J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Category: Metaprogramming (Page 2 of 19)

How To Reconcile Gratitude and Ambition (and a pitch for charity:water)

I focus a lot on gratitude. If I don’t, I’m a miserable ass. I’ve written before about how gratitude is my emotional force multiplier.

I have so much to be grateful for. Good health, family, friends, interesting things to do, various artistic and career successes. But if my life sucked (and it has sucked at times), I would try to be grateful, for anything I had. Each working limb and organ. Being a conscious-aware being. Our sun, Earth’s atmosphere.

There’s something exhilarating about extreme gratitude. It’s freeing. No matter how much life beats you down, there you are, feeling pretty good because you’re not six feet under. We all have the right to enjoy life regardless of our circumstances. Practicing gratitude is the means to that end.

It’s not that we can always choose to be happy (at least I can’t). Sometimes the cocktail of hormones, neurotransmitters, and brain architecture that influences consciousness leaves us feeling bleak. But the choice is always there to detach our feelings from our external circumstances, or to reframe our circumstances in such a way that we feel fortunate. That’s what detachment means, in the spiritual sense. Not that you don’t care, but that your internal state becomes independent of your external circumstances. Unhooked. Free-floating. Detached.

Ambition

I have a strong, well-developed ego. I want things. I have well-defined goals and I work towards them systematically. Why? Partly nature, partly nurture. Mostly, I think, I’ve chosen ambition as a life path. I like the dopamine rush. I like working towards things, the sensation of progress.

At times being ambitious has made me less happy, given me feelings of being less than. It’s an easy trap to fall into, basing your self-worth on what you’ve achieved. Regarding people who have achieved more than you as better, those who have achieved less as worse.

Is it possible to want more while still appreciating what you have, feeling that it’s enough? For me it is, as long as I remember that it’s the pursuit of my goals that makes me feel good, not achieving them (though of course that’s nice too).

I try to center my identity around my values and actions, things that are well within my control. No matter how many goals I achieve, those things won’t change. I am what I commit to, not what I accomplish.

Does being humble and grateful and satisfied with what you already have make you less effective at achieving your goals. Less hungry? I don’t think so. Gratitude and ambition can easily coexist. Listen to the words of Demian Maia before his fight with Carlos Condit. “I am already an accomplished fighter.” “I have plenty of wins.” Determined and confident, but also filled with humility and gratitude and a sense of enough, Maia proceeded to choke out one of the most dangerous men in the world in less than two minutes.

Of course real world achievement is important. It’s how we make positive changes in our lives, families, communities, and societies. But we shouldn’t hold our own happiness hostage to what we manage to get done. Be happy regardless, by appreciating what’s already there.

An Example

Scott Harrison does a good job of being grateful and ambitious at the same time. He’s grateful to all the donors who have supported his personal and organizational goal of bringing clean water to the world’s poorest communities. But he’s ambitious too — he wants to get more monthly donors, expand operations, help more people. I’ve supported charity:water on a monthly basis for years, and I’ll continue to do so. Not only do they dig new wells, but they monitor existing wells, involve the local community, and implement sustainable models. Access to clean water improves health, frees up time for education and earning money (especially for women and girls), and increases basic human dignity.

Please take a few minutes to watch the video below (warning: some of it is hard to watch). If the white savior narrative bothers you (or the clubbing is bad subtext), please ignore both. In real life, charity:water brings clean water to millions of people, in verifiable and sustainable ways. Charity Navigator gives them 4 stars, a 92.5/100 rating. It’s the real deal. Please join me in supporting their work on a monthly basis, at whatever rate you can afford.

And be limitlessly grateful for all the wonderful things in your life and the world, and terrifyingly ambitious about improving those aspects that are less than wonderful.

 

Let Me Mansplain Male Power To You

Mane power.

Mane power.

What gives men more power (more privilege, higher status, higher salaries) than women? Obviously that isn’t the case everywhere, all the time. There are plenty of situations, microcommunities, and interactions where women have and yield more power than men. But generally, walking around in most countries, men are safer, richer, and more free than women. Why?

