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Why Motivation Doesn’t Work

The Motivation Mindset And Its Discontents

“Discipline equals freedom” – Jocko Willink

When a task is painful and the outcome is uncertain, it’s often the case that motivation seems to somehow vanish. At such times, stepping away to improve our strategy seems like a reasonable way to rekindle and reconnect with the feelings that lead us to the work. This is one of the ways we fall into the trap of over-strategizing but it also speaks to a deeper misunderstanding of the role that motivation should play in achieving goals.

When we approach our goals with what I’ll call the Motivation Mindset, we expect that our motivation to reach our goal will translate into motivation to do the work necessary to achieve it.  

For example, the motivation mindset assumes that because we’re motivated to learn French, we’ll also feel motivated to spend hours learning to conjugate French verbs. It’s also the reason people say things like, “he just didn’t want it badly enough.” when someone fails to achieve something. The flaw with this approach to our goals is that it places too much stock in the durability of motivation.

Motivation is a treacherous currency because it is a fundamentally forward looking emotion. It is a why, why you’re doing something. Motivation concerns itself with the future and because we are quick to discount the future in the face of difficulty, it is fundamentally fickle. As such, relying on motivation will almost never get you through the work required for a worthwhile goal.

An alternative, and in my experience superior approach is to approach our work with what i’d call a Discipline Mindset. Which is to say that we should expect that, irrespective of our initial motivation, discipline will be required.

Motivation and discipline differ in that if motivation is about the future then discipline is about the present. If motivation asks why, then discipline asks how? How will I get through the drudgery of conjugating verbs? By drinking a strong coffee and not getting out of this chair for an hour.

It is a subtle distinction, but I would argue it is a worthwhile one because in essence, a disciplined mindset creates more realistic expectations. The result is that instead of feeling like we’re doing things wrong because we’re bored, tired and pissed off, we can begin to recognize those emotions as signals that we’re doing exactly what we should be.

Discipline Creates Motivation

There is a further relationship between discipline and motivation that’s worth exploring. It’s how, in certain circumstances, discipline can lead to a renewed sense of motivation. This occurs when disciplined output provides high-quality feedback which in turn leads to truly productive adjustments to our strategy.

As we observe said adjustments creating real changes in the efficiency and/or efficacy of our work, the result is motivation to do more work. Which is to say that when we feel more confident that our plan will work or we’ll feel better while we do it, we feel motivated to follow through and execute.

Put in terms of the Sisyphus Matrix, motivation is the feeling we get when our perception of a task moves from Task t1 to Task t2:

This is why people spend, and often waste money on “gear” and its equivalent. It creates the expectation of a more pleasurable experience and thereby the motivation to take another shot at the work. Unfortunately, for things that require true skill, better tools often provide only a minor improvements to our process and our motivation quickly dissipates.

Authors Note: This piece originally appeared as part of the post Avoiding Procrastination – Genius, Productivity & The Sisyphus Matrix but in order to make it more accessible (shorter), I’ve republished it here. 



Skill Changes Everything – How to Avoid Quitting Too Soon

Dr. Richard Davidson (Ritchie) was a young Harvard graduate student when he made the trip to India for his first ten-day intensive meditation retreat. The schedule called for nearly twelve hours a day of meditation. Ritchie quickly found that instead of focusing on his breath as he was supposed to, his attention was hijacked by a growing sensation of pain in his right knee. Over the course of the first day, this pain intensified and spread to his other knee and lower back. By the end of the day, Ritchie was on the verge of giving up on the retreat.

Ritchie persevered, in spite of the pain, and on the third day, as the instruction changed from breath observation to monitoring his body, Ritchie noticed a gradual shift in his perception. The ache in his knees and back morphed from being acute pain into a mere sensation. At the same time, he began to experience a profound sense of equanimity and well-being, it was as if he had somehow opened his mind.

This feeling of well-being persisted for the remainder of the retreat and by the end, Ritchie was able to sit for up to four hours at a time, even going back for additional meditation after already doing twelve hours. And though the intensity of the euphoria waned in the months that followed, his experience was so transformative that it convinced him to devote his academic career to the scientific study of meditation.

