Stages of Drive

Motivation is temporal. Good music, a cup of coffee, or a great TED talk could make you feel inspired, pumped up, and raring to go – but give yourself a couple of setbacks, and that same source of inspiration might start to feel like a toy hammer against a two-tonne rock. You’ll need something way more powerful than a short spurt of energy to break down the barriers in your way.


Stages of Drive

I like to think of motivation in terms of stages. Each stage represents evolutionary growth in our personalities, in the very core of our beings – and that can be ultimately reflected in the way we are driven. Getting to the next stage means that we are motivated by a new kind of desire; a new purpose or meaning forms the foundation for our actions, and a new force gives us power to overcome the unsurmountable. This motivating energy is fundamentally different between stage to stage, and I imagine it to be on a hierarchical scale: higher stages present more sustainable and powerful energy, while lower stages burn brightly at first, but wear off just as quickly, especially in the face of challenges. And challenges are aplenty when we are engaged in any worthwhile pursuit, so if we don’t transcend to the next stage fast enough, we may not be able to persist in our mission!


Driven by Success

In the first stage, success is motivated by success. Our drive to get things done is derived from the feel-good sensation of having seen success in either someone else, or ourselves. That’s why inspiring TED talks, tales of exemplary people in their field, or even a sports game can cause us to be fired up about our own projects. We see great people swinging their hammers of accumulated ability and smashing apart boulders with seemingly effortless ease, and we think to ourselves – hey, we could be like that too. So we pick up our own tiny hammers and take up our own quests. We embark on our creative projects, our ambitious routines, our competitive journeys. When we succeed for the first time, the dopamine rush makes us feel great; it makes us want to repeat the fantastic experience. The more fortunate ones of us may get to see longer stretches of success than others, and for as long as our season of victory continues, we may believe that we have finally found the holy grail to this game of life. We have no trouble waking up in the morning, swiping aside any sort of negativity, and getting on with our day – smashing problems to smithereens left, right, and center.

But soon enough, regardless of talent or chance, we may meet with an unexpected failure. Our book launch fails. We miss a scheduled exercise session. The competitor trumps us decisively. We feel horrible, and the negative thoughts are harder to swipe off each morning. At first, we may try to block off the hard feelings by listening to more inspiring talks, watching more incredible wins, telling ourselves about how we have attained the gold medal before, and how we can do it again. Temporarily, we are fired up. We keep at our quests. We keep breaking boulders. Yet, the experience of negativity is inevitable: the harder we try, the more we expose ourselves to failure. Each experience of failure makes the naive part of us realize that all the buzz associated with doing well is only just fairy dust and butterflies – it’s not substantial enough to take us all the way to the top. Eventually, that link between our quest and the feel-good, dopamine-rush of success gets completely rend asunder; to truly complete our quest, we conclude that it is essential to go through the dirt, the mud, and the thorn vines. There are no shortcuts. We don’t feel quite as excited anymore. For some of us, this critical realization makes us want to give up – which may not always be a bad decision. But for the rest of us who really, really want to turn our visions into reality, we become obsessed with the question: how do I keep myself motivated? How do I persist beyond the sting of failure?


The First Transition

To do that, we’ve got to change our focus. I call this the temporal shift, because we take our eyes away from short-term, feelings-driven, self-indulgent motivation to a longer-term, vision-centered drive. We stop thinking about how an activity makes us feel good, but we think of how our vision and mission is important to us. We focus on that vision more than the temporary good-feels that a short streak of success gives us. This means that we are okay with not feeling okay. In fact, we begin to embrace failure – it is just part of the process of growing. By focusing on the longer term mission instead of the shorter term feelings and sensations, we have made the first transition.


Driven by Growth

Once we’ve made the temporal shift, our eyes are set on higher things. We are no longer motivated by the sweetly deceptive allure of success, but instead, we continue bravely, exposing ourselves to difficulties – difficulties that could lead to even more failure. It may be terrifying, yet we quell our fears and press on. This vision that we have is so important, so captivating, that we begin to learn how to take the failure in stride. We except it like how we except the cycles of night and day, the seasons of spring and summer. We learn how to make it work for us instead of against us.

