I hope you like my new idea, which is to give every newsletter a title that looks like it’s straight from a self-help book. Readers should be able to pick which one I’m riffing on.
I’m still experimenting with the best time to send these things out, which is code for “I got all up in my head about writing a newsletter for four days.” Once I managed to extract myself from Instagram, a terrible app run by awful people that I almost never actually post to so why God why do I even use it, I tried to dig in to what it was I was actually avoiding. It’s weird. I like writing this newsletter, just like I genuinely enjoy doing other things I chronically avoid, like art.
That line of inquiry didn’t go anywhere, so I tried instead asking myself why I couldn’t get started. And I think I may have figured it out:
Trying to hype myself up to do things fucks me up.
This, seemingly, flies in the face of all recieved wisdom about motivation. Think of dudes like Dave Goggins giving a lecture about how we need to “stay hard” while running his daily marathon. That’s what motivation is, right? Surely, or why else would YouTube be stuffed with videos bearing glorious clickbait titles like “David Goggins - STAY HARD - The BEST OF Motivation - Motivational Video” (4.9 million views.)
I suspect a lot of us have the same idea; that motivation is that raring-to-go buzzy feeling we get before diving into something we very much want to do. But the more I think on it the more I think it’s not. I think that feeling is simply excitement, and we all know excitement’s fretful counterpart — anxiety.
Maybe I avoid things because I am excited about them. Or, put another way, anxious about them.
Maybe I’d been making myself anxious about things because I think that’s how we’re meant to make ourselves do things.
Maybe that’s not quite right.
Look. This newest epiphany probably isn’t going to surprise anyone. Obviously, the harder things seem, the harder they are to get started. “Hard things are hard.” Well done, Josh. That’s the kind of insight everyone’s signed up for. But what I have found, looking back on the occasions where I’ve managed to pull off a surprising variety of somethings ranging from stupendously boring to genuinely frightening, the same feeling seems to be at the centre of it all.
That’s right. Chalk one up for Generation Meh, the Millennial slacktivists, the perpetually bored, the Simpsons-poisoned sardonic ironists. Maybe we had it right all along. Because, if I’m being honest, “Fuck it, may as well,” seem to be the magic words that move me through the invisible wall of inaction into actually doing a thing that needs doing. The motivating factor isn’t excitement, it’s a total lack of thought, an infintesimal brain blank that’s helped me with everything from:
- actually washing the three-day-old handwashing dishes I’d spent maybe an hour trying to talk myself into doing, to
- that time I went rock climbing with my brother and jumped from one wall to another, twelve metres up in the air, which is kind of a big deal for me
It might not be just me. People who making a living from doing hard things seem to make use of it as well. I just spent twenty minutes trying to dig up a half-remembered quote from someone — snowboarder Shaun White, I think. In my memory, the exchange went something like this:
INTERVIEWER: “When you’re standing at the top of a halfpipe for a run that might net you a gold medal, what’s going through your head?”
WHITE: “I’m thinking ‘I don’t care.’”
It took a while to find anything close to what was starting to seem like one of those weird “did I actually hear that or did I just dream it” memory artifacts, but I eventually pinned down the source of the quote — a seven-minute-ish snippet from a cringeingly-named Apple TV show called The Greatness Code. I had to sub to Apple TV to get this, so I hope you’re happy. Here’s Shaun White:
The weather is turning, the shade is coming over, the clouds are moving in. It just was looking like Mordor. You know what I mean? I'm like, "Oh, great." And I'm complaining to my coach. “I don't think I got it. Like, I'm so tired. My legs are giving out.” That's when the pressure really started to be put on me.
I got these, like, visions going through my head of, like, being this huge hype and not even making the team, which is something you don't want to have in your mind. I've always described those pressure situations as being completely focused on what you're about to do and then having a slight bit of, you know, “I don't care what happens.” Because you need that sort of thing to take the pressure off, to put it into perspective. And it all comes down to this…
A bit more looking around suggests this purposeful mental de-escalation is pretty common, especially among performance atheletes. Maybe it’s a shortcut to a Zen moment, a kind of mind-meets-matter koan that acts as a gateway to a flow state.
I don’t know if this will come as a surprise to anyone else. Part of what worries me about this project is the idea that the things I find surprising or helpful are just garden-variety banalities that everyone else already does. But the more of this shit I do, the more I think that it isn’t just that things are banal and obvious, it’s that the trick is reminding yourself of banal, obvious things. And the reason they might be a bit obvious is because, well, they work.
So yeah. Time to do a couple of things I’ve been anxious — sorry, excited — to do for a while. There’s a painting that wants doing.
And a newsletter that needs sending.1
No comedic footnotes this time, sorry! ↩