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Loving, Loathing, and “Sparking Joy” in the Workplace

konmari

https://konmari.com/

My research has been digging up lots of “in all things exercise moderation” career advice lately:  don’t expect too much meaning from your work, don’t get overly inspired, keep your day job, learn to love the job you’ve already got, set goals you can’t achieve…. I’m sure it’s a sign of the times — gone is the bravado of past decades about doing what you love and the money will follow and all that other buoyant commencement address advice.

I came across more of the same this week in — of all places — a Mayo Clinic study of physicians, as reported in “How to be Happier at Work” New York Times (Apr. 7, 2019). The writer invites us to scale down the job satisfaction question all the way down from the existentialist search for meaning to the nitty gritty of what  your job requires every day.

“A study from the Mayo Clinic found that physicians who spend about 20 percent of their time doing ‘work they find most meaningful are at dramatically lower risk for burnout.’ But here’s what’s fascinating: Anything beyond that 20 percent has a marginal impact, as ‘spending 50 percent of your time in the most meaningful area is associated with similar rates of burnout as 20 percent.’

“In other words: You don’t need to change everything about your job to see substantial benefits. A few changes here and there can be all you need.”

Are we getting the “transform the job you already have” speech again? Yes we are.

“‘When you look at people who are thriving in their jobs, you notice that they didn’t find them, they made them,’ said Ashley Goodall, senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco and co-author of the book Nine Lies About Work.

“‘We’re told in every commencement speech that if you find a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life. But the verb is wrong,’ he said, adding that successful people who love their jobs take ‘the job that was there at the beginning and then over time they transform the contents of that job.’”

Okay, but how do you do that? By thinking small.

“Do you like what you do?

“Now, I don’t mean that in the broad sense of wondering whether you’re on the right career path. I mean on a day-to-day basis, if you thought about every single task your job entails, could you name the parts that give you genuine joy? What about the tasks you hate?

“To be sure, transforming your job isn’t easy. But you have to start somewhere, and there’s a wonderfully simple but surprisingly revealing trick that can help.

“For a full week, carry a notepad at all times. Draw a line down the center of a page and label one column ‘Love’ and the other column ‘Loathe.’ Whenever you perform a task, no matter how small, be mindful of how it makes you feel. Are you excited about it? Do you look forward to it? Does time fly when you’re doing it? Or did you procrastinate, dreading every moment and feeling drained by the time you’re done?

“It seems silly, I know. But this exercise — which Mr. Goodall and his co-author, Marcus Buckingham, co-head and talent expert at the A.D.P. Research Institute, write about in their book and practice in their lives — can show you hidden clues and nuances about work.”

Reminds me of the “KonMari” approach to decluttering and downsizing:  go through your stuff, and if something doesn’t give you a burst of joy, out it goes.

“It’s been a whirlwind year for Marie Kondo, the beloved professional organizer and sparker of joy.

“Between her bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and her hit Netflix show, Kondo has reached a level of ubiquity that’s uncommon for book authors. Her approach to cleaning — known as the the KonMari Method — hinges on getting rid of things that do not ‘spark joy.’ She takes a similar approach to her own well-being.

“Kondo chatted with Medium about how she uses her tidying methods in her own life to live better and more balanced.”

“Marie Kondo’s Daily Routine Is Delightful,” Medium (Apr. 10, 2019).

Like the amazingly tidy (and happy) Ms. Kondo, I also take “a similar approach to [my] own well-being.” And, like her, I’m way over 20% with no burnout in sight — although I admit, as I said last time, that it helps to not have a job anymore. But don’t take it from me, try it yourself — grab that notepad and go looking for those sparks of joy.

To Achieve Or Not To Achieve

lemonade 2

We’ve been looking at how inspiration, motivation, and ambition contribute to career satisfaction — or not. High achievers have plenty of all three. They richly populate the professions, where career disillusionment also runs high. What’s that about?

“The paradox is that success can seem like failure,” writes MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya, author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. “Like any paradox, it calls for philosophical treatment.”[1] He goes on:

“In search of an answer, I turned to the 19th-century pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is notorious for preaching the futility of desire. That getting what you want could fail to make you happy would not have surprised him at all. On the other hand, not having it is just as bad.

