Why I am no longer driven

by dominicq5 min read16th Nov 202116 comments

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(cross-posted from my blog, Sunday Stopwatch)

I used to be very driven. I'm talking "wake up at 4 AM, go run with my dog, take a cold shower, study for two hours, go work, meditate, cook, go to MMA practice, read a book before bed" driven. I was very ready to, you know, get after it. As you might notice from the title, this is no longer true. Why?

The first and obvious explanation is that I'm getting older. I have no way of confirming or denying this - it really could be the case that it's some mashup of biological processes that works independently of whatever my subjective experience of life is. But I'm 29, which doesn't seem old at all, so what are the other reasons?

The first reason I can think of is that normal, everyday life is actually difficult. This may be an entirely personal phenomenon, but I find that I semi-consciously categorize my life into two areas: "takes energy" and "doesn't take energy". Things that take energy are the big important things, like studying for some important professional certification or completing a big project or whatever. And things that don't take energy include all the backend admin work: the cooking, the cleaning, the handling of people, the coordinating, the who's gonna take the dog for a walk, the did you remember that we have a family lunch this weekend, and more.

You don't have to be particularly attentive to realize that the "doesn't take energy" category is completely bogus. It's a scam, one that I've willingly enrolled myself into. My general theory for why I've done this to myself is the implicit attitude that if you do things "right", things from this other category shouldn't take time or energy. Like, these are the basics, right, and the basics shouldn't be hard. I don't know, it doesn't make a lot of sense when I look into it, which is why it's a total scam. Things that don't take energy, take energy.

There's something more that's sorta related. Sometimes, you do a thing that "takes energy" and that's it, you've done it, done. But projects usually require maintenance after you do the project itself, so now you have to, again, do the backend admin work. If you study something, you have to apply it or at least go through some flash cards because otherwise, you're losing it. If you train some skill, same thing. If you get promoted, you have a harder baseline job. If you buy a house, congratulations on your second job!

Then there's also the fact that just a basic, regular day isn't always equally draining. If you have some issue at work, you might be tempted to wave it off as a minor hindrance, a minor annoyance, not something worth your energy and attention as you come back home. Because, hey, it's just this silly little thing, I shouldn't be bothered at all. But you can't talk yourself out of a problem you didn't talk yourself into in the first place. So you come home, and sure enough, you have your regular set of things that you're supposed to do now but which don't take energy, but in addition, you've actually, in reality, had a very, very, very difficult day (and you're pretending you didn't because you feel it shouldn't have affected you that much).

So that's one type of explanation. The other one is disillusionment, or, at least, a change of mindset. I can see a change in the type of YouTube video that I can stomach these days. I used to watch those "How I Keep Productive, Work on 15000 Side Hustles, Run 3 Marathons a Day, and Earn 3 Million Dollars A Month" videos and then I stopped. I just can't anymore. And in particular, I can no longer watch stuff that takes inspiration out of fiction. I used to have a small theory that went something like this: you are very affected by the circle of people around you, but it doesn't make that much of a difference if the people are fictional or real.

But these days, when I see someone use Goku or Naruto or some other anime character to prove a point, I'm outta there. I may even press dislike. "You see, Goku trained at 10x the Earth's gravity to get himself ready for the confrontation. Inspired by that, I try to push my own boundaries every day." I just can't take it anymore. I mean, it's probably because that was my thing for a couple of years in my early 20s, so I have a too strong reaction right now, but I really think that drawing inspiration from fictional characters is highly, highly overrated.

This is a weird intro to my main point, but I'm talking about a general sense of disillusionment, or, to be more precise, quitting a sprint mindset. Getting inspired by something is very treacherous because you might institute some new rules for yourself, announce to the world the upcoming changes, and then follow through, burning a lot of willpower in the hope that you're constructing a habit. Sometimes it works. Getting into that "get after it" mode, doing a spiritual-energetic-mental sprint, psyching yourself up for that promise of success, embracing the grind, however sigma it may be, it's pretty bad for long-term results. I mean, maybe someone can pull it off, but I can't. After hundreds of such offensives, I don't trust them anymore.

I've sorta went the opposite route, and it's a weird mixture of individual components that works for me. I don't think I can write an exhaustive list, but I'll name a couple of things: coasting in neutral, introducing a Sabbath, saying no to people close to me, following curiosity, writing things down... There's probably more. If this is interesting, I can write about individual things, but it's just stuff I've stolen from smart people.

