Friday, October 8, 2010

Every Day

In response to yesterday's Six Hundred, Sree asked: what motivates you to write as prolifically as you do, and what considerations do you weigh?

As I considered my answer to Sree's question, I started wondering more generally about why we do anything that we do. At first, I thought to discern the elective from the mandatory, but then it occurred to me that, ultimately, it's all elective. So, if every action is elective (go with me on this), why choose one action over another.

Jonathan's Heart Attack?
OK, I know that although I asked you just to go with me on this, there are a bunch of you thinking, "Wait a minute, not every action is elective!" And indeed, I wasn't thinking about every action at the time (20 seconds ago). However, it occurs to me that even so-called involuntary actions are often elective. For example, there are times when just have to remind yourself to breath. Why?

Yesterday, I got a text from my friend Jonathan who was in the emergency room with chest pains and thoughts of being a candidate for his own heart-attack detection device. He'd gone through some basic tests that seemed to indicate he was not having a heart attack, but the doctors were not yet sure and were keeping him for further tests and observation.

As everything settled down, Jonathan was anxious to get out of the hospital and get back to work. However, the doctors wanted him to stay. So, Jonathan became a cardiologist's worst nightmare asking detailed and insightful questions regarding his enzyme levels and other key factors and then performing his own diagnosis determining that, in the worst case scenario, he would suffer with quality of life issues.

Nonetheless, the doctors (and perhaps more significantly, his girlfriend) prevailed and Jonathan stayed with monitors fully intact. Not to be taken out of the game easily, Jonathan continued to work texting, phoning and emailing from his Blackberry. From time to time, his girlfriend noticed that his heart-rate would increase significantly as he read email and responded to certain email from certain correspondents. As he moved on to other emails, his heart rate would slow again.

Indeed, his "involuntary" heart rate seemed to be somewhat under his control.

Each morning, each of us is faced with thousands of opportunities and yet, each morning, we pretty much select from among the small set that we selected the previous morning. So why do we do the things we do?

My first thought is that it never occurs to us to do otherwise? There is part of being human that tends towards pattern and repetition and stasis. It's comfortable and easy. So, it's not surprising that we spend much of our time looking for points of relative repose and then plant our feet firmly.

When it does occur to us to change what we do, we tend towards the can't-because-I-have-to line of reasoning. However, even in the case where there truly is dilemma, where you truly can't do both what you've been doing and what you would otherwise do, I'll bet that nine-times-out-of-ten you go with status quo. Why? Why not?

It Happens
Perhaps it's easier to look in retrospect at what motivated us to begin doing what we've been doing versus what motivates us to change.

When I think about it, much of what I've done in my life began with happenstance. When I started playing saxophone at ten, I had no idea where it would take me or how it would change my life; I just thought that the saxophone was the coolest of all the band instruments presented to the fifth graders in the introduction to band program. And yet, my life at fifty-three is completely different than it would have been had a ten-year-old not found the sax such a cool instrument.

I'm quite confident that I would have never ventured anywhere near a computer had I not suddenly found compelling motivation for income and healthcare in the form of a baby daughter. And yet, my life at fifty-three is completely different than it would have been were it not for a scared twenty-two-year-old desparte to step up and take care of his family.

Even my enthusiasm for topics of this blog is largely due to happenstance. My life at fifty-three is completely different than it would have been were it not for the decision of an overburdened forty-three-year-old founder of an Internet security company hiring a CEO who'd experienced a philosophical transformation that fundamentally changed his perspective on life.

The Upside
So, my theory is that much of what we do is attributable to happenstance. And yet, happenstance is just the set-up. At twenty-two, although I was thankful to have a job with a salary and healthcare, I could have viewed it more as a burden than an opportunity (and indeed, at times I did). Nonetheless, the opportunity perspective won out and I not only stayed with it, but ran towards it as fast as I could. Why?

Playing the sax could have gone the way of most grade school forays into music, being abandoned by high school or college, and yet I'm playing now more than ever. Why?

OK, for those of you who've been there all along, thanks for bearing with me through this little exploration. Clearly beyond happenstance, the why is benefit. Every single thing that I do, that you do, that we do, we do because it benefits the doer. Every thing, even those things that we do because we have to, even those things we do for others, ultimately, we do because of benefit to ourselves (recognized or not). So then, the question of motivation might better be asked: What do I get out of this? And the answer is never: nothing.

So, what do (did) I get out of playing saxophone? For me, playing saxophone is somewhat transcendental (even at ten). I get so absorbed in playing that the world fades out of existence, time slows down and there's just me, the sax and the music. Soloing is like looking up from the base of a rock-face, searching for the line that will lead me to the top even as I begin to climb.

What do I get out of writing software? Outside it being a way better day-gig than riding on the back of a garbage truck, I have an experience quite similar to playing the sax. However, the cliff faces are often higher and the climbs much longer. With software, you have to learn to sleep in a hammock hanging thousands of feet from the floor of the canyon, not knowing exactly what next moves you'll be making in the morning.

What do I get out of posting articles on this blog? Writing each morning is a meditation that helps me to become centered and clear. It's a workout that engages both halves of my brain, stepping through logical sequences, intuitively leaping ahead and then trying to figure out how I got from there to here. The process is fun, it feels really good, and every so often, I'll write something and decide that I really like it.

Every Day
As I think about it, playing music, programming and writing are all activities that I could do 365 days a year. For me, a great vacation, would involve going somewhere beautiful where I could play music, program and write.

There's something defining about the activities that you undertake every day, something that feeds back into who you are and that you feed back into the activities. Whether you're aware of it or not, whether you're deliberate about it or not, your daily activities form the river that is carrying you through life.

I don't know if this is motivational or simply an observed byproduct, but I think that despite all protests to the contrary, it's hard to avoid becoming what you do. Each and every activity (even heart rate and breathing) is influenced by (if not completely determined by) personal, selfish motivation. The activity feeds back into motivation, reinforcing or changing it. It is the slow and sometimes imperceptible ebbing and flowing of daily activity, not the highlighted, breakthrough 'moments', that have carried us to who we've become. (I think?)

Happy Friday!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, for me a great vacation is spending time doing what I do not normally do. It's being away from phone and email. Spending time watching the sceneray and doing something physical. - but absolutely do something I do not usually do.

    Why? it it because I do not like how I spend my days? not at all.

    When I have a partner I love spending time away and looking forward to the re-union. The same goes for work, phone and email.


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