing that you just have to hope you’re lucky enough to have. I received three different responses, from three different perspectives.

Sam focused on “an implicit belief that I do not have either the time, resources or ability to do what I want to do well.” Matt separated the question into short term and long term. I’ll leave his thoughts about the long-term for another day, but his short term focus was on powering through in order to get started. Eran focused on “appreciating how awesome what you’re doing could be, how much better your life could be when you’re done, and even how much you’ve already accomplished is key.”

I think that all of this is good advice, and I wanted to see if I could integrate them together into something a little systematic. I went to my library of psychology books to see if something worthwhile already existed by an established psychologist, but that was a failure. If anyone has a good lead, let me know.

I think motivation is a product of essentially two things, which Sam and Eran are dealing with, respectively: a belief that the goal one is pursuing is 1) possible to you and 2) worth the effort. There’s a lot of important detail to each, so, for example, “possible” doesn’t just mean having the materials or connections but also having the time.

The frustrating thing about not having motivation is that the cause of the problem doesn’t necessarily present itself. You just know you’re bored and then have to dig a bit to figure out why. I don’t know that this list is comprehensive yet, but next time you’re in a low motivation situation, I hope this can be helpful.

Questions relating to the goal’s worth
-Do I know what I want? It’s surprising how often people just fall into a goal without questioning why they are doing it.  
-Do I know how this action gets me what I want? And is the action a meaningful step?
-Is the goal specific, real and concrete to me? Or is it vague and abstract?
-Is there a limit to how much time, energy, money I will be spending on this thing? (ie Do I know the cost?)

Questions relating to possibility
-Do I have the time needed for the goal?
-Do I know how to measure how well I’m doing? And do I know where I am now?
-Do I have the skill needed? This can mean knowledge, effective habits, muscle memory.
-Do I have the money, relationships, reputation, or other resources needed?

If you can pinpoint exactly where the problem is, you can start to figure out what to do to solve it. In looking at the list, I realized a problem with my own motivation in this blog–I don’t know the time cost. I have a rough estimate regarding the time it takes for a weekly post (around four hours per week) but not regarding how long I will keep it going. Let’s say I will just focus on the next month and reevaluate then whether I reup. That’s three more posts this month. I have three quality post in me.   

So, Internet, what am I missing from the above list?


The McFly Effect


Anyone who has seen the Back to the Future Trilogy remembers the scene where Marty starts a fight because a bully calls him “chicken.” (Or the one where “chicken” taunts him into a bad business deal. Or the one where he’s tempted into a drag race. As a friend joked, Marty doesn’t actually have a psychological problem, he has a kill word.)

I had the same sort of problem for a while. Where Marty was held hostage by challenges to his courage, I was held hostage by challenges to my skill. The challenge didn’t even have to be intentional, as I could also be set off by a stray remark that something was hard or that a different person was really funny or intelligent (which, by implication, might mean that I was not particularly funny or intelligent). Under the grip of proving myself, I have taken on projects way out of my depth, declined to accept much needed help, engaged in stupid dares like eating a half-cup of wasabi all at once, and perhaps worst of all, stewed in frustration and self-pity instead of getting to know some pretty funny and intelligent people.

The funny thing is that this problem was actually rooted in something really, really good: my desire for skill and joy at times when I am able to do something. My appreciation for times when I’ve had something insightful to add to a conversation, for example, became neurosis that I should always be adding something insightful to a conversation, even when I was exhausted or the others in the conversation knew far more about the subject than I did or I simply didn’t actually have anything interesting to say on the subject.

The reason I’m sharing this is not self-disclosure but because I don’t think I’m alone on this one. It’s a problem you see often in ambitious people: a desire for something good somehow becomes twisted into pain and neurotic behavior at evidence of not having it (or not having as much as others). My particular variant was a desire for skill, but there are many others.  Common examples are number of friends, success in one’s career, respect, and money.

I think that the problem here is one of self-judgment. It’s hard to know how to judge one’s accomplishments and, by extension, one’s worth as a person. Do I have enough skill/friends/success/respect/money? Well, how could I decide when enough is enough? In absence of a clearly defined way of judging oneself, comparison with others is at least a common standard and might be a natural default standard.

I’ve seen a few different ideas about what the healthy standard could be, but this post is getting a little long now to discuss them all. I think it’s going to be a topic I return to a few times on the blog.  

So that I’m not completely opening a can of worms without closing it back up, I’ll end with how I got over my own problem. I realized that what I was expecting from myself was impossible: I was essentially demanding omnipotence in all situations. Obviously, that’s crazy. A person has only limited time and resources with which to develop a skill. When faced with someone else’s ability to do something, such as a backflip, that I’m not able to do; the correct thing to do is ask myself what would be involved in my developing that skill. Would I prefer to spend the time and energy (and healing) on perfecting a backflip or on learning more about psychology or watching a film? I’ll admit, learning how to backflip is tempting and I may actually attempt to learn how at some point, but it’s just not where I want to spend my time now.

I think the same pattern works for all values. The question is not “Do I have enough” but “Would I prefer to spend the time and energy to achieve this particular value, or would I prefer to spend my time elsewhere?” If the answer is that you want to do the work, make a plan. If the answer is that you don’t, then that’s fine. Accept and enjoy your current state. Everything else, just let it go.

So the standard then becomes not whether I’m happy with the current state of anything but rather whether I am happy with my choice of commitments. Am I building the skill I want, engaged in the kind of job that should give me the money I want, working toward the kinds of accomplishments I want? If so, then congrats; you win.

I’m not certain that’s it, and there’s definitely more to develop, but I submit the idea for your consideration.

[Hat tip to Sam Applebaum, whose concept of value neurosis clearly informed this post significantly. I might be dealing with the broader category?]


