Motivation from Solitude
I’ve been in a period of enforced solitude, which is hard for me to bear because my summer was socially excellent. I was out in the sun almost every day, forming connections with the people at the local Starbucks and marveling at the variety of life experience that had opened to me. Then a few weeks ago, it got cold, and the economy started sinking into the mire; as a result a lot of us are hunkering down for a tough winter. My mood has not been helped by the nature of the computer programming work I’m doing either, as it demands such intense concentration that my personality essentially fades away. I’ve developed a bad case of programmer-face, which is that impassive, mask-like expression with deadened eyes. Friends have actually stopped to ask if I’m OK, because they’re not used to seeing me like this.
solitude: the inside vantage point
On the bright side, an interesting thing about this period of solitude is that with the absence of the social pleasantries has come a recognition that I need to re-establish my self-reliance in facing certain life questions. Since no one else is around, I’m the only one available to address the following awful truths:
- I’m bored with the immediate life possibilities.
- I’m not really fulfilled by the kind of work I’m doing.
- I’m still lonely despite having lots of great friends. Lots!
It’s only been in the quiet of my isolated state that I could even hear these questions echo around the inside my head. The summer, fraught with pleasant distractions, kept me from worrying too much about them.
In a past life, I would have been kind of mad about being distracted from tackling those big life questions. Being somewhat mellower now, I recognize that these “distractions” are actually the aspect of living that I value most. I’ve been so serious, speculatively concerned, and too darn anxious about not getting things right. It’s easy to develop this kind of tunnel vision, I think, when one allows external expectations (social, cultural, or otherwise) to out-weigh the importance of letting life happen around you. I’m sure that for many people this is a pretty obvious observation, but I think some of my fellow procrastinators and perfectionists might understand what I’m saying.
the corrective action
There are two forces that normally battle within me: the desire for taking control of my life and the desire for inspiration and calling. The former is a rational/control-based desire, and the latter is more about feelings and emotions. The desire to steer my life in a self-beneficial manner is all about control and reason, while the desire for inspiration is more like that summery feeling blowing me to wherever it might take me. I can see that I really want to integrate them together.
The first step that comes to mind is to reframe both desires as one principle: Inspiration and hope can come from anywhere, but answers and action have to come from inside of me. This leads to the following line of reasoning:
- I’m bored? Do something to create new possibilities to break the cycle of ennui.
- My work feels lacking? Make bolder choices about the kind of work I believe will be fulfilling.
- I feel isolated? Make an effort to be involved in people’s lives.
This is a simple and concrete diagnosis, but it’s much easier said than done.
taking on motivation
For me, the main obstacle is the lack of motivation. For example, I’ve been feeling really blah for the past couple of weeks, and it was really affecting my mood at the few social events I’ve attended that should have been a lot of fun. I spent a good chunk of a day sitting on a giant warm sunny rock in the mountains with some of my best friends enjoying wine, aged artisan cheeses and gourmet fruit tarts. And that very same day, 100 miles south, I was in Harvard Square with my awesome sister in a beautiful church listening to Sarah Vowell read from her latest book, followed by yummy pan-asian food at Wagamama and a taste of fresh yogurt and berries from Berryline. It should have been a perfect day, yet it was not. And what sucked even more was that I didn’t know why I felt that way.
A few days later, reflecting on this sad turn of events, I impulsively indulged in some self-pity and lamented out loud, I am so lame. The very next instant, the truthfulness of the statement stuck: I was being lame, and I had subconsciously known this for weeks.
This was very liberating, and here’s why: I have a very strong aversion to the mediocre, which is something that I’d forgotten until recently. Being lame is a form of mediocrity, or perhaps more accurately mediocrity as a value promotes lameness. I’m being a little loose with the definition here, but what I’m saying is that I believe I was withdrawing from the world because I intuitively knew I was being lame, and therefore was not doing anything to raise the level of “interesting” around me. I had found the bottom of my well of personal values, and having landed, I could now look up and see how far I had to climb to get out.
There are two familiar motivation-killers that stand in the way of getting out of my well of lameness: uncertainty and fear. I don’t want to waste my time doing something that I don’t know will pay off, and that uncertainty leads to anxiety. I also don’t want to lose what I already have, so that creates timidity and more hesitation. This all manifests as a kind of low-level fear and desire to cling to people. And this is preventing me from changing my life, charging ahead to try something really different that could very well lead to a more interesting life.
forging two new rules
While I could self-prescribe a number of concrete “action items” to manage my way out of the doldrums, I know it won’t work for me because this is a form of deferral. Next actions, while immediately doable, are just steps along the way to a larger goal in the future. This is a delayed reward, and I just am not wired to appreciate small steps despite their proven effectiveness. And if I’m not wired for this, a plan comprised of next actions serve as a very poor motivator when it comes to a team consisting of me, myself, and I.
Fortunately, I happen to also know that I am strongly value and character driven. So the answer to my conundrum of being bored and lonely will come from following this simple rule:
Face down those fears every day by daring to do something that creates something new and positive.
This is a value that I believe in, and by facing fear I am building up own character. That’s pretty cool! And to acknowledge that small steps eventually yield great rewards, I can face small fears: helping out an acquaintance despite some imagined inconvenience, for example. It could also be writing a blog post, or replying to an email. Maybe it’s planting a flower, or giving someone an idea that they make their own. The only criterion I have is that whatever it is, it should leaves a tangible mark or impression–large or small–on the real world. That is worth doing, and it is a role I want to play.
The second simple rule is possibly even more important:
Lighten up, don’t be so serious, and remember most things are not of dire importance.
If I’m following this rule right, then what I do will be uplifting and fun for everyone around me. This is the feeling of a warm summer sun, lunching on a big rock in the mountains, celebrating and promoting those moments of life that make it really worth while.
So that’s where I’m at right now, and I’m pretty danged sure that this is the right way to go.