A Question of Motivation

I was having dinner with my parents not long ago when my dad spoke up, an uncharacteristic formality in his tone. “Do you mind if I ask you about your, uhm, philosophy? I don’t want you to take it the wrong way…” It sounded like the start of an intervention. “You talk a lot about letting go of things, about not caring about goals. But what’s wrong with goals? What’s wrong with working hard and trying to be great at something?” He went on at some length, explaining his view on the matter and arguing for the value of dedication to a craft, of the embrace of goals and striving, of the beauty in taking one’s art form to the highest levels.

By most standards, you could say my dad is an accomplished person. He’s an artist who’s been showing his work since before I was born; he received a Visual Artists Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 90s, before the government stopped issuing such things; he taught as a professor at various respectable universities around the country; he’s co-authored and co-edited multiple books; he even has an Instagram account. He’s also an intellectually engaged fellow and, along with my mom, introduced me to the Eastern philosophies that today undergird much of the explorations you find in this blog.

Therefore, when my pop expressed concern at some of my perspectives, I was compelled to give the matter some more thought.

I think I see what he was getting at. I’ve written repeatedly about an issue I’ve noted in people around me: the achievement-obsessed behavior that leads usually to frustration, momentarily to satisfaction, and always to more goals in a never-ending cycle. From what I can tell, this cycle is the source of much needless human suffering. In last week’s post, I wrote that to be happy you should “loosen your iron grip on things as they are now and on things as you want them to be.” In November I wrote, “I see a certain needfulness in it: to prove oneself, to put oneself above others, to feel the affirmation of success and excellence. When I look closely, it’s hard to see it as much more than an addiction.” In July, “Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.”

My dad isn’t the first one to take issue with these sorts of sentiment. One commenter recently suggested, “If we truly accept, we wouldn’t climb at all.” A while back, a friend felt the need to log on and set me straight, saying “The proper motivation to climb that next-level route, to ski that rad line, to get that dream job shouldn’t be out of fear, but out of love! Out of love for living a more actualized life and in sharing that joy. Out of the personal satisfaction that comes with achievement and the intrinsic satisfaction of the accomplished vision.” Which I almost completely agree with, if not for a few pesky words (“more actualized” and “personal satisfaction that comes with achievement” in particular.)

What my dad and others were concerned by, I think, is the seemingly slippery slope that leads from acceptance to apathy, from non-attachment to detachment. But I’m not an apathetic person. On the contrary I’d say I’m very engaged with and moved by the world. So perhaps my words just aren’t matching up with my deeds? I’m hoping a quick trip down memory lane will help clear things up…

When I was younger, I took naturally to rock climbing, but I tended to weigh the experience with unnecessary baggage. I wanted to be the strongest guy at the crag. I wanted recognition for my abilities on the rock. I wanted to burn the other guys off the wall. For years I’d train until my knuckles flared and my rotator cuffs grew ragged and frayed (still paying for that!). On days when my climbing wasn’t going well, I’d feel little more than frustration, my mind focused on my own standards of excellence rather than the reality of what I was doing that day (which should have been having fun climbing with my friends). It was backwards motivation, chasing after an image of what I wanted to be like, for shallow reasons like impressing others or satisfying some urge in myself.

Over time, as I grew older, I learned naturally to give less of a shit. Meanwhile I read books that echoed things I noticed while observing my inner state. I learned, very gradually, to release much of the grip I had on desires and to climb ever more for the simple pleasure of it. I learned to work less towards the goal of sending a harder grade and more towards the perfection of movement, of breath, of the infinite subtitles of balance. I could get lost in these subtleties and find something of lasting meaning there. Sometimes this approach meant I’d climb a harder grade, but often it did not. In the past, I would have been frustrated by my lack of steady “improvement,” but in recent years, it’s become increasingly unimportant, a distraction from what I view as the actual experience.

But does that mean I have no attachments, or propose that you should have none? Definitely not. I’m a realist, not an absolutist. But I do feel there’s a fine line between valuing things and clinging to them. To work assiduously and in earnest, but not be overly concerned with results—here’s the thing that I couldn’t quite express to my dad over dinner. I guess you could say my personal philosophy is more about the means than the ends. It’s not unlike the school of climbing that places style above all else. If you cut corners or do something in bad style, if you focus on just getting to the top or getting there faster and ignore the how of it, you’ll end up missing the whole damn point. An attachment to outcome that’s too strong can pull us out of alignment with the most meaningful things in life.

Wanting this blog post to be great will not make it great. Worrying that it is not great will not help me to write something better. On the contrary, it will likely lead to something less honest, less natural, more forced. Whether it is great or not is arguably an arbitrary distinction, too. So I would posit that the opposite of attachment is not apathy, but clarity and even freedom.

Pesky language! Even this lengthy ramble around the topic is not quite what I mean to say. But I’m OK with that.

Social Scroller

Woman looking at social media on her phone in bed at night.

I was supposed to be writing this blog post, but instead I was scrolling through my Facebook feed. I started seeing familiar photo galleries and link previews float past, which meant I was at the end of the new newness, which meant the odds of stumbling across something really exciting had just gone off a cliff, so I clicked over to Twitter and started scrolling there.

Same deal. Then over to Instagram. Then, before checking out of the scroll game to get to actual work, I did a quick pass through Google News, just to make sure there weren’t any active shooter situations happening in my neighborhood and that I hadn’t missed Donald Trump’s latest inflammatory satiro-facist policy proposal soundbite.

Sometimes while I’m scrolling, I’ll ask myself in disgust”What the hell am I doing?” as if I’m watching someone else’s thumb pawing at the iPhone’s smudgy screen. I feel powerless to turn away from the procession of partisan rants, clever baby announcements, links to Semi-Rad posts, cat vids and fail vids (or the ultimate: cat fail vids), selfies, and climbing butt shots.