Indeed, in order to achieve what we can imagine, we must accept that growth is absolutely essential. We hit against strong boulders and they do not break because we do not have the right tools, technique, or strength. Failure and mistakes are now re-framed – instead of being the horrible, unacceptable parts of our quest, they become guiding lights, homing beacons, signposts; information that guides us to the very tools we need to move or break the barriers in our way.

To be quite frank though, making mistakes alone is no road to victory. Neither is it a pleasant experience. Just because we’ve switched our motivation does not mean that the bitter fruit is no longer bitter. No, it is still inimically bitter, but we eat it to get better. We are incensed, incentivized, and inspired to study all our losses with greater diligence and alacrity. We know that this is the only way to learn. No, we do not make mistakes with pleasure, nor derive perverse joy from falling each and every time in battle – our senses are still preserved and our tastes are still refined.

What we do is to let the failures guide our path away from more failure. We still feel the sting of defeat and the pain of a thrashing, so we would still prefer to take a victory over a loss at any time. But we are now more resilient, we are more patient, and we can deal with the pain long enough to discover the new pathways that we can take to grow. We do that by managing our negative emotions, and engaging in quiet reflection and contemplation. Moving from post-defeat pity to (not overly-detached! but) fully-engaged reflection is an evolution of character. Doing so will give us critical insights that can bring us closer to victory road. Through continuous reflection and adjustments, we avoid past mistakes and repeat what works until we know what each situation calls for, until we develop confidence in our own skills and abilities. In other words, it is through mistakes that we are pushed towards acquiring a bigger, better hammer, and it is through reflection, application, and correction upon re-correction that we learn to possess it.

The end goal for us is no longer that temporary sense of satisfaction, but the stable sense of growth – a pursuit of excellence, a mature, resilient motivation – an unshakable knowing that our selves have grown to the point that we can acquire satisfaction more easily than before, indeed to the point where we no longer worry about it. Give a man a large hammer and he may learn to break rocks. Teach a man to forge his own, and all the rocks of the world are for his breaking.

And yet, there is an end to this stage. There is a cliff that we reach, a path that we can no longer easily traverse on foot. The block here is yet another negative feeling. We’ve worked so hard in the past, dusted our knuckles against the rocks, plumbed the depths of our soul for the inspiration to continue against seemingly unbeatable odds, but now that we’ve gotten so far, there is a creeping shroud of uneasiness that begins to overtake us. We start to feel soft, saggy, stagnated. Things that were difficult for us are now easy. We look for the next peak to scale, but it feels like way too much effort. We want to stay here. We want to bask in our worn-out glory, lay in our half-baked success (because half-baked is good enough for us), and stay unperturbed by the forces of change.

But, if the bit of us that first discovered the beauty of our vision still remains somewhere deep within, we will feel that creeping shroud of uneasiness with greater sensitivity. It will permeate our beings and cause us to be unable to laze with serenity. No, we are plagued with a relentless invasion of ennui – we know that we must strive harder. But to what ends, and for what purposes? We tell ourselves that we are satisfied, though, if we were really honest, there is still something not quite complete about our success. Right at where we are at, there is a danger of being ensnared by stagnation, bogged down by boredom, and goaded into the same goals as everyone else. Our projects may be unique, but they seem like just another dime in a pile of so many. Our routines may feel effective, but it’s still someone else’s, stolen from the net somewhere. Our victories are sure, but only because we copied the strategies of another. We are successful, we have overcome failure, but we have yet to find our voice. And that is the thing that bugs us, that is the thing that irritates us, yet it feels insufficient to motivate us forward. We need to get to the next stage, and fast.