Why We Underestimate Change

Ritchie’s story illustrates an important lesson that applies to all skill based endeavors. Namely, that we consistently underestimate the dynamic nature of our own experience. More specifically, we fail to appreciate how profoundly our experience of a thing will change as we become more skilled. Cultivating an appreciation for this can help us make better decisions about when to stick with something and when to quit.

The reason we fail to account for the dynamism of our experience because we think in linear terms. For a sense of this, please humor me by answering these two questions:  

Question 1: Do you like ice-cream, and will you like it in the future?

Question 2: Do you like running, and will you like it in the future?

Now, think for a moment, how did you answer those questions? Like me, you probably thought about your recent experiences of ice-cream or running, and with some minor adjustments, projected them forward.

We think this way because it’s useful for things like ice cream. Ice cream, like most things we do, is a largely static experience. Eating ice-cream in the future is going to be a lot like it was in the past (hopefully!).

But for endeavors that entail any degree of skill – think careers and hobbies – it is a counterproductive approach to forecasting what we’ll like and dislike. It’s counterproductive because when skill is involved our experience isn’t static. To the contrary, it is dynamic – it changes as our skills do.

How Skill Changes The Feels

We recognize that skill can account for differences in experiences between people doing the same thing. For example, imagine how it would feel to run a mile at your fastest pace.

And now, imagine what it would feel like for the world’s fastest miler Hicham El Guerrouj, to run a mile at his fastest pace.

It is, I think, intuitive that the experience of running a mile would be materially different for you then it would be for Guerrouj. And further, that it would likely be considerably more enjoyable for Guerrouj then it would be for you.

What’s less intuitive and more profound, is how our own experience of something can change through time, and specifically as our skill increases.  

For a sense of this, now try to imagine how it would feel for you to run a mile after a year of dedicated training with the world’s greatest running coach…

I know, you’d still hate it, right? But it wouldn’t be the same as today would it?

It wouldn’t. Running the mile today would be a fundamentally different experience than running that mile after a year of training and coaching. Your breathing would be different, your stride would be different, your relationship to your whole body would be different.  

Running, as you experience it, would undergo a transformation so profound that to speak of running today and running a year later as the same experience would be silly. You are doing the “same thing” but it is not the same experience.

That our own experience of the same thing can change so drastically is why endeavors that involve skill are a domain of life where our recent experiences are very poor predictors of what we’ll like and dislike in the future. This poses a challenge to the commonsense method of evaluating whether something is right for us, or not.

Traditionally, we assign a lot of weight to how something makes us feel today. Hence the saying, “You don’t know until you try”. The implication of a highly dynamic experience is that we not only don’t know until we try but we also don’t know until we’ve become proficient.

Linear Thinking’s Trap

The most common result of linear thinking is the error of quitting too early. Like Ritchie at the beginning of his meditation retreat, we allow ourselves to become anchored to our present experience and project it forward.

The reality, of course, is that generally speaking, as your skill increases the experience of something improves. Whether it’s because you win more, get paid more, or can express yourself more confidently, more skill leads to a better experience.

Graph showing skill vs joy over time. Over time more skill makes for a better experience.

And we know this – that the beginning is usually the hardest part – at least intellectually. It’s the reason parents encourage their kids to get back on the bicycle when they fall off.

But as adults wrestling with more complex skills, it’s easy to lose this perspective and in its absence, every setback feels like a failure and what is really just the beginning seems like an eternity.

Thus, we fall into what psychologists term the fixed-mindset, an essentially linear perspective that assumes we’re either right for something or not. Once we’ve adopted this mindset, quitting becomes the seemingly rational decision.

Luckily, there is a simple and effective way to counteract our tendency towards fixed mindset thinking.  

Recognize & Correct Linear Self-Talk

Among the first and most recognizable symptoms of fixed-mindset, linear thinking is our internal dialogue. We start telling ourselves things like:

“I’m no good at this.”

“I’m just not cut out to be a graphic designer.”

“I really don’t like tennis as much as I thought I would.”  

And in this way, we begin convincing ourselves that we know what it’s like to do something when in the truth is we’ve barely scratched the surface the experience.