I finally mustered the courage to put the phone down and turned my focus to this post. I had something else half written already, but decided it was boring and starting writing about my social scrolling addiction instead, mainly because I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Do you find yourself spending inordinate amounts of toilet time because you just can’t stop the scrolling? Or showing up late for a dinner because you got caught in an endless social media loop? Or perhaps you bathed your pupils in that Retina Display glow late into the night, even though you had to be up early the next day? Happens.

Turns out social scrolling isn’t (only) a symptom of a weak will, but a natural urge built into us by millennia of evolutionary programming. According to studies performed on monkeys, information seeking as survival tactic is encouraged by the neurotransmitter dopamine in specific areas of our brains. It makes sense. “Having access to more relevant information – such as knowing where the food is located – allows animals to make better decisions,” writes Chadrick Lane in a 2009 Scientific American article. “Furthermore, having access to such information might give us better control over our environment, thus increasing our chances of survival.”

Other research has suggested that anticipation of a reward is even more stimulating to the brain than the reward itself. Further, according to a New York Times article (which was citing this neuroscience study), unpredictable rewards elicit more potent responses in our brain chemistry because, “Unlike predictable stimuli, unanticipated stimuli can tell us things about the world that we don’t yet know. And because they serve as a signal that a big reward might be close by, it is advantageous that novel stimuli command our attention.”

It’s no coincidence that the most popular social media platforms are those that supply an unending and unpredictable stream of content, plus enticing bleeps and bings and badges to alert us of some exciting new comment or like or piece of information that might, for all we know, be changing our lives right now and we didn’t even know it!!

Come to think of it, this endless seeking behavior that’s proved so valuable in the human organism’s quest for survival probably also plays a role in our constant striving, our dissatisfaction with things as they (often predictably) are. Social media today is shaped by and for the mechanism of human motivation, to push all the right buttons that keep us clicking “like.” Social media has evolved into a mirror of the conscious mind. Both build an elaborate world of desire and fear that seems so real, yet ultimately proves illusory.

As Bernard Jaffe says in I Heart Huckabees, “everything you could ever want or be you already have and are.” If you truly understand and believe this, neither social scrolling nor mental striving will have anything left to offer. But that’s a lofty goal. In the meantime, I’ll think check my Twitter feed; maybe there’s a link to an article that will help make sense of things…

The Mountain With No Top

IMG_0445-ANIMATION

After several months without a single day of hard climbing, some friends took me out to a California crag called Owl Tor, named after the UK’s Raven Tor (home to Ben Moon’s great boulder problem on a rope, Hubble). Like its namesake, Owl Tor is steep and bouldery. There’s one gronky 5.11 on the left of the cliff band, a 5.11d in the middle, and it gets rapidly harder from there.

So, feeling out of shape and mentally unprepared, I tied in and spent the whole day working the 11d. I gave the beta-intensive 60-foot celebration of drilled pockets and glue four or five tries before admitting to myself and my companions that it just wasn’t going to happen. I had a good time, but felt demoralized; I used to run warm-up laps on routes of this grade, now I was projecting one.

But every time I start to get down on myself about such things—about my performance or lack thereof—I get a funny feeling. I’ve long harbored doubts about the validity of the underlying motivation that drives me and, from what I can tell, most members of the “type A” clan. I see a certain needfulness in it: to prove oneself, to put oneself above others, to feel the affirmation of success and excellence. When I look closely, it’s hard to see it as much more than an addiction. It’s an addiction that’s certainly reinforced by popular culture, that holds up select people as heroes for their athletic prowess or intellect or other skills and talents. The successful are addicted to their accolades while the masses dream of being successful one day, as if it might give their lives some rarefied meaning.

“Like drinking salt water to relieve our thirst, trying to satisfy momentary desires just leads to more desires.” It’s a quote I’ve seen around the web, usually attributed to Buddha. Though I can’t verify the source, the concept stands on its own. Many of us will dedicate our whole lives to satisfying momentary desires. The cynical might suggest that’s all there is, the accumulation of accomplishments like the constellation of brass plaques on The Big Lebowski’s wall. But it’s hard not to feel like we’re chasing our tails when we fall into that belief system.

Sure, I want to climb 5.13 again. But after that, I’ll also want to climb the next grade, and the next. There’s no ultimate satisfaction, only the passing affirmation that, yes, I can do that. I can run 10 miles or 13.1 or 26.2 or 100. I can climb route X or make salary Y. I did it. I can do it. I’m special goddamnit! Now onto the next thing.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe there’s nothing else but the eternal hamster wheel of accomplishment. But somehow it doesn’t feel right. After all, at some point we’ll all hit our peaks. Some day we won’t be on the upswing, no matter which key performance indicators we use to measure ourselves. And when that happens, no matter how high our point on the metaphorical mountain, we won’t have reached the top and we won’t have made a dent in the universe.

What then?

It seems like a silly question, but I think it’s one worth asking. And sooner rather than later.

While climbing at Owl Tor I felt that, with some effort, I’d likely regain my prior prowess. But I also saw someday that wouldn’t be the case. I looked out ahead and saw a life that, at its longest, would never be nearly long enough to satisfy my human obsession for more. I decided the only sane thing to do is work to drop the baggage that was weighing me down. I climbed with the pleasure of someone who might never climb any better than on that day… and it was enough.

One day. One climb. One blog post. One run. One moment. The past is a dream and the future isn’t guaranteed. There’s not much room in the middle to be overly concerned with bullshit.

Or at least, that’s how it seems to me these days.