When I sent a survey out to you guys, asking what you wanted me to write more about, I got this intriguing nugget:
How do I keep motivated to achieve more and better goals?
I love this question. It’s something I constantly think about, want to know myself, and talk about with others. Every one of us aspires toward something and wants to know the secret to having infinite motivation to get there. I’m always interested in hearing about all the ways others keep themselves motivated; and clearly, some just do it way better than others.
What exactly separates those who reach their goals and those who fail to?
I don’t think I have the answer, but I also don’t think it’s the fancy schmancy productivity methods, the 25-dollar productivity journals, or online motivation courses–not exactly, anyway.
There’s nothing wrong with all those popular methods (SMART, 3-STRIKE, or whatever) and tools to help, but they lack something crucial: a good explanation for why they’re helpful in the first place and that you understand. Goals are so deeply tied to your sense of self, so your mind, what you know about how it works, and how you think about your goals can make or break them.
I believe you need to develop a deeper understanding of why your brain is a such an asshole that it constantly fights self-improvement and wants to slack off. You need to understand your tendencies for self-sabotage and general ways of thinking. In my mind, gaining even a tiny bit more of that self-awareness is a way to figure out why you want to achieve a goal or why you’re resistant to success in the first place, and fight back.
Prepare yourself for 2,500 words of slightly tough love. Confession: the idea was totally inspired by one of my favorite articles ever by Cracked: 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person). Here it goes.
1. Not Knowing What’s Impossible Is Your Greatest Advantage
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but you wouldn’t catch me calling myself a “writer.” Mainly because I’ve learned it’s a great way for someone to swipe left and shut down the conversation. Who the hell wants to talk to a writer (unless you’re also a writer? In which case, let’s be best buds!) I say I’m a writer sometimes, but if you listen very closely, you might pick up on thinly veiled, minty fresh shame.
It’s not that I’m ashamed to be a writer. The label itself is proof that you have the creativity to make shit up and the guts to put it out into the world, and I have nothing but respect for writers. Rather, the shame I feel comes from this nagging feeling that I’m getting away with fooling you–all of you. That somehow, after all this time, I’ll finally be discovered as a random pleb who’s wedged herself into various paid writing gigs by virtue of being at the right place, at the right time.
People continue to be okay with this I guess, and now that I’ve been in this online writing game for 16 some years, I am familiar with the rules.
I know the big players. I know the plays. I know what it takes to start a writing project, see it through, and quiet the voices that tell me I’m never good enough. I know what’s possible and impossible. Supposedly. These days I haven’t tested these limits of the possible myself, though, because I simply look to other people’s successes. To me, they’re the beacons that show how much higher I might be able to go from this part of the mountain–and holy hell, is it a huge mountain.
Not testing those limits yourself, however, and just accepting the rules of the game are a mistake, I think. For anyone. It’s not just writing. This applies to almost anything in the arts, business, or career.
When people email me, asking “How can I be a writer?”, what they’re really asking is, “What are your secrets to making this vague skill even the least bit marketable?” And I think about how if I had started getting into writing knowing what I knew now, I’d be paralyzed by my own doubts of being able to make it as a writer, too. The barrier is lower than ever, the platforms and options (too many) are there, but it’s an entire ocean with plenty of fish and fish crap out there.
Start writing. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but START WRITING. There is NO SUCH THING as “too late” in the arts. Trust me. START https://t.co/FVpWzygoc6
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) December 23, 2016
Looking back to my early days, I realize that my naivety was my biggest advantage. I didn’t know what any of this entailed. It blocked out those fears of “Is this even possible for me…?”, to which I just said, “STFU, let’s try it!” And so I wrote (about video games–who would’ve thought that could be a job?!) I never had any formal education on writing, read books about writing, or even planned out my writing “career.” I just wrote because I didn’t know any better and I enjoyed it. The more I wrote, the better I got and the more I discovered what to improve on.
I still have a ways I want to go myself, but at this point, my greatest downfall is knowing too much, or thinking I do. But for you, if you don’t know what you don’t know, you’re in a good position. So I tell everyone the same thing: Just write–anything for crying out loud. Too often people spend far longer on debating the nuances and risks instead of doing the very thing they need to be doing.
The other day a friend showed me her blog, but it was blank. She saw my confusion and told me she had had her first post sitting in Drafts for nine whole months. I asked her what kept her from publishing it? Nervousness, she said. Putting my hand on her shoulder (because that’s what I do in situations like that, I guess), I told her very sincerely, “That’s awesome. Embrace that nervousness because it means you’re letting people truly see you. I want to feel that more myself again.”
There are many different types of writing. Find a style you like. Find someone you enjoy reading and learn from them. Put off seeing what might be possible and impossible for as long as you can. And keep writing.
