Scott H. Young, productivity expert and author of Ultralearning, which I recommend, recently blogged this in response to a reader question: “I believe motivation is a (somewhat) rational signal about the value of your activity. To feel motivated, the project needs to be high value with high certainty.”
I might convince myself, on a good day, to value my writing. But certainty? Both value and certainty?
Neither correlate with creative writing projects. You rarely know if you are working on something that will be published or sold, much less appreciated and remembered by a sizable audience over a long period of time. The average book sells 500 copies. (Cough, clear throat.)
I like Young’s detached, clinical phrase, “rational signal.”
Feeling unmotivated? Maybe that’s rational. Maybe if we stopped looking around for motivation, hoping and counting on it, we’d become better self-regulators and self-starters.
This applies to more than writing, of course. I enjoy reading academic papers about language learning, where motivation comes up a lot. It rarely makes sense for an English speaker to learn a foreign language. Those of us who love learning can vouch for some potential benefits (healthy brain! global perspective!) but if speaking foreign languages were essential, we’d all be polyglots.
So where does that leave us?
Stop looking for the signal. Do I feel like writing today? Am I a good writer? Do I deserve the success I crave? Does anyone care about the essays I write? What’s the value of a poem, anyway? Will I ‘make it’?
Does it really make sense for me to sit down right now—turn off social media, stop checking email—and add another hour to the three hundred or three thousand hours I’ve already spent on a project that has no definite objective value, no certainty?
Are You There God? It’s me Margaret.
What’s the frequency, Kenneth?
Come in, Houston.
We’ve lost the signal.
There is no rational signal.
Clearly, I’m not just trying to give you a pep talk (or an anti-pep talk that, in yin-yang mode, may function as a pep talk)—I’m giving myself one as well. I often take pride in being a self-motivated and self-disciplined person. Instead, I should be prouder of the times I write without feeling motivated at all.
Not knowing, and becoming comfortable with not knowing, is the realm of art, or at least potential art.
But now, let me offer one variation on this—not that there isn’t a signal, but simply that it comes too late in the process to be useful. Think of all the activities you don’t want to do until you start. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re hungry until you nibble an appetizer. Sometimes you don’t realize a party is fun until after you’ve forced yourself out the door and into a warm, crowded room. Exercise rarely feels good in the first minutes. Sex therapists frequently remind their clients not to wait to be in “the mood,” because it’s often the act of intimacy that creates the mood, not vice-versa.
Writing works the same way. Motivation—the wonderful, pleasurable, irrational kind, with no signaling value whatsoever—is often the reward, not the precursor.
As Steven Pressfield writes in The War of Art, “When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach, 49 Writers co-founder, and the author of five novels, including Annie and the Wolves, chosen by Booklist as a Top 10 Historical Fiction Book of the Year. In July, she is teaching a two-hour online seminar about historical fiction for Lafayette Writer’s Studio; registration is open now.