“For Schopenhauer, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you get what you want, your pursuit is over. You are aimless, flooded with a ‘fearful emptiness and boredom’, as he put it in The World as Will and Representation(1818). Life needs direction: desires, projects, goals that are so far unachieved. And yet this, too, is fatal. Because wanting what you do not have is suffering. In staving off the void by finding things to do, you have condemned yourself to misery. Life ‘swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents.

“Meanwhile, your engagement with projects subverts itself. In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life. No doubt you can formulate other plans. The problem is not that you will run out of projects (the aimless state of Schopenhauer’s boredom), it’s that your way of engaging with the ones that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and thus expel them from your life. When you pursue a goal, you exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye.

“When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed. In pursuing goals, you aim at outcomes that preclude the possibility of that pursuit, extinguishing the sparks of meaning in your life.

“Hence … the striving high-achiever, obsessed with getting things done, who is haunted by the hollowness of everyday life.”

Thus spake Schopenhauer — “but Schopenhauer was wrong,” says Professor Setiya. His solution? Give up on deriving meaning from completing projects and obtaining new milestones, and instead focus on goals that don’t have an end point, and therefore can’t be achieved.

“In order to see [Schopenhauer’s] mistake, we need to draw distinctions among the activities we value: between ones that aim at completion, and ones that don’t.

“Think of listening to music, parenting, or spending time with friends. They are things you can stop doing, but you cannot finish or complete them. Their temporality is not that of a project with an ultimate goal, but of a limitless process.

“If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is to invest more fully in the process, giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself. Nor does it invite the sense of frustration that Schopenhauer scorns in unsatisfied desire – the sense of being at a distance from one’s goal, so that fulfillment is always in the future or the past.

 “We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process.”

“Life is a journey, not a destination” — we’ve heard that before, right alongside “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Advice like that has always struck me as sour grapes. Can’t get what you want? No problem, just trick yourself into believing that’s really okay. But now, as I write this, I realize that these days my whole life is all about the process. I work out, write, read, research, study, learn. I do artwork. I cook and clean and stick to a budget. I’m there for my wife and kids. None of that has a goal. I’ll never achieve any of it.[2] But it’s rich in satisfaction.

It helps that I don’t have a job anymore.

Or maybe I’m just good at making lemonade.

Photo by Julia Zolotova on Unsplash

[1] “How Schopenhauer’s Thought Can Illuminate A Midlife Crisis,” Aeon Magazine (Jan. 26, 2018).

[2] My workouts are full of metrics I try to meet, but that’s not the same thing. Maybe more on that another time.

Eternal Employment:  A Day Job Worth Keeping

what-would-you-like-to-do-if-money-were-no-object- alan-watts-quotes

“We will all be employed at Korsvägen.”

In a post on August 31, 2017, I pooh-poohed the question, “What would you do if money were no object?” “Baloney,” I said, “Money is always an object.” I take it all back. Now you have a real life opportunity to answer the question, and money truly is no object.

I first read about it in this Atlas Obscura article. Google “korsvägen train station job” for more. The job is whatever you want to do. That’s it. Your only duty is to clock in every day at the Korsvägen train station, currently under construction in Gothenburg, Sweden. Your salary is $2,320/month plus annual cost of living increases, benefits, vacations, a pension…. Why? To make an artistic and  political point about the economic and work issues we’ve been talking about in this blog.

“Titled ‘Eternal Employment,’ the project is both a social experiment and a serious political statement. In early 2017, Public Art Agency Sweden and the Swedish Transport Administration announced an international competition for artists interested in contributing to the new station’s design. The winner would get 7 million Swedish krona, the equivalent of around $750,000. Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby, a pair of Swedish artists whose previous work was inspired by offshore banking, entered and suggested eschewing the typical murals and sculptures that adorn most transit hubs.

“Instead, they wrote, they would use the prize money to pay one worker’s salary and give them absolutely nothing to do all day.

“‘In the face of mass automation and artificial intelligence, the impending threat/promise is that we will all become productively superfluous,’ their proposal said. ‘We will all be employed at Korsvägen, as it were.’

“The pair also cited French economist Thomas Piketty’s theory that accumulated wealth has typically grown at a rate that outpaces increases in workers’ wages. The result, Piketty argues, is an ever-widening gap between the extremely rich and everyone else. Using that same calculation, Goldin and Senneby predicted that by creating a foundation to prevent the prize money from being taxed, then investing it in the market, they would be able to keep paying that employee’s salary for ‘eternity’ — which they defined as 120 years.