Personally, I’ve found that the easiest way to counter linear thinking is to make small modifications to this internal dialogue. When I catch myself saying, “I’m no good at this”, I change the sentence to “I’m no good at this, yet” or “I haven’t put in the work to be good at this yet.” And I still get to be pissed off at myself but in a more intelligent way.

Silly as it may first appear, these subtle shifts in language are often enough to remind ourselves that what we’re experiencing now is only a moment in a journey. That things not only can get better but they are in fact likely to, so long as we continue to put in the work to improve.

Where To Go From Here

A highly dynamic experience is in a way antithetical to our concept of self. After all, if what I like and don’t like is highly changeable, then who am I really?  And so it’s not surprising that we’re not wired to fully appreciate our full range of possible experience.

But appreciating it may not be necessary. If we can just stop ourselves from falling victim to fixed mindset errors, then we at least retain the ability to push forward and allow the future to surprise us by being more interesting than we ever imagined it could be.



Ray Dalio’s Secret Sauce – The Truth Machine and The Good Life

This is Ray Dalio; he has built one of the greatest money making machines the world has ever seen:

Ray Dalio has written a book titled Principles. The book is over 500 pages. It’s mostly words, and there are no wizards, so a lot of people won’t read it which I think is a shame.

The good news is that the core theme of Dalio’s book can be boiled down to the following formula:

But why should you listen to Ray Dalio at all? And does his formula work? As an introduction to Principles, I’ll use what Dalio calls the secret to his success to try and answer those questions.

THE TRUTH MACHINE

According to Dalio, the secret to his success is something he calls Believability Weighted Decision Making. This is a fancy way of describing what I’ll be calling Ray Dalio’s Truth Machine. Here’s what it looks like:

FIND OUT WHO’S BELIEVABLE

Using the Truth Machine is a three-step process, and the first step is finding believable people to listen to. Because we’re looking at just Dalio’s opinion, our first step is to determine how believable he is.

To determine how believable someone is, we need to ask ourselves,

“Does the person making the argument have a track record of success and/or expertise concerning the subject matter?”

The better the track record, the more believable the person.

It’s worth mentioning that most people find Ray Dalio believable because of his professional track record. Specifically, because Dalio has accomplished two objectively difficult things:

  1. He and his team at Bridgewater have delivered market-beating returns for the past 30 years.1
  2. He built (from scratch) the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates which currently manages ~$140 billion of assets.2

Thus, Dalio is believable when it comes to the topics of investing, leadership and achieving your goals. But great professional success doesn’t always mean a fulfilled life. The question is whether or not Dalio has achieved a good life using his formula.

Because it’s nearly impossible to take a reliable measure of another person’s subjective experience, the best evidence of a track-record we have is Dalio’s own report about his life. And according to him, he’s lead an extremely fulfilling life full of meaningful work and meaningful relationships.

For me, Dalio’s report on his own life in combination with a track-record as someone who can achieve difficult goals is enough to consider him a believable person.

Open Minded Critical Thinking

After we’ve gathered believable people’s opinions, the Truth Machine process requires that all these believable people turn their brainpower toward critically and open-mindedly evaluating the logic of each other’s opinions. Critical thinking is necessary because even a person with a great track-record can be wrong.3 And sometimes a person with no track record can be right.4

While getting a group of smart people in a room together and having them open-mindedly search for the best ideas sounds good on paper, it’s worth pausing for a moment and consider how rare it is for this to actually happen.

It’s rare is because we don’t just have an idea and then carry it along with us independent of ourselves.




What does happen is that our ideas get wrapped up in our feelings and egos. So when we have ideas, we grow attached to them in a way that turns them from just thoughts in our heads to extensions of our self-worth.5

The result is that when people come together in the real world, they come to fight for their ideas, instead of looking for the best idea.

Because it goes against fundamental aspects of human nature, this is the hardest step in the Truth Machine to get right. Asking people to be critically open-minded about their best ideas is like asking master craftsmen to bring their best work to a contest where they know that if it’s not chosen as the winner, it will be destroyed.

A large part of Dalio’s success as an investor has been the result of training himself and other people to be open-minded enough to engage in just this type of process. 

