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.

Goals vs. Process

goals-vs-process

Climbing is a funny game because it lends itself to a goal-focused mentality and at the same time requires us to be in the moment.

We climbers tend to go from one project to the next, often focusing on doing what’s needed to attain a specific end result. Through this constant project questing, we naturally enter moments of intense presence, when all the training and the preparation fades away into a flow experience.

But it’s easy to spoil the perfect simplicity of these in-the-moment moments when our goals loom up and influence decisions, stirring feelings of inadequacy or disappointment when things don’t go as planned. The goals seem so important, but instead of chasing them, I think life can be more satisfying and free when lived from a core understanding that guides each moment.

The nature of water as it interacts with gravity, earth, and stone is what dictates each twist and turn of a river. So too can our own nature, our own central principles, serve as guides for a sort of effortless action.

In the book Mindful Work, former Patagonia CEO Casey Sheahan describes a boyhood fly fishing lesson from company founder Yvon Chouinard:

“He got me to work on my casting, and slowing down, and working on an efficient, easy-to-perform cast as opposed to just going out and trying to hook a bunch of fish,” Sheahan said. “So if you focus on the process and get better at that, you will actually have a happy outcome. You’ll have a better process, and you will catch fish because you’re in tune with what’s happening in the water and your surroundings, instead of going out and just trying to catch fish.”

In other words, the less focused you are on a goal (catching fish, climbing a certain grade, making money, etc.), and the more engaged you are with the process, the more likely you are to achieve your goal. (Paradoxical, isn’t it? It conjures up the Chinese concept of wu wei, or the “flow state” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about.)

Fly fishing gives us a good metaphor for talking about ambition and goal-focused behavior, but I think Sheahan’s story is missing an important component: when your motivation comes from the right place, catching fish at all is not so important. Fish or no fish—send or no send—it’s still a “happy outcome” when your approach is grounded in process and in the moment.

This can be a particularly hard thing to embrace for a CEO, whose job is to make a business profitable, but really it’s hard for us all. If we’re not focused on goals, how do we know we’re improving? How do we judge ourselves against others? How do we know whether to be disappointed in ourselves or proud? The simple answer is, “we don’t.” But maybe that’s for the best… .

After all, what is today’s outcome but another step in an endless process? Where does the process stop and the goal begin? And if life is all process and no goal, what choice to we have but to make the most if it, every step of the way?