“A 2017 financial analysis conducted by Sweden’s Erik Penser Bank, which the artists submitted as part of their application, concurred. The artists had proposed paying the worker 21,600 Swedish krona a month, the equivalent of roughly $2,312, or $27,744 a year. Factoring in annual salary increases of 3.2 percent, consistent with what Sweden’s public sector employees receive, the bankers concluded that there was a 75 percent chance that the prize money would earn enough interest from being invested in an equity fund to last for 120 years or more.

“‘In this sense the artwork can function as a measure of our growing inequality,’ Goldin and Senneby wrote.

“Deeming the idea to be humorous, innovative and ‘an artistic expression of great quality,’ the jury that had been convened to judge the competition decided to award them the prize.” [1]

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.”

Oscar Wilde

The politicians don’t appreciate either the irony or the economic analysis.

”There was an uproar in Sweden in October when officials announced that Goldin and Senneby’s proposal had won, Brian Kuan Wood, a board member for the Eternal Employment foundation, wrote in the art journal e-flux, with outrage coming from politicians on all sides.

“‘Old Social Democrats accused them of using financial realism to mock the transcendental accomplishments of the welfare state,’ he recalled. ‘Neoliberal progressives accused them of wasting taxpayers’ money to stage a nostalgic return to that same welfare state.’ Lars Hjälmered, a member of parliament from Gothenburg who belongs to Sweden’s center-right Moderate Party, decried the conceptual artwork as ‘stupidity’ in the news magazine Dagens Samhälle.

In their own writing, Goldin and Senneby fully acknowledge that paying someone to show up at a train station twice a day and punch a time clock is unproductive and thoroughly worthless. That’s the idea. Many people believe that art is supposed to be useless, they point out. They also suggest that the pointless job could lead to the creation of a new idiom expressing apathy, indolence and boredom: You’re working ‘as though you were at Korsvägen.’”[2]

I personally doubt the winner would be indifferent, lazy, or bored. I wouldn’t. Would you?

Mark your calendar:  applications open in 2025. Here’s the original job description. And here’s a more condensed version.

[1]An Experimental Swedish Art Project Will Pay You To Do Nothing For The Rest Of Your Life,” Washington Post (March 7, 2019).

[2] Op. cit.

Ambition [2]:  Keep Your Day Job?

Into the Woods

“Dreams come true but not free.”

Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

The experts quoted in last week’s post were focused on Millennials, but their advice also applies to people making mid-career/midlife changes. No matter your age, it’s the same dilemma:  you’re inspired and ambitious, but the economic realities are unimpressed. What’s a dreamer to do?

This article[1] suggests a middle ground:

The popular mantra [of positive thinking] comes from the actor Will Smith, who said: ‘Being realistic is the most commonly traveled road to mediocrity.’

But ‘mediocrity’ is a loaded term. Who, after all, wants to be ‘mediocre’ or ordinary? And yet, save for a few, aren’t we all? By implying that the only options are superstardom or mediocrity, we ignore where most of us ultimately land – that huge middle ground between anything and nothing much at all.

Mediocre?! Who you calling mediocre?! Well, um… you. Just like the rest of us.

Mediocrity is a hard truth for high achievers to swallow. Will Smith didn’t have mediocre in mind when he said that, neither did Steve Martin when he advised “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Georgetown professor Cal Newport debunks them both on in So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

“Cal Newport [says] that we have got the passion/purpose equation backwards. ‘It misrepresents how people actually end up passionate about their work,’ he says. ‘It assumes that people must have a pre-existing passion, and the only challenge is identifying it and raising the courage to pursue it. But this is nonsense.’

“Passion doesn’t lead to purpose but rather, the other way around. People who get really good at something that’s useful and that the world values become passionate about what they’re doing. Finding a great career is a matter of picking something that feels useful and interesting. Not only will you find great meaning in the honing of the craft itself, but having a hard-won skill puts you in a position to dictate how your professional life unfolds.[2]

Seems reasonable, but not everyone is convinced:

“Newport’s recommendation begs examination of another aspect of the ‘you-can-be-anything’ framework: should we expect to pursue a passion within our career or is it wiser to try to satisfy it outside of one? Sure, it’s convenient (and nice!) to be paid for something we’d love to do anyway. But is it realistic?