Anyway, life is now less intense, but more long-term. It's not a sprint, not even a marathon, it's more like a hike. I am no longer driven, in the sense of biting down hard and getting after it all day every day. I rest more, I take walks, I sometimes skip training sessions, and I respect the energy-draining aspects of mundane stuff. I don't ask myself for superhuman performance anymore because it's a short-sighted ask. And I think I get an equal amount done. Most of all, I don't beat myself up anymore for not performing up to some arbitrarily high standard. Life is forgiving, and it's wise to give yourself the spare energy so that you can actually sprint when life isn't forgiving.

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I notice that the tasks you list as "don't take effort" map closely to how I would describe stereotypes of tasks that are "women's work", and I often see what it takes to remember them and make sure they happen described as "emotional labor". I wonder to what extent the perception of "takes effort" may map to, or stem from, "see it culturally praised/rewarded".

I would be interested in reading more about how you balance the "it's ok to take it easy some/much of the time" mindset with still making good progress on the things you find important, because that's something I struggle with myself. I craft some illusion of balance by fluctuating between being too strict with myself for the sake of productivity and too lenient with myself for various diverse excuses that dress up as good reasons, but I find the stable midpoint quite elusive.

Related--if you can afford a housekeeper even twice a month, do it. 

A note on the metaphor of sprint, marathon, and hike: where you wound up is the only pace associated with carrying any load.

From Antifragile by Nassim Taleb:

Or, if I have to work, I find it preferable (and less painful) to work intensely for very short hours, then do nothing for the rest of the time (assuming doing nothing is really doing nothing), until I recover completely and look forward to a repetition, rather than being subjected to the tedium of Japanese style low-intensity interminable office hours with sleep deprivation. Main course and dessert are separate.

Indeed, Georges Simenon, one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, only wrote sixty days a year, with three hundred days spent “doing nothing.” He published more than two hundred novels.

In America we still have this odd puritan streak in us. People often seem as though they think things must be hard to be worthwhile. I find that if you work deliberately you can achieve great results without a ton of effort. For example, to get in shape I lift a few times a week, but most of it is simply getting enough sleep and not eating a few things that are really bad. 4am runs and cold showers are not my thing, but I’m also aware that I’m not trying to punish myself for my sins, I’m trying to achieve a goal in the easiest way possible. Even that last sentence still registers as lazy! Since you’re smart and curious, you’ll naturally want to optimize and get into the weeds. You can spend years obsessing about investing like I do, or you can beat me by buying an index and moving on. The difference for me is I love investing, and working out is a means to an end. Best of luck to you op

In America, many people are searching for the extreme versions of success, and we've been conditioned to see significantly above average levels of success as the baseline.

Drake meme:

  • Working out, sleeping well, and eating reasonably to stay in shape = meh
  • Having 8 pack abs, 20" biceps & being able to 360 dunk a basketball = YEAH, that's what I'm talkin' bout!

If you're going to have extreme success, I think it often takes some extreme variables in the equation. That might be extreme talent (or extreme wealth or extreme-ly valuable personal/professional networks), such that extreme work isn't required.

But sometimes extreme work and discipline is necessary if you want to achieve extreme results.

You may decide at some point you no longer value obtaining some extreme result enough to continue it's pursuit. I think that's wise, as I've found the cost is too high and life is too short.

I feared greatly that this was a letter of complaint, and the final paragraph soothes me.

I don't know where you live, but a great deal of cultures emphasize hard work, or to put it in <100 subscriber Fitness Youtuber terms, Grindset. Put succinctly, this state of mind that you must be working 100% of the time  to have worth is complete... bullshit? I'm new here, I should probably have been given a handbook. Am I allowed to swear? Irregardless, life is a lot of balancing doing nothing and doing everything, and often times neither option makes sense and just confuddles further. I'm happy you've found some solace in this matter.

Am I allowed to swear?

Fuck yeah, but please don't say "irregardless"

"burning a lot of willpower in the hope that you're constructing a habit. Sometimes it works"

Interesting post! I'm wondering what your goal is or what your goals are. I recognize your situation a bit, I think. 
I studied Aristotles Nicomachean Ethics and Rawls A theory of justice, and feminism through an university, and this helped me somewhat... I also did alot of therapy. 
Do you have any philosophical goals?!