Let me tell you another thing: I’m making this stuff up as I go, and once again, I am using this mountain as a metaphor, and metaphorically trying to climb it. And I do the only thing I know I should or can do at this point: I write. There’s nothing magical about experienced writers. Every writer I talk to has a fear of the “blank page.” Or the fear of being judged. Every one of them shares to some degree this feeling of imposter syndrome–that they’re really a fraud no one has outed yet.
The difference between them and you is they’ve been pushing past the blank page or stomaching those butterflies from judgment and imposter syndrome for so long that these mental missteps are like a silent fart: it stinks so bad you feel so ashamed that such foulness came out of your own netherregions, but then it passes and it’s all okay again.
Oh, and here’s the important part: You’d be way better off writing (or doing whatever it is) because you honestly enjoy it. Not because you have vague hopes of making money off of it. That way, if you didn’t get the money, you’d still be damn proud of the work you did, and continue to do. In my experience, you can apply this to any idea in life.
Actually, this all applies to anyone always wondering “What should I do?” You already know.
I understand that seeing what lies ahead of you can be daunting. Where do you post your stuff? What will you write about? What if no one reads your stuff and you never get discovered or that cushy job tapping a keyboard for a living? You can’t really predict it. The mountain (here it is again) is too tall. Staring up at that mountain, one that many before you have already climbed and already set those wavy, colorful markers so you don’t get lost, is intimidating as hell. So do you start the grueling trek up, fighting wind and trolls and mythical beasts; or decide it’s too high, too dangerous, and convince yourself you can’t, then walk away?
2. Self-Esteem Is a Trap
One oft-repeated mantra for success is that you have to keep “faking it ’til you make it.” And so, every day you’re 100 percent committed to keeping up appearances of being perfectly awesome. But have a piece of kale stuck in your teeth, miss getting the client, or make any sort of mistake, and it’s game over–you spiral into a deep, dark sadness, the very same you feel when your favorite TV show is finally over. The only solution to ease the suckitude is to basically lie to yourself, point the blame outward, and focus on all the ways that you’re still the bestest ever.
In truth, it’s not you-you that needs this. It’s your ego, your self-esteem.
At least in America, high self-esteem is a praised and coveted attribute, but that comes at a high cost. When you do everything in your power to keep your self-esteem coddled, you can’t really look at yourself honestly or acknowledge your own shortcomings. That would mean accepting you’re actually not the most amazing, perfect human being.
If I’m being honest here, that point of view was, and continues to be in some capacity, a reflection on me. I’m convinced that a big reason I am in my super privileged position today was that my work ethic and desire to be better in many aspects of my life were like Mario getting a invincibility star power-up: undying, unrelenting, and fabulously colorful. I grinded it out for years, never doing things with any certainty, mind you; just had this inkling of an idea that things would work out somehow.
But in the last year or so, a lot of that fire dimmed. I realized the other day that it was in large part due to my self-esteem and me secretly imagining that I’m grabbing you by the shoulder and screaming, “ACCEPT ME!” I can’t quite explain where it came from; it might be because people constantly tell me they envy me and that I find myself constantly having long-winded conversations around the banal “What do you do for work?” question. I started feeling like I needed to baby my ego.
This hypersensitive ego hurt me in a lot of ways. It stunted my growth and need to learn. I have grand dreams to continue pursuing, but rather than digging into the research and figuring out next steps, I told myself I’d just trust my gut because I knew better. For certain things, that’s fine. But for business? That’s the equivalent of plugging my fingers into my ears and screaming, “LA LA LA LA!”
I’m not proud of having had thoughts of being “too good” to learn, but being able to recognize now that I’m likely to think this way is a powerful step toward becoming better every day. Because I can face this foible of mine head-on, try to understand it, learn from it, and figure out how I can do things differently. I’m not perfect at it, but it’s something I’ve been actively working on recently.
Bottom line, accept that you’re never too cool to learn from anyone or anything. Accept that you’re going to make mistakes and that, in the words of Ryan Holiday’s awesome book, your “ego is the enemy.” After all, how can you know what to do or work on if it kills you to admit that you might actually–gasp–be wrong?
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3. “Future You” Is the Same Damn Person Who Won’t Do Shit
I spend a lot of time writing about wellness, fitness, and weight loss for a few online publications, but mostly for Lifehacker.com, where I’ve learned a lot about the struggles that commenters and readers have. I’ve also talked to fitness coaches who’ve dealt with hundreds and thousands of clients, as well as people who’ve successfully lost a ton of weight while I was still at Bodybuilding.com.