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“Persistment” (My Take on “Grit”)

I like the psychological concept of grit, which corresponds roughly with perseverance, and even more closely with conscientiousness (one of the “Big Five” personality traits). Popularized most recently by Angela Duckworth in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, the concept has been around at least since the early 1900’s. Grit, unlike natural genius, can to some extent be learned, and its application is more important than intelligence in terms of life success and fulfillment.

My own mental hurdle with this concept is that the word grit literally makes me think of someone gritting their teeth and just pushing, pushing, pushing, like Conan on the Wheel of Pain.

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Obviously Conan is just going in a circle, getting nowhere (though he is getting stronger and bigger). That can be the problem with brute force persistence too — you might get mentally tough but at the same time not make any progress.

For that reason I substitute the word persistment (persistence + improvement) for grit. It’s not as catchy, but it works to remind me that there are two parts to self-propelled success. Willful stubbornness will get you only so far. You have to actively get better.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my take on what it takes to create on a day-to-day basis (inspiration, daily practice, quality control, a learning system). What I didn’t really address was the mindset of the creative life. Where does the motivation come from? What should you do if you don’t “naturally” feel motivated to spring out of bed and spend hours wrestling with your medium to create something that may or may not end up good, meaningful, and/or profitable?

What is persistment (or grit, if you prefer) in terms of developing an artistic/creative career, or just living that kind of life?

Know (and Feel) Your Why

I’m talking about purpose. We get to choose if we want to dedicate our lives to something, and what that something is. For me it’s mostly about creating works that entertain others (and hopefully also inspire, fascinate, etc.). Life happens whether or not we assign or ascribe purpose to it, but I appreciate the additional agency that choosing a purpose provides. If you don’t reflect on and define your own raison d’etre, it’s too easy to get swept up in other people’s agendas, becoming a pawn in games of people craftier and more powerful than yourself.

Purpose doesn’t need to be complicated or grand. But it needs to be yours. The only requirement is that whatever you choose has a deep personal, emotional resonance. What do you care about, more than anything?

Know Where You’re Going (a Main Goal and a Plan)

For many years all I wanted was to be a successful dance music producer. That goal sustained me for my early adult life. I had a great run, publishing music on my favorite labels, co-running my own label, landing big licensing deals, co-promoting a famous San Francisco event, touring internationally as a DJ, and even quitting my technology work for a few years and paying my mortgage with only music income.

While I still love running Loöq and making music in the studio, that career has mostly run its course (probably). I no longer want to DJ, spend lots of time in airports, or participate in big dance music events, and those things are kind of required for next-level success as a producer. I won’t say I’m too old, because there are people older than me still loving it, still working the CDJs and pumping their fists in the air. But I was ready to try to something else. There’s no rule that says you can only do one thing your entire life.

I floundered, somewhat directionless, for a few years. That was a little rough. I continued to support myself and act like a responsible adult, but I didn’t have any big picture or vision for my career or creative drive.

Now I have my sights set on being a novelist. While there are many acceptable definitions of “novelist,” for me it means getting published with a reputable publisher, selling thousands of books, and making some income (though not necessarily quitting my freelance work).

I can’t promise you I’ll get there, but it’s where I’m aiming. It feels great to be headed in a specific direction, no longer floundering. I’ve committed.

(And if you’re a novelist trying to make it a dance music producer, we should get in touch and trade tips.)

Deconstruct Blockedness/Poor Performance

I enjoyed this lecture by Alan Watkins:

Watkins makes some interesting distinctions between sensation, emotion, and feelings. What he’s getting at is that we can’t just look at behavior and try to force ourselves to do better. We need to go deeper, and deconstruct what’s happening at a physiological level, then work our way back up the chain.