Motivational videos, speeches and self-help books are essentially modern forms of letters of indulgence - first, they convince you that you're a "sinner", that your life sucks, that you have achieved nothing but failure and are inadequate as a human being. But lo! For the low, low price of $24.99 and a healthy dose of metaphorical self-flagellation, you get to experience the warm fuzzy feeling of redemption and rebirth as a better self.

I'm sure if you just got up 2 hours earlier every day, worked harder, became more disciplined - if you embraced the grind - you could have made it into nobility as a medieval peasant. /s

Reality doesn't give two shits about your penitence.

I think this is an uncharitable strawman of motivational and self help materials.

Is there stuff out there that's trying to get you to buy something that doesn't really help? Yes. Is there also stuff out there that people find transforms theirs lives because it helps them have insights that unstick them from their problems that they couldn't unstick themselves from? Absolutely. Evidence: me and lots of people claiming this.

What you advise might work for some, but for others suck forced action would actually make the situation worse! I know this has been the case for me at times: forcing myself to "grind" actually made the problem worse over time rather than better.

What you advise might work for some, but for others suck forced action would actually make the situation worse! I know this has been the case for me at times: forcing myself to "grind" actually made the problem worse over time rather than better.

I advised no such thing, notice the /s at the end.

Absolutely. Evidence: me and lots of people claiming this.

If anecdotal evidence was the standard to be judged by, alternative medicine would be bloody miracle cures - plenty of patients swear it works. And in the absence of empirical data, it's your anecdotal evidence against my anecdotal evidence. I had no intention of being charitable as I think it's a complete snake-oil industry, Tai Lopez & Co. just made it ridiculously obvious in recent years. It doesn't even require practitioners to be consciously ill-intentioned.

Of course, if you see the emotional porn aspect as the product in itself, then there's nothing wrong with it. But I doubt that's what buyers were looking for.

I advised no such thing, notice the /s at the end.

I guess I'm not cool enough to know what that means. Just looks like a typo to me. 🤷

If anecdotal evidence was the standard to be judged by, alternative medicine would be bloody miracle cures - plenty of patients swear it works. And in the absence of empirical data, it's your anecdotal against my anecdotal evidence. I had no intention of being charitable as I think it's a complete snake-oil industry, Tai Lopez & Co. just made it ridiculously obvious in recent years imo. It doesn't even require practitioners to be consciously ill-intentioned.

You make a claim that "[m]otivational videos, speeches and self-help books are essentially modern forms of letters of indulgence", and seem to back it up by saying that there's folks whose experience of self help is that it just makes you feel good and takes your money without offering anything in return. But this is just opinion and conjecture. The strongest evidence you offer is an example of "Tai Lopez & Co.", who I'm not familiar with, that you say "made it ridiculously obvious in recent years [that's it's complete snake-oil]".

Anecdotal evidence is not necessarily the standard to judge by, but anecdotal evidence is sufficient to suggest we cannot dismiss something out of hand. To your point about alternative medicine, that some people find things work means it's worthy of study, not that it can simply be dismissed. And sometimes what looks like alternative medicine, to take your point, turns out to be real medicine or just inefficient medicine (for example, people eating molds containing antibiotics or drinking tea made with witch hazel rather than taking aspirin).

It's fine to have your opinion that self help and motivational videos are not helpful, but my claim is that you're not taking seriously the case for things like self help that lots of people think work, including lots of people on this site, and this lack of charity seems to be resulting in a failure to even consider evidence (which to be fair I'm not providing to you, but your position seems to be rejecting even a willingness to consider the possibility that self-help might work, which means you seem to have already written the bottom line.)

I think most of this is just aging, and is normal.  I associate that "challenge the world as hard as you can" mentality with testosterone and with teenage boys (who are very high in testosterone).  It's a good mindset to have when you're starting out and need to make a place for yourself in the world.

At 29, you have (hopefully) established yourself a bit but are still young enough to be attractive to women.  Your instincts are probably telling you (through the medium of lowered testosterone) that it's time to settle down and raise some kids.  Circle of life and all that.

I felt sad, like a sense of mourning, from this, and some sense of a "pregnant dusk" in a hopeful way.

I used to be very driven. I'm talking "wake up at 4 AM, go run with my dog, take a cold shower, study for two hours, go work, meditate, cook, go to MMA practice, read a book before bed" driven.

That sounds sick. Also, potentially very useful, since akrasia is a bottleneck. Any tips on getting yourself in the state where you do that regularly, besides watching DragonBall Z?