When some aspect of life feels forced, and you have to push through with a lot of discipline to make progress, it might mean that the timing is wrong for you. If you feel like putting it off, maybe do exactly that.
Other people may tell you that you need to advance some area of life now, but is that absolutely necessary?
When I was in high school, I loved math and invested lots of extra time in it, so I improved at math more quickly than in other subjects. I got A+’s in my math classes, but that still wasn’t enough for me. I befriended the school’s best math teachers and did extra projects with them. I was eager to learn anything else they could introduce me to, so I learned a lot more than the standard curriculum.
Following my passion helped me become a stand-out student, and that was instrumental in my becoming Captain of our school’s first Academic Decathlon team and President of the Math Club. More opportunities fell into my lap with little resistance as I simply pursued what I enjoyed. I received glowing letters of recommendation for college with phrases like “best student in my career” and “this kid is a heavyweight.”
I didn’t invest extra time and energy in math because I was outcome-focused. I did it because I enjoyed the discovery process. Learning more about math connected with my interest in computer programming, so every bit of extra math I learned gave me an excuse to dabble in more coding experiments. The more math I learned, the more I could do coding-wise. So this was really fueled by the joy of the exploration.
Contrast this with history classes, which I found boring and tedious. I still got A’s in those classes, but I did the minimum to achieve that. Studying history at that time felt forced, effortful, and pointless. I cared more about the grades for those classes than the knowledge. I framed those classes as “nap time” or “snooze fests.” I especially dreaded being assigned history papers to write. I didn’t like reading about dead people and their past problems, and I certainly didn’t care to write about them. Everything I did for this subject felt like a waste of time.
And I was generally right about that. It was a relative waste of time for me to study history at that particular time in my life. It mostly just slowed me down from investing even more in what I genuinely cared about. History was a drag that added friction to my learning experience. I think I would have enjoyed and appreciated the educational experience a lot more without it.
Procrastination vs. Flow
When I got home from school, I usually did my math homework first. If I had long-term assignments in math, I’d typically do them the first day they were assigned, and I’d turn them in early. I never seemed to procrastinate on math.
With history it was the opposite. I put off assignments till the last minute, often having to stay up late to finish them (or to finally start them) the night before they were due. That was stressful, but I couldn’t get myself to even look at those assignments any earlier than necessary. I felt such tremendous resistance towards them.
So what was the point in doing those history assignments with that mindset? In reality it was pretty pointless. I did the assignments to satisfy other people’s expectations and to avoid getting in trouble. My brain quickly forgot whatever I was supposed to be learning, considering it useless info and unworthy of retention or integration. The A’s I got in history classes were hollow accomplishments; they were more like receipts for enduring punishments.
If you dread working on something, how productive are you really? What if instead of forcing yourself to attempt the dreadful path, you flowed your energy towards something that truly inspired you? Note that what inspires you may not even seem like work at all. It will probably seem a lot more like play, which may initially trigger some feelings of guilt, like you’re playing too much and not being productive.
I find it much better to let other people resist my playful approach to productivity, since I can still be productive while they’re being skeptical. It’s much harder to be productive while I’m feeling resistance to the task at hand. So I’ve learned to prioritize my relationship with my work above my relationship with other people’s approval of my approach.
Over the decades since high school, I experienced shifts in my passions, as many people do. Subjects I once hated eventually seduced me, including history and public speaking. When I was in high school, I didn’t anticipate that. I didn’t imagine that I’d ever enjoy studying history or giving speeches.
These days I like learning about history, and I do so voluntarily. I read new history books often, and I make a concerted effort to fill in gaps in my knowledge regarding how different parts of the world have been evolving over time. I care about this subject because I have a different context for it today. In high school studying history seemed like a waste of time, and it was. But today I can connect the dots between what I learn about history with my personal development work. I have places to slot this knowledge that I didn’t have before, so the learning experience today is a lot richer.
I also have the freedom to skip the dreadful parts of learning and focus on the parts I enjoy. I don’t have to write pointless papers on subtopics I don’t care about, just so someone else can grade me. Instead I can go for a walk and ponder the ideas in my own way. I can journal about them. Sometimes I will integrate what I learn about history into new articles or course lessons. Whereas studying history was impractical in high school, today I can study it in a much more meaningful way.
