Staying motivated when nobody cares
Thoughts on how to hang out in success's waiting room
"Someone in the crowd could be the one you need to know The one to finally lift you off the ground Someone in the crowd could take you where you wanna go If you're the someone ready to be found"
— La La Land (2016)
I admire artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs for the level of risk they’re willing to take in their careers. It’s an unfortunate reality that of the 8 million musicians on Spotify, less than 14,000 make more than $50k from their streams. And we all know those stats about the percentage of startups that fail, or the thousands of books with hardly anyone reading them. But I think there are a few interesting lessons we can learn from the rare individuals who are able to live in what Nassim Taleb calls the “antechamber of hope”, that place brimming with optimists silently laboring on innovative or creative work that has yet to be appreciated, if it ever will be. How the hell do they stay motivated? As we’ll see, I think it demands more than just sheer willpower. The Silent Struggle First, let's define the crux of the problem. I think the main challenge these antechamber inhabitants face is the severed connection between their daily work and any kind of encouraging feedback to motivate them further. Think about the difference between starting a business, for example, and training to run a marathon. Both require sacrifice up front for achievement later, and the persistence to push through to completion. But marathon training, as tough as it is, provides specific feedback to you, day after day. Your input correlates highly with your output, and this feedback drives your motivation to continue. The same is not always true for a high-risk new endeavor, because as great as your product is or as hard as you work, any single factor outside of your control can throw a wrench into the entire training plan. I think tackling this crucial motivational challenge involves three key practices:
Defining success by factors you can control
Celebrating small wins
Associating with positive people
Let’s dig in. Define Success by Factors You Can Control The novelist Franz Kafka died in 1924 as a relatively unknown legal professional. Seeing Kafka’s unrecognized talent, his friend Max Brod published many of Kafka’s writings posthumously. By the 1950’s and 60’s, Kafka grew to be broadly popular in Europe. He's considered a literary icon today. So was Kafka a failure… or a success? What did Kafka change to make people suddenly like his books? Well, nothing. Recognition, Pulitzer Prizes, Album critics, book sales: so much of it is out of our control. This is the risk of defining success by these factors, especially when they are highly improbable. In the 99% of time the big bet doesn’t go your way, you end up demoralized and the whole endeavor can start to lose steam. In the antechamber, when it’s so crucial to stay motivated, I've seen people tend to prioritize objectives they can reasonably expect to meet through skill and effort. One way to do this is to actually focus less on objectives altogether, and more on systems. This is what the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams, has recommended:
"Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do."
Goal-oriented means shooting to acquire 100 new users this month. But systems-oriented means aiming to spend 10 hours each week reaching out to potential new users. While the first is a nice goal to have, I think the second is better at converting a highly uncertain challenge into a marathon-training-esque series of actionable steps. "Trust the process." Celebrate Small Wins From what I've seen, sometimes you get lucky, and things outside of your control do work out. I think those are critical points of celebration and an easy way to keep motivation high. Here’s a quirky example from How I Built This. The founders of AirBnb, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, spent several years in the antechamber before the concept of renting out homes gained traction. Everything came to a head in 2008, when they both found themselves $40,000 in debt while fighting a decrease in demand for their new rent-someone’s-house platform. That’s when they had the idea to sell Presidentially-themed limited-edition boxes of cereal—Obama O’s and Cap’n McCain’s—for $40 each in a last-ditch attempt to raise cash. The scheme worked, and the cash they raised kept them solvent and motivated until they could raise additional money from YC a few months later. Did they get lucky here? Probably. But they didn't blow all of that cash on overpriced bottles at NOTO. They ran with it.
Associate with Positive People Possibly the worst part about living in the antechamber is seeing everyone else get ahead, while you appear to waffle and waver on your silly idea. As Nassim Taleb put it in The Black Swan:
“You work on a project that does not deliver immediate or steady results; all the while, people around you work on projects that do. You are in trouble. Such is the lot of scientists, artists, and researchers lost in society rather than living in an insulated community or an artist colony.” (1)
As anyone who has ever spent 15 seconds on LinkedIn or Instagram knows, we are highly mimetic creatures constantly comparing ourselves to other people. I don’t think we can change that fact about ourselves, but we can make life a little easier by choosing to spend time around people who are encouraging (but honest) and who genuinely want the best for us. Or avoiding too much time around people who may not share the same values (or understanding) of what we're trying to do. The last thing you want is the frenemy, the person who gets close to you so they can stab you in the spleen. Those people exist. As Steven Pressfield wrote about envy In the War of Art:
“The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket.” (2)
So, who wants to actually see you make the leap?
References (1) The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb (2) The War of Art, Steven Pressfield