Same goes for “writer’s block.” If you feel blocked, deconstruct your blockedness. If you’re mildly depressed, fix your brain. If you don’t know what to write, then back up, brainstorm, outline, write what you’re going to write. If you don’t know how to write what you want to write, then do some research, study some examples, get some advice, take a class, etc. Same applies, in slightly different ways, to other creative fields.

Incremental Goals and Rewards

A friend of mine does something nice for herself every time she gets something published. I think that’s a great habit. Why not reinforce success?

But getting published isn’t within our control, and it doesn’t necessarily happen frequently. It’s important to also reward yourself for incremental progress, for setting and achieving a target. That could be meeting your daily quota, finishing a draft, or submitting a piece for publication.

Even if these actions don’t result in immediate external success (getting published, getting paid, getting famous, receiving awards, etc.) you should still count them as personal successes, and reward the behavior. Because you need to keep doing those behaviors to have any chance at external success.

So train yourself like a chicken, and condition yourself to do the things you want to be doing.

Frame Rejection as Feedback, and Progress

We all know rejection is part of the game. But that doesn’t mean you have to let it get to you. Ideally rejection should have a neutral emotional quality. Rejection is feedback, information. It can tell you any of the following:

  • that your work needs to improve
  • how your work can improve
  • that your work doesn’t fit the market you submitted it to
  • they don’t yet know who you are (reputation and connections matter)

I track my rejections, both for logistical purposes (so I don’t submit the same piece to the same outlet), but also as a measure of how much work I’ve put in.

For whatever reason, rejections no longer sting as much. Sometimes, they have a silver lining (when your work makes it out of the slush pile and the editor actually reads it, when you get personalized feedback or a nice comment).

I don’t know if I can explain exactly how to not take rejection personally. It helps having my first published story. It helps having clear successes in other areas of my life. Maybe most importantly, it helps to remember that rejection is about the work, and your progress, not you as a person.

What’s your take on grit, as it applies to the creative life? How do you nurture your own motivation?

Success Will Break You (Until It Forges You)

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Conor McGregor just threw a wrench in his own works (if you haven’t been following the drama, McGregor refused to show up for a press conference in Vegas, was cut from UFC 200, and subsequently tweeted his own retirement). He probably didn’t mean for things to grind to such a complete halt, but as he posted on Facebook, the demands of press and promotion were detracting from his training regimen.

Basically, he cracked. He couldn’t handle the pressure of simultaneously training and promoting, and he chose training. Unfortunately for him, the UFC demands both.

I don’t bring up the example to pick on McGregor. Everyone who pursues a dream will break at some point.

It’s too much. I can’t do it. I’m done.

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How to Expand Your Cognitive Toolkit

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In this video Stephen Fry calls himself an empiricist. I’m often entertained by Stephen Fry, and empiricism is probably the most useful system of thought invented by human beings to date, but calling yourself an empiricist is akin to calling yourself a wrench.

What do you do when you need to drive a nail through some wood? You could use a wrench, but it’s not the best tool for the job.

Systems of thought are tools. Depending on the problem you want to solve or the goal you want to achieve, you’ll need to use multiple tools in your cognitive toolkit.

This is an idea I keep coming back to. In this 2010 post I looked at empiricism, rationalism, and subjectivism. In this follow up post I wrote about intuition and network analysis as thinking modes, and the third post in the series looks at evolutionary algorithms for problem solving. A more recent post summarizes a number of thinking modes in the context of flexible, persistent problem solving.

Cognitive flexibility is important because it allows us to approach problems and goals in different ways, and pick the best tool  for the job (or use multiple tools, the right one for each part of the job).

But how do you switch modes? Sometimes it’s straightforward, sometimes less so. The list below includes tactics (questions, actions, etc.) for cognitive mode switching (in no particular order). I’ve noted what I think is the core mode in brackets, but many of these tactics could apply to multiple modes. If this list gives you more ideas, please add them in the comments.

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What Makes a Good Coach?

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Photo by Carl R. Jr.

