I sat alone in my stark office burnt out, defeated, waving the proverbial white flag in my mind. I spent the past 18 months working 60+ hour work weeks and investing thousands of dollars of savings to launch an ecommerce site, driven to quit the rat race and finally travel the world.
Surrounding me were inspirational quotes, posters, white boards scribbled with goals, a vision board, and anything else I could gather to keep myself motivated over the past year. Every morning I watched motivational videos on YouTube to jump-start my day. I wrote my goals down every night. I read any book I could get my hands to keep myself inspired. And I had a burning desire to prove the doubters around me that I was going to make it. Yet after a year and a half of nonstop work, I was tapped out. My tank was wiped dry and didn’t have the energy to continue any longer.
As painful as that experience was, I wasn’t a stranger to it. Not even close. This was an ongoing trend throughout my twenties. I’d find some shiny business opportunity and work at it non-stop for a 12 – 18 months. Frustrated with the lack of results and wiped of energy to see the business to fruition, I’d eventually sputter out. Give it a few months to recover, then wash rinse and repeat to the next golden opportunity. I’m sure you’re no stranger to this common trap. It’s far too easy for our tanks to run out of gas well before we’ve achieved anything substantial.
Oftentimes success is the result of staying the course and being okay seeing little to no results for a long, long stretch of time. Eventually, if you chip away at your project long enough the results will come and things start snowballing from there. The challenge lies in getting through the arduous slow growth phase. To some degree, we all realize this. We all know it’s those that stuck around while others quit that made the difference. Yet if we all know what it takes, why are so few of us able to make it happen?
Why Motivation Is Overrated
Many point towards a lack of motivation as the culprit. If only we had more fire under our bellies we’d plow through the plateaus to reach the finish line. But the truth is, motivation is overrated. It’s a feeling. And like any other feeling, the experience is fleeting. Feelings are fluid, ever-changing, and a reflection of the circumstances we happen to be thrown in.
We’re plenty motivated at the start of any new endeavor. The novelty, the excitement, the dreams of success so vivid in our minds – it’s hard not to be. Yet give it a bit of time and lackluster results, and like clockwork that feeling will start to unravel And just like that, we’re lost. If we’re looking to stay the course over the long haul, it’s foolish to depend on such an unreliable source to keep our motors running.
Our source of energy needs to come from a deeper, more sustainable place. If you want to make your dent in the universe, you don’t have a choice. The journey is too long, too challenging not to. Malcom Gladwell’s describes it as putting in your 10,000 hours. Joseph Campbell calls it The Road of Trials. Whatever you call it, this path will test every inch of your sanity and if you’re riding on motivation alone, the house will win.
Ask yourself a simple question. Could you stomach 10 straight years chipping away at your project with zero results to show for it? Could you make it through the confusion, the self-doubt, the frustration, all the fears that’ll be thrown at you along the way? This video outlines incredible individuals who were able to do so.
“Marie Curie spent seven years in poverty in Paris while she studied and researched radioactivity. Michael Faraday worked as a lab assistant for seven years too before he was allowed to do his own experiments. Steven King wrote every day for nine years before he even sold his first novel. And John Coltrane practiced the saxophone feverishly every single day for seventeen years before he even got his first big hit in 1960.”
Were these individuals more motivated than their peers? I don’t believe so. Their drive was coming from a much deeper place, a source of strength few of us have tasted.
Most people chase carrots. Whether that’s money, status, proving others wrong, winning over competition, making family proud. Whatever the case may be, they depend on some external source to drive them forward. Don’t get me wrong. That’s all well and good. But it’s like a shot of espresso. It’ll surge you in the short term, but if that’s all you’re running off of you’re going to burn out. You can’t put in your 10,000 hours off espresso shots alone.
The Secret Of Success
The most successful individuals I’ve come across had a natural itch within themselves they couldn’t help but scratch. It’s an inborn, ever-present urge that isn’t subject to the winds of the outside world. Excitement can come and go… Fears can come and go… Frustrations can come and go… Short-term results can be rocky… Yet amidst it all, that urge remains. It’s an itch that simply needed to be scratched, not for any sake but that. John Coltrane had the itch. Steven King had the itch. Marie Curie had the itch. That’s what got them through their own Road of Trials.