“Marty Nemko, a career counsellor in the San Francisco Bay Area and the public radio host of “Work with Marty Nemko,” offers up a resounding ‘no’. He’s all for people pursuing their dreams, as a hobby. ‘Do what you love,’ he says, ‘but don’t expect to get paid for it.’” [3]

I.e., separate your dreams from the economics and there won’t be a problem. How? Keep your day job. Click below for a six-minute look at someone who followed this advice.

Working stiff

“Didn’t Einstein have to have a job in the post office or something?”

“As any artist knows, for every Banksy or Beyoncé, there are thousands of dreamers whose artistic impulse has to be sustained by paid gigs, which tend to be unglamorous. Such is the life of Robert Friedrich, a New York City-based comic artist who splits his time between creative work and a dull cubicle job he’s held down for more than 20 years. Starting with a love of superheroes, he eventually began mining the minutiae of his daily life to create Failing Fast, a ‘visual diary’ of the modern workforce. Finding a refreshing twist on the often fawning sub-genre of artist profiles, the director Sarah Hanssen makes Working Stiff a broadly relatable take on the creative life, in which passion doesn’t pay the bills and every small success is savoured, if fleeting.”

I confess, I tried, but was never good at keeping my day job.  I was too much in tune with the point of view of another cartoonist (click the image below for the full text):

bill-watterson-commencement-speech-1-728

“So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.

“Having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

“You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

Watterson gave that advice in 1990. Economic realities have changed a lot since then, but dreamers still dream. I’d say go ahead — inspiration will make you happy — but then also take Stephen Sondheim’s advice to heart. I sure do these days.

[1] You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015:

[2] Op. cit.

[3] Op. cit.

Ambition: Promised Land or Wasteland?

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

We’re exploring how inspiration, motivation, and ambition can help create meaningful work. We found that inspiration is essential, but has a dark side that includes mania and delusional risk taking, and that motivation is a ManagementSpeak relic and a brain stressor.  As for ambition, much current commentary focuses on my kids’ generation, but there’s plenty here for the rest of us if we view it in the larger economic context.

Here’s a quick summary:  Our parents came of age in the glory years of The Job and a Fair Income for the Middle Class. We Baby Boomers were born into that economic model, customized with our own iconoclastic and utopian social visions. The model weakened in the 70’s and 80’s, but we were too busy with kids and careers to notice. The Gen Xers got in early enough to ride the upward mobility escalator, but now that the Millennials are  young adults the model is bankrupt, leaving them to face a whole new gig — as in “gig economy.”

All that happened while most of us didn’t know it. Along with our policymakers, we were and still are stuck in the cognitive and cultural bias of the jobs heyday. Back in the day, we showered the Millennials with self-esteem-building, be-all-you-can-be positive thinking, and told them to follow their dreams. But when they came of age the economy wasn’t set up to support them. Maybe that’s why some parents habitually hedged their advice, urging the kids to have a Plan B and for crying out loud quit with all the cold filtering and get a real job.

(For a remarkable look at the current state of economic opportunity, see “I’m a Millionaire Who Creates Zero Jobs. Why Do I Pay Less Tax Than You?” by Morris Pearl, a career Wall Street One Percenter who is now chairman of the Patriotic Millionaires.)

No wonder people write books like Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before , by psychology professor Jean M. Twenge. This is from the flyleaf:

Generation Me“In this provocative and newly revised book, headline-making psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge explores why the young people she calls “Generation Me” are tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious but also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful, and anxious.

“Born in the ’80s, and ’90s… the children of the Baby Boomers are … feeling the effects of the recession and the changing job market.

“Her often humorous, eyebrow-raising stories about real people vividly bring to life the hopes, disappointments, and challenges of Generation Me.  Engaging, controversial, prescriptive, and funny, Generation Me gives Boomers and GenX’ers new and fascinating insights into their offspring, and helps those in their teens, twenties, and thirties find their road to happiness.”

I was okay with the blurb until it got to “happiness.” I’m more in tune with the article we looked at last time — You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,” Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015):

“Roman Krznaric, founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, says that .. we’ve seen ‘rising expectations among everybody for work that’s more than just a salary… You see this among people who are highly educated… and that helps explain why job dissatisfaction tends to rise over the past couple of decades, because people are asking … to use their talents or passions in their work.’