Moreover, I can also visit places in person. Last month I stood inside Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated and signed. I walked the streets where Ben Franklin and George Washington used to walk. I thought about what it might have been like to live during the 1700s and face the problems and challenges they faced. That gave me a different perspective than I’d ever get from a book. I also gained a different perspective on democracy, and why it’s coming under such strain today.
So I’ve learned that ruling out an area of investment doesn’t rule it out for life. I can circle back to it if and when I’m ready. What may feel like a nagging “should” for many years may feel like a delightful gift further down the road. If I invest at the wrong time, I’m probably just going to waste a lot of energy.
Favoring the Choicest Investments
When I invest in a genuine passion or interest, I can advance more quickly and easily. The experience is more fun and engaging and less stressful. I experience less fatigue, and I have more endurance. My brain absorbs and retains knowledge more readily, eager to connect the dots with my existing knowledge base. I’m happier, I’m more productive, and I feel more satisfied with the flow of my life.
So what’s the point in forcing advancement in a more sluggish and painful way? I don’t see a good reason to do that, except to appease others, so I try to live my life in such a way as to remove (or at least to savagely curtail) such obligations and expectations. I’m fine with committing myself to certain paths, including those that involve significant obligations, and long as I’m choosing what to offer and to whom, so I can ensure that my commitments align with my genuine interests.
Instead of developing a stronger tolerance for feelings of dread and anxiety, I think I’ve become more sensitive to such feelings, and I choose to honor them instead of trying to repress them.
Sometime I wonder how people are able to show up for jobs they dislike day after day. Perhaps they have other outlets for their passions, so it doesn’t feel so bad, just as I had my enjoyment of math to balance my resistance to history classes. Do we really need that kind of balance though?
I’m not saying we need to be perfect, but I think a healthy minimum standard for one’s career path would be to make it at least 50% passion work, so at least half of your time is spent doing activities you like and appreciate. I think that’s a fairly low standard though, so personally I prefer to aim for 90%+ in a typical week. I’d say that this month I’ve been pretty close to 100% so far.
I also know that what seems unappealing or even dreadful at one time in my life may become a lot more interesting at some future point. That which I once dreaded I may come to enjoy. A non-passion can transform into a passion. I’ve seen that happen repeatedly.
Passions too, can eventually burn out, and then fresh invitations arise to take their place. This is one reason I deliberately designed my career path with a huge amount of freedom and flexibility instead of boxing myself into some tiny niche. Some people thought that was a bad idea and said that I should “niche down,” but I’ve noticed that I seem to be a lot happier and more fulfilled than those who offer such unimaginative advice. How many times have I seen someone like that dreading their work after just a couple of years, whereas I still love and enjoy the richness and variety of my work in this field after 17+ years? I credit my past self with recognizing that I would eventually outgrow an overly narrow niche, and I’m glad he was wise enough to see that flexibility was essential for my long-term happiness.
Keeping Passion Fresh
Sometimes the way we do things grows stale, and we need to freshen up the approach to keep it interesting.
My latest project is designing a new online workshop that I’ll deliver on October 29-31, so a little over two weeks from now. I shared back in April that we’d be doing an online workshop on these days, and now I’m going through the design process to create it. This will be our first 100% online workshop, after having done 16 in-person workshops from 2009 to 2016. So that aspect alone helps to freshen up the experience, at least on the delivery side.
However, I’m also approaching the design process in a fresh and inspiring way. I’m using several AI creative tools (based on the GPT-3 language model) to help me design the workshop. The AI isn’t writing content for me. Instead I’m using it to explore the idea space more thoroughly than I otherwise would. I’ve been sharing updates about this in Conscious Growth Club for the past several weeks. I’m really enjoying this because it’s such a unique and modern experience. I like discovering where the AI is weak and where it’s strong, so I can combine its intelligence with my own to create an even better workshop. I’m well into the design process, and I really like how it’s shaping up. I’m also way ahead of schedule, much like I experienced with math classes back in the day.
What’s especially interesting about GPT-3, at least from my perspective, is that it was trained on about 10% of the Internet, including my blog, so it knows a lot about me, my past ideas, and my writing style. Hence I can even invite it to generate extra ideas that it thinks I might conceive of. Since I love to explore new approaches, I’m really enjoying this experience, and I find it super motivating to work on this project each day. I think it’s going to be very beneficial for the attendees as well. It’s a truly unique experience to work with an AI that was partly trained on my own creative work.