Steve Jobs talks talked about this in a famous 2007 interview for the D5 Conference:
“People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing and it’s totally true. And the reason is because it’s so hard that if you don’t, any rational person would give up. It’s really hard. And you have to do it over a sustained period of time. So if you don’t love it, if you’re not having fun doing it, you don’t really love it, you’re going to give up. And that’s what happens to most people, actually. If you really look at the ones that ended up, you know, being “successful” in the eyes of society and the ones that didn’t, oftentimes, it’s the ones [who] were successful loved what they did so they could persevere, you know, when it got really tough. And the ones that didn’t love it quit because they’re sane, right? Who would want to put up with this stuff if you don’t love it?”
Bolting out of bed every morning to run to your project… Staying up just a few hours before bed to put the final touches on it… Forgetting about lunch being swept away with work… Most would think this is the result of motivation. But oftentimes it’s a natural reflection of doing work you love; giving that natural urge inside yourself the freedom to express itself to the world. And when that happens, it brings with it a mountain of energy you couldn’t have tapped into otherwise. That’s why it’s silly to ask how to stay motivated. If you need to ask yourself that question, you’re in the wrong line of work to begin with.
One of India’s greatest saints Ramana Maharshi was known to go long periods of time without eating, lost in the delight of meditation. Some would call it fasting, but to him it was something that happened as a result of doing what he loved. He once said, “I didn’t eat, and they said I was fasting.” In the same way, all the traits of success (hard work, perseverance, focus) simply happen when you’ve found your itch, not something that needs to be forced. In order to make it through The Road of Trials, acting great isn’t enough. You need to be great.
So find your itch. In his book Mastery, Robert Greene describes this as discovering as your Life’s Task.
“At your birth a seed is planted. That seed is your uniqueness. It wants to grow, transform itself, and flower to its full potential. It has a natural, assertive energy to it. Your Life’s Task is to bring that seed to flower, to express your uniqueness through your work. You have a destiny to fulfill. The stronger you feel and maintain it—as a force, a voice, or in whatever form—the greater your chance for fulfilling this Life’s Task and achieving mastery.”
Finding Your Itch
As Greene points out, your calling should be natural. Not something created, but discovered. It’s a calling already sitting inside us. Yes, even you. For the lucky few, they were born with this urge shouting loud and clear. But for most others it’s far more subtle, sitting unnoticed most their lives. Your job is to find it, unchain it, and let it express itself unapologetically. The world needs you to.
The only person who can find it is you. Not your spouse, not your peers, not your parents, not your teachers, not anyone but you. But the million dollar question is how do you discover it?
It’s not through analysis, logic, or even rational thinking. Don’t me wrong, there’s a time and place for logic, but this isn’t one of them. Logic will tell you to take the safe job when there’s a flicker of dread perched in the back of your mind. Logic will tell you to follow the steps of your peers when your gut is sensing something is off. Logic will lead you towards carrots. Screw logic. It is not to be listened to during these matters. John Coltrane didn’t sit down and rationally make the decision to pick up the saxophone. It was a natural tug that drew him towards it. Something that no amount of logic could ever explain. Your calling is rooted from a source much deeper than your rational mind. You need a different set of lenses to find it.
Quiet your mind and simply listen. It will present itself to you. Call it your gut, instincts, whatever – but when the noise in your head is brought down, something will gently nudge you towards an area of interest. It’s almost as if a string of truth will fall on your lap. Pull on it and it will eventually lead you towards a calling – something sitting in you from birth. Steven Pressfield talks about this in his famous book, The War of Art:
“We’re not born with unlimited choices. We can’t be anything we want to be. We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it. Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”
Clear the noise and your calling will be there waiting to meet you. When that happens, it will bring with it all the energy and drive you’ll need to make it through the journey.