“The shift in expectation has resulted in tremendous anxiety over achieving these goals and, paradoxically, sheer delusion. Point out to parents or teens just how difficult it can be to achieve such a high-level career and you’ll likely be treated to a catalogue of all the people who bucked the odds. Not just the Oprahs or the Steve Jobses who achieved super-status but the friend of a friend who just bought a modern all-glass home overlooking San Francisco Bay with his signing bonus, or the daughter of a work colleague who was cast in a new TV show, or the neighbour’s son who got a scholarship to Harvard.

“If it’s possible for them, we want to believe that it’s possible for our children too. Besides, who wants to be the killjoy who has to remind the struggling math student that medicine likely isn’t an option? … Besides, technically it is possible. At what point do we abandon possible for probable, and encourage our children to do the same?

“‘This links to the cult of positive thinking,’ says Krznaric, ‘where we’re always wanting to feel up and good and send positive messages… and so we feel that we should only be sending good messages and positive messages to our children and to young people. That it’s somehow wrong or bad or inappropriate to tell them: actually, it isn’t possible.’”

Ambition says it’s possible. Current economics says it’s not. Now what? Back for more next week.

The Anti-Motivation Strategy

anti-motivaton

“I need to get motivated.”

You might want to rethink that.

Search “motivation at work” and you get the usual ManagementSpeak telling managers how to motivate workers — lots about engagement (again!) and carrots and sticks. Google “how to motivate yourself” and you get inspirational quotes and helpful lists. Okay as far as it goes, but it’s not the whole story.

We saw last time that we need inspiration to get going, and that our brains provide it with a shot of the hormone dopamine. But what the motivators don’t tell you is that dopamine can be too much of a good thing. The following is from Larry Howes — “lifestyle entrepreneur” and former arena football player and member of the USA men’s national handball team.[1]

“One of the most dangerous drugs an entrepreneur can become addicted to is motivation.

“I’ve heard far too many entrepreneurs say,  “I just need to get more motivated” in order to start a project or achieve a goal.  This usually means they’ll spend a few hours reading or listening to other people’s success instead of creating their own.

“This is how the motivation addiction begins.

“Don’t get me wrong – motivation is great.  It’s nature’s reward for achievement, but it can easily become your “drug” of choice if it’s misused.

“This may sound a little funny, but one of the best drug dealers in the world is your brain. Your brain is wired to release a shot of dopamine each time you … achieve goals, take risks, try something new. They’re all natural highs and designed to keep us coming back for more.

“It’s great to be goal driven and to have feelings of fulfillment following our achievements, but the moment we began wanting those feelings before doing the work we’re in HUGE trouble.”

The issue is dependence:  that motivated feeling isn’t easily summoned; reliance on it is dicey. Plus, dopamine acts like any addictive substance:  each successive time you reach for a shot, you need more than last time:

“Once again, there’s nothing wrong with motivation or learning from the success of others, but that moment we need the ‘reward feeling’ of motivation in order to get started, we’re in serious trouble.

“Not only does it take away from precious time you should spend working, it also means that you’ll need a higher dosage of motivation as time progresses.”

And don’t fall for the line that you can be anything you want, adds “journalist, author, and broadcaster” Leslie Garrett:  your brain will hurt you if you do, this time because of the “stress hormone” cortisol.[2]

“As long ago as the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle celebrated the value of a meaningful goal when he coined the term eudaimonia (‘human flourishing’). The concept re‑emerged in the 16th-century Protestant concept of a ‘calling’. More recently, in the 1960s, a whole generation of young people brought up at the height of an economic boom began asking whether work could amount to more than just paying the bills. Couldn’t it have something to do with meaning and life, talents and passions?

“It was then that the episcopal clergyman Richard Bolles in California noticed people grappling with how to choose that special, meaningful career, and responded by publishing What Color is Your Parachute? (1970), which has sold more than 10 million copies, encouraging job‑hunters and career-changers to inventory their skills and talents. Bolles bristles at the suggestion that he’s telling people to be ‘anything’ they want to be. ‘I hate the phrase,’ he says. ‘We need to say to people: Go for your dreams. Figure out what it is you most like to do, and then let’s talk about how realistically you can find some of that, or most of that, but maybe not all of that.’

“The situation even endangers health. In 2007, psychologists from the US and Canada followed 81 university undergraduates for a semester and concluded that those persisting in unattainable goals had higher concentrations of cortisol, an inflammatory hormone associated with adverse medical outcomes….”