Consider how an AI like can look further ahead than humans in a game like Chess or Go (see the AlphaGo documentary on YouTube to learn more about this, which I highly recommend). On the one hand, some people may see this as dehumanizing or threatening, but that’s a weak and disempowering frame to use. A better frame is to realize that humans can collaborate with AI to become better players. They can discover new insights about a domain by using such AI as an exploration tool. For instance, in the game of Go, AlphaGo discovered new strategies and tactics that humans missed, including the most masterful Go players on earth. So this is a beautiful new mode of human-machine collaboration. Something similar happened in the Chess world.
If you’re entirely outcome-focused, then such an AI may seem like a threat, especially if it has the ability to beat you in achieving your desired outcome.
But if you’re more process-oriented, then you can leverage AI to enjoy the learning and discovery process even more. The AI will happily assist you in becoming a better player. I feel fortunate to have access to AI tools that have been trained in domains that interest me. GPT-3 is technically a language model, but as many people are discovering, that’s an oversimplification of its capabilities. I regard it as a fascinating tool for creative exploration within the space of ideas.
Instead of exploring strategies for the game of Go, I’m using AI tools to explore fresh ways to frame, structure, and present ideas for the upcoming workshop. The AI doesn’t help me work faster – in fact, my design process is a lot slower with it, which is why I’m giving myself lots of extra time for this project. But the AI helps me go a lot deeper. So I’m using it to create a better quality experience, and this aligns very nicely with savoring the creative journey.
With the AI’s help, I can generate and consider dozens of permutations of related ideas. I can explore how those ideas link together in many more ways. I can look further around the edges of ideas for related concepts that I might otherwise miss. I can leverage this type of AI to become better at my work. And in all honesty, I’m loving the experience, which I’ve been exploring for about six weeks now.
So I suppose that if you attend the October workshop – and I’ll share more details about that soon – you’ll be attending one of the first-ever personal growth events co-created with human and machine intelligence working together collaboratively. It’s going to be a unique experience, and since the AI has been trained on a vast amount of human knowledge, I think you’ll find it surprisingly human in terms of its depth.
So that’s an example of how I’ve been freshening up my passion. Much as I covered in the Amplify course earlier this year, I find it crucial to keep my creative processes fresh, interesting, and growth-oriented. To me this is inseparable from doing quality work. If I really enjoy the creative journey, the work turns out better, and this yields a better experience for those who partake of it.
Incidentally, if you want to get the details for the upcoming workshop via email, just make sure you’re signed up for my email list, and I’ll surely notify you and let you know how to sign up.
Why try to force progress with painful lurching when you could invest in enjoyable and motivated flow instead? You’ll get better results from processes you enjoy instead of trying to use processes you resist. When you catch yourself dreading the tasks on your plate, question why you’re doing them at all. Would you still opt to do them if no one else cared whether you did them or not? Are you doing them to appease others? To avoid trouble? How much longer do you want to live your life that way?
When I work creatively with the AI tools, they never tell me what I should do. They don’t nag me to do something boring or tedious. They voice no expectations of me. They just show up and co-create with me, and they always let me lead, so I can relax and enjoy the flow of exploration and discovery. Why not develop this kind of relationship with life and work overall? If following other people isn’t working for you, you can lead yourself to a happier life. For many people that’s the only approach that works.
A good place to start is to set your intention. Many years ago I decided to do work that I enjoyed. I decided to run my business in a sustainably enjoyable way. A huge part of that included refusing to work with anyone I didn’t like working with. When life offered me the opposite, which it often did, I rejected those offers. I realized that I couldn’t be tempted by them if I wanted to be happy and fulfilled.
Back in high school, if I had felt as free to choose my path as I do now, I would have told my history teachers that I was declining their offer. I would have trusted and honored my feelings a lot more. At least today I can be grateful for how those lessons, among many others, helped me discover a lighter and more playful path forward.
Now please excuse me while I load up some alien intelligence to flow into some fun and lively design work. And stay tuned for more details on the upcoming workshop…