I don’t want to write this article.
How’s that for a start? You’ve clicked on this link hoping to be educated or entertained, or at least intrigued, instead you’re being stood up. If I don’t want to write this article, what’s the point of reading it?
Because I’m going to write it anyway and in doing so exemplify the point I’m hoping to make. So, even though I don’t feel like writing this, I will and hopefully it will be educational and entertaining and intriguing all in one because that’s my job and that’s why I’m asking you to click on the link. Will it be the best article I have ever written? Maybe not, but I can only have one best article. That doesn’t make this one any less worthy of being written or read.
Why am I telling you I don’t want to write this article? Is it so you appreciate how dedicated I am, how after very little sleep, a busy morning coaching and not nearly enough coffee I’m able to rattle off a few words about perseverance and ‘sticking to it?’ As satisfying as it would be to imagine all you readers deeply impressed with my commitment that’s not why.
We had a guest on our podcast a few weeks ago that has spent the last year making their living as a blogger. I was excited to talk writing, both topic selection, and process, how to work through good and bad ideas, “writer’s block”, putting out a certain number of words, etc. Essentially the questions I thought would help me in my goal to publish twice weekly. Unfortunately, the conversation was underwhelming, there was no structure to the writer’s process and when they don’t ‘feel’ an idea or like blogging they don’t. Which is completely fine in relation to their content and brand with which I have no personal attachment but the answer bothered me because it re-enforces a dangerous way of thinking for others who are listening.
A writer and teacher by the name William Zinsser wrote a book titled, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. The book has been termed “…a bible for this generation of writers” by the NY Times. The first chapter features a story about his experience at a conference sitting on a panel with another writer, a gentleman who began writing later in life- a surgeon by trade- and how their styles differ. The surgeon described writing as bliss, something that is done when he feels like it. If the words refuse to flow he packs up, waits for motivation and tries again another day. Zinsser, in contrast, described his writing as a task, difficult and trudging, if the ideas refuse to flow you will find him in the same place for hours working through the block. In the end, Zinsser highlighted that the conference showed him there is no ‘right way’ to write and that it is a personal journey.
I disagreed with the very first lesson when I read it then, and did again last week. I’m not arguing that writing or any other pursuit is not deeply personal, of course, they are. I am arguing, however, that proficiency of craft cannot be driven by motivation, which is the argument both the surgeon from Zinsser’s story and our guest made. Wait for motivation to strike then capitalize on it. What’s dangerous about this statement is adopting this attitude will undoubtedly lead to failure down the stretch.
Motivation is fleeting, unpredictable and mostly useless in regards to long-term ventures. Motivation prompts you to clean your room, it doesn’t help you maintain a neat house. Motivation is the green smoothie you stop for on the way to work, not the week’s worth of meals you prep on Sunday. Motivation is the day you offer to make the coffee run for the office, not the week’s spent spearheading an unrequested project.
Do you see where I’m headed?
A little over a year ago – thank you, Mark Zuckerberg, for your genius Facebook memory program – I put out a video discussing a concept I called “the practices that matter”, practice being the opportunity to improve on your skill. That practice could refer to a sports team or instrument, or it could be the opportunity to ply your craft again like writing an article or picking a stock for your company to invest in. I made this video to highlight the belief that all practices matter but some matter more, and the ones that matter more are the ones that you don’t feel like going. No matter how much you love what you are doing, there are days that you don’t feel like it. Days when you’re unmotivated, sore, tired, hungover, or just generally don’t give a shit. It’s easy to head to practice after a loss, or a youtube video, or after a 90-minute massage and a 10-hour sleep, but those days are easy and they don’t matter nearly as much.
Seth Godin, who I rate in my top 3 favourite thinkers and speakers, was on a podcast recently discussing the same idea in a slightly different manner. His thesis is that “authenticity” is a lie and success – competency- is about being a professional. The example he used was, conveniently, that of a heart surgeon. How if he was about to lie on the table to be cut open he wouldn’t want an authentic surgeon. One that doesn’t perform the surgery because they don’t feel “into it”. No, he wants a professional. A surgeon that cuts him open, operates to the best of their ability, sews him back up and sends him on his way irrelevant of what else is going on in their life.
The cornerstone of both our ideas – for the record I am not comparing myself to Seth Godin…yet – is that motivation is not a factor in accomplishing tasks or more specifically developing proficiency in any craft. That you become an expert in your chosen vocation not because you are excited to go to work or school every day but because you go regardless of your personal feelings, and undertake the work in the same manner day in and day out.
In this way, we should aim to be less like human beings and more like animals. Think of a bird building a nest. It does it every day because it is automatic because it is a bird and birds build nests. It doesn’t wake from a restful night of sleep, stretch its wings look over to its mate and say, “That episode of Love it or List it we watched last night through the window really got me thinking about our nest, I think a few cedar twigs would go a long way in the overall Feng Shui.” Instead, the bird wakes up, stretches it’s wings and builds a nest just like it did the day before.
We should aim for the same level of doing in our lives with whatever it is we are choosing to pursue because that quest towards competency is what really matters. You go to Brazilian Jiu-jitsu 3x/week after work because that’s what you do, you do Jiu-Jitsu and people that do Jiu-Jitsu go to class at least 3x/week after work. If you do this for several months you’ll start to get better and begin to dominate the people that don’t come 3x/week after work, this, in turn, will illustrate your competency, gained through doing, proving that you are in fact a jiu-jitsu player and motivating you to repeat the cycle. It’s what I’m looking for when I write this article. Hopefully, in 6 months I’ll read this and think to myself that it’s trash and I’ll feel good about my progress which will motivate me to be even more committed to my writing.
Our pursuits in life are about improvement, that is what we are searching for, and we have limited resources with which to accomplish them. We must choose what we care about and be professional about it, showing up to the practices that matter and trusting that the end result will be worth the struggle.
That’s why I wrote this article.