The Second Transition

So far, we have only striven for ourselves. We’ve put ourselves through the furnace to look for gold within, we’ve traversed the path of peril to seek treasure without, we smith and re-smith stronger hammers to bash the boulders in our way – but things get too difficult past a certain point. Things may even just get too boring. So what gives us the push – or to put it another way, what sucks us through to the other side? Whatever it is will have to be a higher, transcendent purpose. We need to take our eyes off ourselves, and stop asking for what we can gain from it. We need to start looking at the bigger picture. What can we give? Who can we serve? How do we reach that state of evolved strength that enables us to smash the boulders in other people’s way? Previously, we made a temporal shift, a vital change in perspective from short to long-term. Now, we must make a planar shift, to cease looking at the small area of space that we know as ourselves, and to begin setting our gaze on the wider world. Our perspective must be enlarged, it must grow to encompass not just the people we naturally care about, but also the people whom we don’t yet know, people whom we could one day serve.


Driven by Service

First we were motivated by success, and then by growth. Now, with a stable, empowered self, we make a planar shift, peer out of our shells, and feel compassion for the world around us. At this third stage, we are motivated by service. We have more than enough to share, and we want to give it to where it is needed most. This is, of course, the ideal. Usually, upon venturing out into the world, we may instead learn that our current skill set is not enough to meet the ever-growing demand. Or we may realize that it is not sufficiently fine-tuned for it to be effective. This gap is what draws us forward. It sucks us into a continuum of growth, and makes us able to bear with the days of darkness and desperation up ahead – day that can and will come when we delve deep enough into self-development of all sorts. We may feel lost, we may feel like we want to give up – but when we compare our miniscule pain with the colossal ache of the world, we know for sure that it is only a small price to pay for so great a cause.

Some of us may end up at the other deep end of self-development: complacency. When we get lazy and proud, it is the ones whom we serve who can shake us out of it. Our complacent blindness will lead us to fumble, hopefully in a small way, and immediately, the effects of our mistake reverberate throughout the ecosystem of our influence. Things break down. Systems fall into minor jeopardy. People may get hurt (but hopefully not). All at once, we remember how others need us to be at our best. All at once, we get up, stretch our muscles, and get ready to bust more rocks. There is no time for plateauing when we are service-focused, when our sense of self has grown to include others. We cannot idle in complacency or despair – there are lives and livelihoods at stake. We are pushed off the cliff, and we learn to grow wings.

And as we move out into the world and interact with people – those who can help us and those whom we can help – we are driven towards the deeper ‘why’s’ of doing. Our motivation sheds its selfish outer shell and reveals a vulnerable, humane person within, a person whose heart bleeds for the common cause, and whose hands work to raise others up. At this stage of development, we acquire new facets to our abilities. Previously, our analytical skills helped us grow through failure. By reflection and correction we learn the right path. Now, they show us how our actions can influence or fail to influence others. They show us if our skills are lacking, and whether they are in need of further refinement. On the upside, we also become aware of what works, and what doesn’t; what deserves more time and energy, and what is just a waste of investment. With an expanded sense of self, all the abilities that we’ve developed to understand ourselves become redirected to understand others and our relation to them, transforming us into people who can serve the world effectively.

This can, in many ways, create a distinctive marker in our personal skill sets, helping us to find a unique voice in a sea of so many. It seems like anyone who works hard enough can be a writer, but a writer who writes for gamers, or cooks, or musicians, has found a niche. Extending this to a humanitarian direction brings us to entrepreneurs whose interaction with less fortunate groups drive them to penetrate poverty zones through deftly-organized aid ministries, innovators whose exposure to the countless number in want of a clean drink every morning lead them to discover new ways of creating potable water, and social workers who, when faced with unending demands for skilled attention, use their mastery in technology to multiply the effect of the few on the field. Anybody who puts in the hours, and intelligently grinds through failure after failure, should be able to achieve a fair degree of success, but it is our unique connections to those we interact with, to those whom we feel for, that defines the nature of our expertise, and adds colour to our wings.

As a caveat, we must be careful not to skip steps here. There are many martyrs in this world whose kindness and selflessness are exemplary and admirable. But they remain ineffective in their fields of service, or they may even succumb to the same oppression that they seek to fight against. Why does this happen? Usually, they may have moved straight to stage 3 – the demands of the world around them were so pressing that they had no freedom to develop their strengths first. As such, when challenges come in greater numbers, they cannot care for both themselves and others.