Dalio’s Good Life Formula

Critical thinking means examining the underlying logic of other’s ideas. So that you can apply your critical thinking to Dalio’s opinion, I’m going to try and provide a quick and dirty explanation of his reasoning.

The first principle in Dalio’s formula is that a good life is a life full of things you value. For example, Dalio’s values are meaningful work and meaningful relationships.

Your values may be money and nice cars, and that’s ok. What is important is that you make an effort to truly know yourself in order to accurately diagnose what your values are.

Once you understand your values, the next step is to set goals that will bring these values into your life. A goal could be an amount of money, a change you want to see in the world or a job you’d like to have.6

As we all know, goals don’t just happen. Therefore the next step is to craft processes to achieve our goals. Our ability to achieve our goals comes down to two factors, our decisions, and luck. Since by definition we cannot control luck, the question of achieving our goals becomes how to make the best decisions. Good decisions, Dalio argues, can only be achieved by accurately understanding how the world works.

For example, if we want to bet on the results of a coin toss, our best method for making good decisions (bets) will be figuring out whether the coin is fair (a 50/50 chance of heads or tails) or weighted in some other way that skews the odds of the results.

As in life, the result of any single toss will have an element of luck but over many coin tosses, the weighting of the coin will act as a signal that overcomes the noise of luck.

Dalio believes that most people’s biggest obstacle to understanding how the world works is not a lack of intelligence, but a tendency to avoid confronting painful realities. When confronting the reality of the world would violate a long-held belief or entail a truth about ourselves that we don’t want to face, we avoid acknowledging the truth to protect our ego’s.

 

When we turn away from reality and make decisions based on a flawed model of how the world works. The result is decisions based on fantasy that presumes the world is one-way when really, in the immortal words of Marlo Stanfield, “it’s the other way.”  

As I hope you can see, the Truth Machine plays an integral role in Dalio’s process for getting around ego and confronting reality so that he can make good decisions, achieve his goals, get things he values, and have a good life.

 

Take A (Believability Weighted) Vote

The final step in the Truth Machine’s process is to put believable people’s opinions to a vote. But it is not a normal one, man, one vote situation. Instead, each person’s vote is weighted by their believability. More believable people’s votes count for more and less believable people’s count for less.

Each person’s weighted vote is tallied up and the opinion or course of action with the most votes selected and voila! You have a truth machine decision. 

Although it may seem a little strange at first, believability weighted voting really just a more formal way of expressing what we do in ordinary life.

For example, if you’d never studied physics and need the right answer to a physics problem, you would value someone with a degree in physics opinion much more highly than your own. In fact, you’d value their opinion so highly that even if their answer didn’t make sense to you, you’d probably use their opinion over yours.  7

When it comes to physics, it’s easy to see that only an idiot would believe the best answer was already in their own head. That’s because we understand that physics is difficult and complex. But when it comes to other areas like relationships, careers, politics and investing, we tend to presume that we can come up with the best answers on our own. And of course, that’s where we get into trouble.  

Unfortunately, we can’t take a believability weighted vote on Dalio’s formula. But you can make your opinion heard in the comments, or discuss it with your friends to get more than just your own opinion on the subject. 

The Best Worst Truth Machine

In an ideal world, by using the Truth Machine, every decision would reflect the truth about how the world works. But of course, even the Truth Machine isn’t perfect. As Dalio would be the first to admit, all the Truth Machine does is get you closer than any other system he has found.

Most of us go through life using only our own brains to make our decisions. The insight that’s made Dalio a billionaire has been to realize that his own brain isn’t that great and that that’s ok. It’s ok because he’s discovered that if he can get a lot of pretty good brains together and train them to only care about the best answer, they can get a much better view of how the world works than he ever could on his own. 

That’s the essence of Ray Dalio’s Truth Machine and the foundation of his formula for the good life. In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss some methods to bring Dalio’s process into your own life and business.

