Ball-bouncing & homework

I’ve been exploring this idea of motivation again as it relates to the kinds of tasks I’ve tasked myself with doing on any given day. There’s a new feeling that is starting to supplant the more familiar resistance. This new feeling still feels kind of nascent and amorphous, but it’s this idea that the tasks that I do are…neutral.

The stigma associated with some tasks — the ones which in the past have provoked resistance or procrastination — seems to be dissolving. It feels like there’s a simplicity to it. Like: this is what’s here for me to do, I can do it, and there’s no drama associated with it. Like what’s the worst that could happen, right?

A lot of the resistance was associated with disapproval — and shame. And lately I’m just not feeling that as strongly. So I do the best I can with what’s in front of me. Then I rely on the momentum in the systems I’ve built. I’ve engineered these hacks to propel me forward.

A good example would be this task I set before myself recently to send out some query letters to agents. I can feel that old resistance, that fear, which takes the form of myriad thoughts: What’s gonna happen?

Or: What if they say they’re interested? Then suddenly I have to write a whole manuscript. That’s a crap-ton of work! And blah, blah, blah. On it goes.

Or, on the flip side: What if my premise isn’t strong enough?

Now, it’s more like: I’ll do the best job I can with it. It becomes more important to get it off my to-do list than to marinate in all these speculations on what might happen. I’m starting to feel more the simple joy of getting a task off my to-do list. I can do this in good faith.

This attitude is comparable to the one I had when I was at school or doing a job. In those situations, I had all of these external factors that drove expectations of what needed to be done and their deadlines. So I did the best job I  could given those constraints. Then it was on to the next task, trusting that what I’m doing is going to be good enough.

I have lots of experience doing that. Yet when it comes to my own projects there’s always been this void of uncertainty or shame or doubt that interrupts that simple operation.

Mamba Mentality, Kid Version

I just finished reading Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Mentality. The book consists of a series of loosely organized observations and anecdotes about his basketball career. The overriding theme, loosely put, was that he was tremendously motivated to excel, to be the best, to win. And he was constantly working to improve himself. He had an intense drive to succeed at the highest level.

One interesting thing that stuck with me comes at the very beginning. In the prologue, Bryant shares the first time he touched a basketball.

Slight tangent — a word he used stood out for me. He describes the surface of the ball as having a “pebble” grain. I love that use of the word pebble. I’d never hear someone describing the surface of a basketball that way. It perfectly captures the feeling of it.

Anyway, he describes how he fell in love with the feeling of bouncing the ball. And I realized that  many long, masterful careers can be based on just a very simple joy. Not a pleasure, but a joy of doing something fundamental. If anything, any vocation needs to have that core. It’s childlike, the joy of a three-year-old bouncing a ball, which stays with them and becomes a massive foundation — massive is the wrong way to describe it. It’s a kind of alchemy, a spell that grows. Or to mix metaphors, it’s a seed that grows into a huge banyan tree of a career.

I’m sure there were a lot of other joys that Bryant got from playing basketball. He also worked out with ironclad regularity and ferocity. If I recall, in his recent documentary, Arnold Schwarzenegger talks about the joy of the pump — that feeling of the pump.

I felt that joy with soccer. I could spend hours kicking a ball against a wall over and over again. That feeling it inspired — the tension of the insole meeting the ball. The rebound off the wall. The rhythm of it was captivating and soothing at the same time.

I felt that too with writing. When I look back on doing writing homework in primary school, I recall that feeling of joy of in crafting a series of sentences, one after the other. The joy of bringing a scene to life. There was probably some constraint — like we had to use certain vocabulary words or grammatical structures or whatever. The constraints only increased the joy.

I believe I was writing about knights — single sentences about nights. That feeling was comparable to kicking a soccer ball off a wall. It’s the essence of what it means to write.

You choose a short string of words in sequence that have to conform to certain basic grammatical and syntactical constraints, in the same way that to kick a ball, you have to have a certain basic coordination and aptitude. There’s a physics to it, as well as a skill to it.

That simple joy has the power to carry you on a long, often arduous journey to mastery. So it’s vital to be in touch with that joy in the simple act at all times, really. It’s the heart of motivation.

That’s the intrinsic part. But there was also an extrinsic element that was just as important. I thrived in school — with the external motivations, with the structure that was around me.

I don’t know why I didn’t rebel against it, even at a young age, given all the ambivalences, the traumas, the anguish I experienced. School was a haven, I guess, in part because I excelled at it. I was special there. It came easily to me. I took pride in it.

And I was striving for a kind of perfection there. I was annoyed when I got one wrong on a quiz. I wanted to get a hundred percent correct. That really drove me.

These extrinsic structures supported the intrinsic motivation, which was, at its core, an intellectual curiosity. I was lucky. For a lot of kids, school is oppressive. But for me, for some reason, I thrived in it. 

And I feel that same joy rekindled with this motivation hack stuff — like Focusmate, Beeminder, and Boss as a Service. I’ve recreated a school environment where I want to get a 100, where I’m driven to achieve mastery.

Case in point. I missed my first Focusmate session last night. The automated Focusmate system gently reprimanded me for my lapse. It annoyed me that my attendance score is now 95% instead of 100%.

But they’ve engineered the score well in that it only tracks the last 20 of your sessions. So your score isn’t tainted forever. If you can persist and attend successfully the next 20 sessions, your score will return to 100%.

It’s this thing now I’m highly motivated to do. It’s trivial — silly even — on one level, but it works for me.

To revisit where I began, it’s liberating to let go of all the drama associated with doing a task in front of me. And this environment I’ve recently created for myself protects and nurtures a fundamental joy in doing the simple things.

It feels like a pretty powerful combination.

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