Sometimes, we may be in such a situation because of circumstances. But when given the choice, we should strive to develop in a sound and sequential manner. We need wings before we can save others who are falling, we need a great hammer to smash our boulders, then those of others. While we should not be afraid to step out and serve, neither should we be tempted to rush the pace of our development. Through patience, we grow steadily, accumulate ability, and become a powerful force in whatever field we find ourselves in.

If we do manage to reach this stage without rushing too quickly or hesitating for too long, then our motivation becomes akin to the perpetual motion devices of lore – those around us catalyze our growth as we dedicate the fruits of our labour to serving them. We are inspired, and we inspire, we are motivated and we motivate. Our drive is strong enough to break down all the personal barriers in our way. By now, the only thing that blocks us are the logical limits, things like time and energy. These are things that we can only increase to a certain extent. From there, we will aim for optimal investments of these limited resources. At this stage, we become concerned with fine-tuning, experimentation and achieving the best returns from what little we have. This is a problem that demands constant attention and focus – yet it is a good problem to be dealing with. Because having broken down all the barriers of drive from Stage 1 to Stage 3, we can now look up and gaze into the clear skies for the first time. And that’s when we consider: perhaps, what lies beyond is the limit.


Finishing: The 2nd Hardest Thing to Do

Man building a tower with wooden blocks

Earlier we discussed why we start new/exciting/fun/creative! things, and also explored a few ideas on how to just begin, especially amidst the mountains of self-critique and the scariness of expectations. In this post, we begin from the end and talk about the 2nd Hardest Thing to Do: Finishing!

1) The Perils of Unfinishing

Why is finishing just so darn difficult? If you’ve been following the earlier posts at all, you’ll pick up quite quickly that once you’ve gotten used to starting things, it becomes as easy as pie. Pop it in the oven and ooh- new thing emerges! But the real challenge is to get all these little half-baked pies out of the oven in a well-cooked, prettily-garnished, and ready to serve condition. There are a number of problems that you’ll start to face if you never do finish up anything. For one, all these ideas start stockpiling, like half-baked pies strewn all over the kitchen – and the flies of self-critique and poor self-image will come to swarm all over you. Even if you do manage to swat them away, you realize that not getting anything finished means that you can’t really share anything with the world (I’m not referring to those projects that can be released over time, so long as something has reached its particular benchmark of utility, that in my book, is finished), and that just plain sucks. After all, your flagship project / epic novelette / fusion brunch menu was started to add value to the world, and losing sight of that purpose kind of makes starting all these gazillion projects lose their meaning. You don’t want to bump your head against a tree while walking into the forest – have your eyes on the goal, and keep your legs walking towards it!

2) Prime Things and UnPrime Things

Much like how there is good reason for us to find starting things difficult, there is also good reason for us to find finishing things difficult. While starting may cost a bit of resources, finishing requires us to pull out all the stops and make sure that we are committed to getting it down and done. The deeper we go into our project, the more we learn about the nature of its accompanying challenges. Call it the warped nature of reality, but if the end goal is worth it at all, chances are it gets even harder to finish near the end! It seems as if our calling is testing us, taunting us: are you ready to go into the deep end, where going in doesn’t mean you get to come out easily? Indeed, the completion of some projects may actually be more risky than it is worth. Hence we need to be quite sharp when evaluating Things. I propose a simple typology – Prime Things and UnPrime Things.

