I read a great little article this week in NYMag on the subject of being stuck, titled “This Is the Best Advice on Motivation I Have Ever Read”.
The author, Melissa Dahl, cites the importance of a crucial piece of advice by the psychologist Oliver Burkeman, offered to those who lack the motivation to get started.
We all wait fruitlessly for epiphanies in life – a burst of inspiration – instead of just moving forward, we get stuck in the unpleasant swamp of wondering how to start. When things get difficult, we question our choices. Even when we are pursuing our passion – writing that novel, starting that company, studying for that degree – sometimes the lack of motivation is so worrying that we descent into a full-blown existential crisis, wondering, “If this is what I truly love, why am I finding it so difficult to do anything??”
Enter Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Here’s what he has to say to those who are stuck and just don’t “feel” motivated:
“Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated. … If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you’re procrastinating on as passing weather, you’ll realise that your reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings and work anyway.”
The reason I imagine Melissa Dahl (author of the NYMag article) cites this as such profound advice is because it’s real, it’s based on gritty experience, and it kills the myth that great achievements come out of a constant feeling of inspiration.
Action First, Inspiration Second
You probably don’t feel inspired most of the time. I know that I don’t. Most of the time we accomplish things by pushing through an initial lack of inspiration, only to find that much later on everything clicks and we get the feeling we know where we’re going.
Anyone in a creative field knows this all too well. The fleeting moments of pure inspiration are beautiful, precious, but ultimately transient. They don’t last. In fact, inspiration is more like what Don Draper says in Mad Men: “keep banging your head against a wall, then it happens.” Be stuck first – take action – get inspired.
It’s the same with confidence in dating. Anyone who has been brave enough to start a conversation with an attractive person at a party, or at the gym, or at a coffee shop, knows that rarely do you feel supremely confident before you do it. Most times you see that hot guy or girl, feel your legs wobble, and you think, “Oh shit, do I really have to go and talk to them?” When you finally do, you get the magnificent adrenaline rush, and become the master of the universe. All you did was ask for a phone number, and yet suddenly you can punch through walls and bend the world to your will like Dr. Manhattan.
As Burkeman himself quotes from the Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita, “Is it accurate to assume that we must ‘overcome’ fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out for a date? If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things.”
Having Doubt = Having A Breakthrough
There’s liberation in being free from the cage of our own emotions. We are obsessed with “feeling” in the right mood to do something. But feeling ‘in the mood’ is overrated. Just the same as certainty is overrated. Doubt and feeling stuck are natural. Inevitable. Part of the process of breaking through and creating something great. Once we accept that, we’re free to charge ahead. Once we learn to live with doubt, or the occasional lapse in inspiration, we stop obsessing about how we feel and just get things done.
Writers and artists who start a new project are full of doubts. But they say to themselves, “I’m going to give this my everything and make it beautiful, even though it may end up a total failure”. That’s what it takes to actually finish the work. Acceptance of the bad stuff. The hours of being stuck, the worries of not being good enough, the fears of creating something bad.
No doubts isn’t the way forward. It never has been. Art is doubt. Love is getting stuck and wondering “How do I solve this emotional/romantic problem??” now and then. Leadership is making decisions even when you don’t always know the outcome.
When we stop seeing the negative feelings as so terrible, we realise that so much more is possible when we train ourselves to push through them.