Among all this insight, there were few key common behavioral and mindset pitfalls that kept people stuck in “red light, green light” with their fitness goals. To name a few: you set unrealistic expectations; you get impatient and move on to the “next best thing” because the other thing wasn’t working fast enough; you change too many things, too soon–and the biggest one of them all? You convince yourself, every time, that you’ll change later–honest.
I want to focus on that last point, even though every single one of those absolutely leaks into other areas of life.
I’m sure we all start off having hopes and dreams for what we want to accomplish each new year, but inevitably, some things peter out or completely fall on their ass. Why do you think that happens? Just think back to what you probably told yourself. Probably something like, “I’ll do this when I have more energy/time/money.” or “I’ll be able to stick to my plan when I’ve become a better person later.” or “I’ve done really well so far, so I’ll let myself slip just this once and rely on my better judgment later to get back on track.” Sound familiar?
In other words, you’re counting on a stronger-willed future you (the poor schmuck) to be the bigger person and finally do what you’ve always wanted to do. This is quite the mind fuck to wrap your head around, but if you think about it within the microcosm of fitness, it might make more sense.
Let’s say, you’d like to lose 15 pounds. You’re determined to do it. You’ve already got a meal plan, you’re going to work out five days a week, and your rallying cry is DEATH TO ALL CARBS AND SUGAR! Oh, but wait–since it’s Friday, you make a pact with yourself: you and your friends get deep fried bacon pizza, wings, and pitchers of beer because it’s been hell of a week and it’s time to go buck wild. You’re convinced the timing just isn’t right, so you’d start your diet and plan–for reals–on Monday because it’s conveniently the first day of a fresh new week. “New week, new me!” you think.
Whether you follow through on Monday or not, that compromise is the problem. Your prediction for how you’ll act or what you’ll decide in the future is way too optimistic (and often wrong). Chances are high, the you on Monday isn’t any different from the you on Friday, except maybe slightly hungover and feeling crappy about eating a whole pizza. You might feel motivated to diet as punishment, but by the end of the week–well, we can probably guess what’ll happen. Basically, if the world depended on future you, we’re pretty much fucked.
Sorry, but it’s true.
And if your goals depended on future you, well, then it’s just a never-ending cycle of inspiration, brief motivation, disappointment, and little to no progress at all.
It isn’t easy to do, but start to recognize that it’s way too damn easy to shirk the hard stuff in the moment and pray that future you will do something (because current you has a cheesecake to eat, mothafuckaaaaa!) This is almost never the case. This is largely in part why I have my mantra of “Fuck Yes! Saturday,” which is like my Mike Tyson and knocks those impulses to put things off to future me the eff out. After all, I’ve learned to recognize that if I don’t act now, I may never do it.
4. No One Cares About You But You
You ever walk down the street in a brand spankin’ new outfit that you’re particularly proud of, absolutely convinced that you’re a diva and people are watching your every slick move? And you even have the “I’m Too Sexy” song playing in your head as your theme music? Cool, same.
Yeah, no one gives a flippin’ bovine’s ballsack about you or me.
Someone might look briefly your way, but what they see isn’t a person who finally no longer dresses like a hobo, but as simply another sack of flesh that’s in their way. If this came as a shocker, it’s about time you woke up. This is a well-studied phenomenon called the spotlight effect, where people think others are paying a lot more attention to them than others really are (they’re not). No one cares about you or that you’re a nice, caring person, and I’m not saying this because I’m trying to be a jerk. Fact is, this whole world thrums along with every single person only caring about what others can offer them.
That said, we’re going in an entirely different direction with this. This truth can also be absolutely liberating when pushing yourself to try things. A lot of the time, so many of our “Should I…?” questions are deeply wrapped up in our self-conscious thoughts about how our behavior, image, or words could be perceived by others. So if you can actually do something (within reason), knowing people aren’t really paying as close attention to you as you think, then what’s to stop you?
And even if they were, they’ll likely go back to thinking about themselves or what to eat for dinner within 30 seconds.
The knowledge that things aren’t about you itself is empowering. Someone in a bad mood? It’s probably not you. Embarrassed by the possibility of someone laughing at you? You’re the only one who thinks that. People seeing you as absolutely perfect and awesome and remarkable and you stress out living up to those standards? That’s still about them, not you.
How has this perspective helped me? It’s helped me get over anxieties in social situations, like being brave and stumbling through my broken Japanese to communicate; asking for things that I think is justified; being more reasonable and rational with people whom I might’ve felt wronged by; and generally reach for things that I otherwise might not have the courage to.
All this reminds me of a really old-school, inspirational-esque quote: “Dance like no one’s watching.”
It sort of still applies, though my one addendum is “…but definitely moonwalk out of the dance floor if you’ve shit yourself.”
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