Ms. Garrett goes on to say that misguided career intentions throw you into the “ambition gap,” which is a nice segue into next week’s topic.

For more motivation bashing, you might enjoy a couple of my LinkedIn Pulse long posts:  The Anti-Motivation Strategy: Why All This Motivation Is Killing You and The Anti-Motivation Strategy: The One Thing You Need For High Performance (And It’s Not Motivation).

[1] “Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity (And How to Fix It)” Forbes (Aug. 20, 2012). I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Larry Howes Forbes Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity,” and the article will come up.

[2]You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,” Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015)

Go For It!!

Inspiration. Motivation. Ambition. Similar words with different connotations. We’ll look at the impact of all three on loving your work, pursuing your passion, finding your true calling. First up:  inspiration.

Larry Smith is an economics professor at Waterloo University in Ontario, and a career inspiration meister. As of this writing, his combative, tongue-in-cheek TED Talk “Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career” has been viewed 6.5 million times.

Larry Miller TED

Here’s the Amazon blurb for Prof. Smith’s book No Fears, No Excuses:  What You Need To Do To Have A Great Career:

Larry Miller Book“This book captures the best of his advice in a one-stop roadmap for your future. Showcasing his particular mix of tough love and bracing clarity, Smith itemizes all the excuses and worries that are holding you back—and deconstructs them brilliantly. After dismantling your hidden mental obstacles, he provides practical, step-by-step guidance on how to go about identifying and then pursuing your true passion. There’s no promising it will be easy, but the straight-talking, irrepressible Professor Smith buoys you with the inspiration necessary to stay the course.”

Scott Barry Kaufman is another inspiration meister, and his own weather system. His website says he’s a “psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, exploring the depths of human potential.” These are his books. He wrote the following in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Why Inspiration Matters.”[1]

“In a culture obsessed with measuring talent and ability, we often overlook the important role of inspiration. Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.”

Sound like fun, doesn’t it? Inspiration throws off the restraints of normal and mundane, and replaces them with a world of new possibilities. No wonder it has a “history of being treated as supernatural or divine.” Truth is, the brain hormone dopamine is what’s behind all that punch and pizzazz. Dopamine makes the unreasonable, unlikely, and impossible worth doing. It’s the crowd chanting “go for it!” and the roar of approval when you wave the field goal unit back to the sideline. We get a rush of it when we bust out, try new things, take risks. George Bernard Shaw wrote the dopamine manifesto in his Maxims for Revolutionaries:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I wrote the following about inspiration in another context:[2]

Reason only works in the bright light of hindsight, and by definition, new is what hasn’t yet been. Therefore reason doesn’t know anything about it, doesn’t understand it, can’t explain it, and definitely can’t trust it. If reason is going to create at all, it looks at where we are and how we got here, then projects its conclusions into the future, reverse engineering what worked in the past so we can do more of the same in the future.

We call people who operate that way realists.  They can cite facts, data, track records, past performance. We credit them with being more in touch with reality than daydreamers and visionaries. We trust them to not lead us astray.

Each of us has that realist’s voice inside us. Do something new? No way. It’s not reasonable.

Inspiration isn’t impressed. It wants idealists:  unreasonable people who don’t give a rip about reverse engineering. Inspiration buys what Einstein said about imagination being more powerful than knowledge. It pushes boundaries, asks us to believe what’s irrational, illogical, impossible, even irreverent and heretical.

Doing any of that is hard and unpleasant and of uncertain outcome, which is why we usually choose to be reasonable and adapt ourselves to the world. We keep our day jobs, hedge our bets, cut our losses, try to be prudent and practical…

And so status quo goes safely on, and we keep living our reasonable lives until one day inspiration comes along and turns us into unreasonable people who want the world to adapt itself to us, and who are prepared to give ourselves to the dangerous ways of mania to make that happen.

Inspiration wants response, not reason. It hooks our hearts, then reels us in. Inspiration isn’t just thrilling and fun, it’s also unrelenting, insisting, demanding… even violent if we leave it no other choice. If it weren’t, nothing creative would ever get started. Or finished.

Dopamine-powered inspiration will get you moving, alright, but we talked about “the dangerous ways of mania” in a prior post and will go there again next time, when we consider motivation.

[1] Harvard Business Review (Nov. 8, 2011).I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Harvard Business Review Scott Barry Kaufman Why Inspiration Matters” and it will come up.

[2] Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania, available here as a free download.