I became interested in the topic of coaching after reading this excellent article in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande, published in 2011. Gawande, a skilled and well-respected surgeon, noticed that he had more or less stopped improving at surgery. Instead of coasting, he chose the path of self-improvement and hired a coach (a retired surgeon and mentor). Though his decision raised some eyebrows in the O.R. (it’s unusual for a practicing surgeon to use a coach), Gawande found numerous areas for small, incremental improvements (how he positioned his elbows, how his lights were placed). This was true even for operations he had successfully performed hundreds of times.

Since then I’ve offered pro-bono coaching services in various areas to a few friends. I was curious … would I enjoy it? Would I be good at it? I did enjoy it, and I think in each case my coaching services were helpful (though not enormously helpful).

Recently I met with a professional business coach, Ellen Ercolini, to learn more about coaching, both as a craft and as a profession. Ellen specializes in helping entrepreneurs and lifestyle businesses* make more money. Unexpectedly, the second half of our meeting turned into an impromptu coaching session for me (my career goals, strategy, how I present myself online, etc.). A short session with a highly-skilled professional coach made me realize just how powerful an insightful coach can be. I left the meeting inspired, and within 48 hours took action on several major projects I’d been putting off (including transitioning this blog from wordpress.com to a self-hosted wordpress.org plugin).

Meeting with Ellen also helped me understand just how deep coaching can go. Not only does Ellen have detailed comprehensive systems in place (both for her own coaching process, and for her clients to implement within their own businesses), but she has a method for categorizing the personality types of her clients, and a corresponding set of motivational/behavioral modification techniques for each type.

Reflecting on what I’ve learned about coaching to date, here’s my current list of what it takes to a be a good coach in a particular area:

  1. A deep understanding of the technical aspects of the craft/sport/business/activity, usually acquired through many years of experience.
  2. A well-tested, constantly-refined teaching system or program (exercises and lessons that result in incremental skill improvement).
  3. The desire and ability to observe closely and provide helpful feedback.
  4. The desire and ability to understand different personality types and what methods and communication style motivates each type.

My “A-ha!” moment was realizing that I personally lack the desire to try and understand what approaches best motivate different types of people. I’m interested in motivation in the abstract (especially for my fictional characters), but the nitty-gritty of applying various psychological techniques to motivate other people just isn’t my thing. It doesn’t fascinate me. It does fascinate people like Ellen Ercolini (for her, I think, clients are like puzzles waiting to be solved), and that’s a big part of what makes her an effective coach.

Hiring a Coach

I’m definitely open to the idea of hiring a writing coach, but first I want to experience what it’s like to work with a professional editor. Editing and coaching have some overlapping areas (another thing that Gawande discusses in the New Yorker article), and a good editor may function something like a coach. I’ll report back once I have more to share.

Would I hire a coach in another area? If I get more serious about racquetball, I would consider it, but at the moment I’m learning in leaps and bounds from watching youtube videos and getting tips from more experienced players. Same with chess. But if/when I hit a plateau, hiring a coach will be my first move if I wanted to break through to the next skill level.

Have you hired a personal coach? For what? Was it helpful? I would really like to know.

*  What does lifestyle business mean? It’s a controversial term, sometimes used derogatorily to refer to businesses that aren’t startups (businesses that aren’t trying to massively scale and maximize revenue at any cost). I use the term with a positive connotation — a profitable business that doesn’t entirely take over your life. As 37 Signals co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson points out, the direct correlation between hours worked and income is an antiquated notion. In the modern economy you can work very little and makes gobs of money, or vice versa. There is no virtue (or even necessarily profit) in overwork. I consider my own freelance database consulting to be a lifestyle business; I work <20 hours a week and have time to write fiction, write this blog, spend as much time as I want in the music studio, spend time with my family and friends, and play tabletop RPG games. I’ve been asked why I haven’t jumped into the startup game (I have technical skills, I know people in the startup world, I live in the Bay Area). Because I like my life, and I don’t need more money.

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