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Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these other articles related to Principles:

Ray Dalio’s Principles – 4 Steps For Better Decisions

  1. This is hard. Billions of dollars a year are spent on out-performing the markets and few have been able to do it consistently for as long as Dalio and his team at Bridgewater.
  2.  It’s worth noting that being the largest hedge-fund does not necessarily happen because you beat the markets. It’s an accomplishment in and of itself. Becoming the world’s biggest requires strong returns but it also requires a world-class organization to support it.
  3. Einstein’s Mistakes – https://www.amazon.com/Einsteins-Mistakes-Human-Failings-Genius/dp/0393337685
  4.  Unknown Mathematician Proves Elusive Property of Prime Numbers – https://www.wired.com/2013/05/twin-primes/
  5.  Dalio writes that this is due to fundamental properties of how our brains work. Specifically, that the amygdala plays a large role in creating the feelings that give our ideas an emotional character.
  6. It’s interesting to note that this assumes you can accurately estimate the time it will take to get the things you value and that either your preferences will be stable through time or that you can accurately estimate the preferences of your future self.
  7. Is Gravity An Illusion? – https://youtu.be/NblR01hHK6U


I Is Not Enough – Amartya Sen on the Utility and Moral Dimension of Thinking Beyond Ourselves

One of the reasons for this blog is to share different frameworks of thought that I’ve found helpful or interesting with others. I am the kind of person who really enjoys having a conceptual framework for why, what and how I go about doing just about anything.

In the introduction to his book, The Idea of Justice, the economist Amartya Sen makes an eloquent case for his attempt at crafting a theory of justice. What I love about the passage that follows is that you could replace the word justice for any number of things such as: nutrition, monetary policy, relationships, investing, meaningful work, and have a compelling argument for why we should strive to build a theory around our actions and the actions of others:

The identification of redressable injustice is not only what animates us to think about justice and injustice, it is also central, I argue in this book, to the theory of justice. In the investigation presented here, diagnosis of injustice will figure often enough as the starting point for critical discussion. But, it may be asked, if this is a reasonable starting point, why can’t it also be a good ending point? What is the need to go beyond our sense of the word justice and injustice. Why must we have a theory of justice?

To understand the world is never a matter of simply recording our immediate perceptions. Understanding inescapably involves reasoning. We have to ‘read’ what we feel and seem to see, and ask what those perceptions indicate and how we may take them into account without being overwhelmed by them. One issue relates to the reliability of our feelings and impressions. A sense of injustice could serve as a signal that moves us, but a signal does demand critical examination, and there has to be some scrutiny of the soundness of a conclusion based mainly on signals. Adam Smith’s conviction of the importance of moral sentiments did not stop him from a seeking a ‘theory of moral sentiments’. Nor from insisting that a sense of wrongdoing be critically examined through reasoned scrutiny to see whether it can be the basis of a sustainable condemnation. A similar requirement of scrutiny applies to an inclination to praise someone or something.*

As compelling as this is for me, there are, I’ve been told, some people who consider an intellectual framework to be superfluous, if not downright stupid. To such people, a theory is nothing more than an extra layer of unnecessary complexity around a problem. Instead of theoretical frameworks for action, such people assign value only to their intuition and unique personal experiences.

For example, people often dismiss the need for an intellectual framework in the context of weight-loss and exercise. They say things like, “If I want to lose weight,  I just eat less and exercise more.” or “If I want to get stronger, I just go to the gym and lift heavy weights.” And in some sense these people are right, they recognize that often it is doing simple and effective things that make real progress and over intellectualizing can be a waste of time and energy.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it runs a dangerous risk of oversimplification and ignores the role that generalizable framework plays in improving the lives of others.

I say improve the lives of others because meaningful lives are the result of good decisions (on average) and good decisions are the result of understanding how the world works. In light of that understanding, the failure to try and think beyond our own intuition and experience can be viewed a failure from a moral dimension.

The failure to attempt to think beyond ourselves is a moral failure because it means we never stop to ask if and how our experiences manifest the underlying reality of the world. Such an approach to life precludes the possibility of creating a generalized framework that can be communicated, tested and then shared to better the lives of others. 

That said, there are good reasons to be skeptical of theory. Sometimes theories are bullshit.1 But the failure of an individual framework is not the failure of the method. We should consider what works for I and then carefully, and incrementally attempt to discover why and how it will work for we.

 

*Sen, Amartya Kumar. The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard U, 2011. Print.




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