How Do You Inspire Yourself? (Yes, You, The Person Reading Right Now. I’m Asking.)


Last week’s post on inspiration sparked a comment that deserves further development. In my opinion, only the awesome power of the Internet is up to the task. I will build on your comments to write next week’s post.

Eran Dror wrote:

“One very obvious fact that I think men especially tend to forget is that emotions, including motivation and inspiration can be cultivated. Sometimes instead of simply trying to get back to work from where you left off, the best approach is to engage in some activity specifically designed to rekindle your motivation. That can be anything from reading an article on the topic, or trying to come up with some fresh insights. I found that my biggest obstacle was learning to recognize my own emotions as a distinct roadblock that had to be addressed separately and not just ‘powered through.'”

So, Internet, what do you do to cultivate your motivation?  Reading an article or coming up with fresh insights? Or something else entirely?

PS This is not my post for the week. That would be cheating.


Inspiration is Perishable


Over the last week, I’ve outlined two blog posts that have excited me, about topics that I think are important and I feel I have something worth saying about. The problem is that now that I have some time to actually write them, I just don’t have the motivation to do so.

The title of this post comes from a short essay in a great book called Rework, by Jason Fried and David Hennemeier Hanson of the company 37Signals. The idea is to act on your inspiration when it strikes because it won’t be here tomorrow, no matter how potent it might be right now. If that means working well into the night, rearranging your plans, whatever, then go for it.

There’s definitely merit to this idea, but it’s not really practical in most situations. I write this blog in the margins of my life, mostly on the weekends and in the subway to and from work. It’s necessarily a secondary priority to my job and my girlfriend. If the only way I could do good work on the blog was to drop everything else, I would choose not to do good work.

So I am often in the position of having to return to work I’ve started earlier, and that brings me to the question of why the motivation perishes. I think it’s this: motivation results from a belief that you have something worthwhile to gain from taking an action. To truly be motivated, that needs to exist not just as words in your mind but as a clear and tangible vision of what you have to gain and how, the clearer and more tangible the better. The challenge is that this vision depends on a lot of supporting factors, including your recent experiences with the problem, experiences of your own success in related circumstances, relevant knowledge you have about the moving parts. All of this was in your head at the time of the inspiration. In the meantime, other experiences, facts, and thoughts have taken their place.

So I am often in the position of having to return to work I’ve started earlier, and there are two simple strategies I follow.

1) Give up and move on.

This is a variant on “Inspiration is perishable.” If I don’t have the inspiration for what I said I’d do before, what do I have the inspiration for? That’s actually the strategy I am successfully doing in this post. I had something outlined about interactions with others, but it’s been four days since I was confused by a coworker that I thought was too flippantly dismissive of another coworker’s perspective, and I’ve moved on. Maybe I’ll write about how to think about others’ opinions the next time a similar situation comes up. In the meantime, my outline has been captured, so some progress has been made should I return.

2) Commit to ten minutes.

The secret of this is that it helps to recreate the original mindset, those experiences with the problem and your own successes, all that relevant knowledge. This may sound like a lot of work, but I think for a lot of people, this happens fairly automatically when they actually force themselves to sit down again. The inner monologue sounds something like, “Okay, let’s get this over with. What was I trying to do again? Okay, I wanted to write a blog post about dismissing others. Why was that again? Oh, yeah, Jane was making fun of George’s good idea. Why does she do that? I think it’s because she’s just so focused on checking things off that she oversimplifies things. Oh yeah, I was thinking that a lot of people do this.” And so on. One question begets the next, and all those answers make up a mindset. Nine times out of ten, you lose track of the end of those ten minutes because you’re off pursuing your inspiration.

Now, those are the simple strategies for recreating a motivated mindset. I think they’re really effective for a lot of people a lot of the time. But clearly there are often bigger issues. If there weren’t, I wouldn’t have much of a blog to write. So expect more on this subject. When I feel like it.


“Pursuit of Awesomeness” Gets a New Name


Whenever I’ve told the name of my blog to anyone in my personal life, I’ve received a wide smile and excitement about the venture. When I’ve told it to anyone in my professional life, I’ve received a forced smile and polite nod. If I could put the look into words, it would be something like, “Oh, okay. You’re not actually someone I should take seriously. My mistake.” Colleagues tend to ask me about my “awesomeness” blog, and I cringe.

As tempting as its been to make a change and regain some professional respect, my mind has always rebelled against changing it. “Pursuit of Awesomeness” means something to me. It names in broad emotional terms what my professional work and my entire life are about, even if I don’t quite have a precise handle on what it is means. If my choice is between a name that gets me excited to write or something bland but professional like “Performance Psychology Weekly,” I think it’s better to choose the former.

But now I figured out how to have my cake and eat it, too! Behold “Psychology for the Ambitious!” Drink from its glory!

I came to the new name while working out what problem I’m trying to solve with my career. A key question here was who to consider my audience, and my answer was essentially my friends and people like them. The people I gravitate to and sympathize with are the ones that live with the attitude of “Okay, I’m alive, and I have this really cool world to play with. What do I want to do with it? Translating that attitude into goals and quality work and ultimate success is a real challenge, and that’s where I hope to add value.

The name “Pursuit of Awesomeness” actually does seem immature to me now by comparison–not because pursuing awesomeness is something best left to childhood but because its so damned imprecise. As I said, “Pursuit of Awesomeness” names a broad emotion; I actually have to explain it in order for the name to mean anything to anyone. “Psychology for the Ambitious” summons up a subject, an audience, a tone, and suggests some topics you might read about. I like it.

So now I’ve written two posts in a row about the blog itself. I suppose I should actually get to doing something. Fair enough.

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