Let’s start with the Thing that we ought to avoid. UnPrime Things are Things that look flashy, pretty, and downright spanking fantastic, but they aren’t actually that critical or useful to anybody, or yourself for that matter. Now, there are plenty of things that aren’t exactly critical or useful, yet they can be quite central to the pursuit of the main goal. For instance, getting the design of your cupcake just right so that it bakes perfectly, mastering that tricky guitar riff so that it comes off splendidly during a concert, or adding energy saving features to your new car prototype; little things that aren’t quite critical but are still central and contributive to the experience of the main goal. What is the difference between these and UnPrime Things then? It’s not actually an easy question to answer, else there would be no point to this paragraph, however we can have an idea by looking at the Thing in general. Do you have all the ingredients of your cupcake ready, and the baking method all set to go? If you do, then great – make sure the design is good as well! If not, and if the guests are waiting outside, well, design may become an UnPrime Thing in this scenario. The trickiness to UnPrime Things lie in their general desirability, juxtaposed against that ever-so unfortunate state of the universe, wherein time, energy, and resources are just so darn limited. If the costs are unjustified, sometimes its just vanity.

Prime Things, on the other hand, are a fertile soil of possibilities that pay off for themselves, and more!, in time. They may not be immediately essential in the here and now, but investing in them might bring you tremendous exponential benefits as you go along. Either they cater to some pressing, unmet need in the market (or yourself), they transform an existing way-of-doing-Things into a much-better-way-of-doing-Things, or they bring some crazy existing Things together into a fully-functional, value-adding Thing. UnPrime Things might feel silly as you start to hit brick walls, and sure you can demolish the barriers, but why would you? Prime Things on the other hand, feel more important and weighty as you get to the points of resistance. You can sense the gold mine of value shining deep within the tunnels of procrastination and distractions, and so you dig it deep and press on (or not!).

3) Finishing up the Prime Things

If you get closer to the end goal, and find that your Thing is starting to look more and more like a fluffy, self-indulgent, full-o’-frills UnPrime Thing, you do have the permission to abandon it right away. Or better yet, keep it under wraps, and learn what you can from your brief stint with that short-lived project. Perhaps you can find signs earlier along the way that can help you avoid starting more UnPrime Things and save your time/energy/heart for that which matters. But if your entire being feels more alive despite the challenges and set-backs, feels more keen and eager to head towards completion especially in the face of distractions and temporal urges to procrastinate, then you know that you have found your Prime Thing and you’d better buckle down, seat tight, and fly your rocket all the way to the moon. There’s no stopping you now! Call up a few friends, make yourself accountable (and possibly ashamed in the case of failure) for what you are about to accomplish, review your goals and reasons for the Prime Thing, and then get down to the hard, sweaty, dirty work.

When it comes to the 2nd Hardest Thing to Do, there is no substitute for good ol’ hard work. So for the love of all things good in the universe, get it done.

Moving On

CLF - Olmstead Parks

It’s usually a numbers game; everything in life, that is. How does a tree ensure that baby trees take root and grow? It spreads many seeds. Many, many seeds. After all, most of them land in disadvantageous spots. Some of them don’t land at all. In the end, perhaps only a handful get to sprout. Of these, only one or two really become trees.

When we first start in anything, we tend to be pretty darn horrible at it. We fail so many times, it feels so terrible, and we’re tempted to give up, and throw in the towel completely. But it is at this stage where seed propagation is effective. We’ve nothing much to lose anyway! So go forth, and accumulate as many failures as possible (within understandable boundaries of course).

Like trees we also grow, and learn. Over the course of many centuries and thousands of years, trees would learn what genetic expression would lead to more successful propagation of offspring. Thankfully, we learn a bit faster than these verdant ancients. Our session of failure accumulation was not just for the sake of racking up numbers, but with the experience we’ve gained, we are now able to sit down and analyze what went right and what went wrong. Bit by bit we change, and slowly (or phenomenally, if we hit onto a jackpot strategy!) we see our results improve.

Even then, we still fail. Every once in awhile, we fall hard from quite a height, and it hurts. We could even abandon everything and choose to give up. But if there’s one lesson to bring with us from our newbie days, that’s to keep moving on. If we could pick ourselves up after so many humiliating failures then, why can’t we now? Granted, the stake are higher. Yet, like Rudyard Kipling says,

“…you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss”.

So indeed, if we have gotten that far before, we can do it again, and get even further. All we have to do is mourn and weep for awhile, then dust off that dirt, and keep moving on; because one day, that beautiful tree – that’s going to be us!