You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.
~ Steve Jobs
In my last post I covered the dark side of a merit based selection and reward system. This post is a continuation from one of the points that came up. Namely, the fact that all high performers may not be performing at their very best, simply because their motivation is money and not the work they are doing. I believe that if people are motivated to work just for the sake of enjoyment of the work itself, i.e., it excites them and feels meaningful to them, the world would definitely be a much better place to live in. It is not as easy as it sounds though. Discovering what you are passionate about is in itself a tough task; casting aside your preconceived notions of the world and working towards an end that you can not measure or even explain comprehensively to most people, that’s even tougher. This is what I want to talk about today. Why people dismiss passion as a motivator as well as a reward for their work. And, why following your passion will rid you off the misery of your daily life.
Imagine you are a young student and are known to excel in academic subjects. You score well all the time and it doesn’t even feel very difficult. Your parents are proud of you and love to show off your accomplishments to their friends; you are the darling of your teachers’ eyes; your classmates are very friendly towards you; basically, life is good. Unfortunately, when the term results are announced you find out, to your utter dismay, that you have scored quite less than your usual standards. Understandably, you are unhappy. Not only that, your teacher calls your parents and tells them about it. You go back home and your parents discuss the issue with you. But, none of it helps. In fact, it makes things even worse because you can’t work out what went wrong. After much introspection, you figure that you are the weakest link in the chain because you messed up somewhere and didn’t even realize it. You beat yourself up about the fact that you caused all this mess and dragged your parents, teachers, and friends into it. You resolve to work harder and make sure this never happens again.
This isn’t an uncommon thing that happens to kids. But, it isn’t a bad thing either, is it? It prompts you to work hard and put in extra effort to achieve better results. By itself the incident hasn’t done any harm. But that’s the thing, you might think this is a one off incident but it isn’t. It is all part of a conditioning cycle. I’ll explain in a little more detail. What happens when the results end up worse than expected? You are surprised and in all probability, confused. Then you notice your teachers looking at you oddly or asking you what went wrong. You realize that something is amiss. Then your parents get involved. They look crestfallen because of this incident, you can sense their disappointment. Now, you realize that something is very wrong. So you try to understand – maybe you didn’t prepare well enough, maybe you weren’t paying attention in class, maybe you didn’t read the questions carefully. Slowly, you realize that it is you who must have made a mistake because everything else seems to be normal. Your confidence drops a notch. But, you decide to work hard and make up for it.
See what happened? A drop in performance led to a drop in your confidence level, your self worth. Like I said, by itself it doesn’t do much harm. However, if this happens to you a few more times, over the course of your school years, or you see your friends undergoing this cycle, or hear about it in school, see it happen to classmates, then the message gets imprinted – a subconscious association of self worth with high performance. I am not saying this always happens in school. This was just a hypothetical situation that occurs very frequently and at various times in our life. And, as the subconscious association gets engraved deeper with every repetition, it has a profound effect on our mindset.
Human beings have a tendency to make sense of everything, by observing patterns and drawing conclusions. Everybody does it because it is one of the basic needs of human psychology, a need for certainty – to be in control of our lives. In the situation above, the case of bad performance is a departure from regular life for the student. It is something new and foreign, and very uncomfortable and undesirable due to the atmosphere of doubt and judgment it creates. It is only natural for him/her to seek to return to familiarity by becoming a high performer again. If this happens again and again, or is observed to be happening to others it is normal for the student to wonder about the factor that causes the negative situations to come about. The only logical conclusion seems to be that low performance causes discrimination and doubt, and high performance leads to appreciation and respect. As life progresses high performance is associated with all the good things in life, and slowly performing well becomes part of the identity of the person. How could it be otherwise if he/she knows from experience that love, respect, and rewards are all a consequence of high performance. Not performing well would obviously lead to doubt, discrimination, and being labeled a failure. This belief becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If you do not perform well – you doubt yourself, your worthiness to be loved and respected, take all criticism as discrimination, and tell yourself you have failed – you become what you set out to avoid because you set out to avoid it. You tied your self worth with the result of your efforts. You believe that the only factor that leads to failure or succeed is you. If you succeed you take all the credit and if you fail you take all the blame. You work hard and expect the results will favor you because you have done your best. If you fail then you think that maybe your best wasn’t good enough. If you believe that, if you work hard only for positive results that you expect, then you have already set yourself up to fail.
You can analyze the reasons for failure or success by doing hundreds of case studies. You can try to make sense of what worked in the past and what didn’t, to make sure that you don’t blunder. But, none of that changes the fact that life is entrenched in randomness. Sometimes success or failure happens by chance. Any pattern or cause that you observe only seems plausible in hindsight (see the quote at the top). It is because human beings can not wrap their head around the fact that the results of their efforts are not in their control. They have to make sense of the mistake and try to correct it. It is the way you have been brought up, it is the way you have seen life pan out. However, it is not your fault. This is the point I want to make – be humble in success and gracious in failure. It is not you all the way, all the time that caused a particular result. Put your effort into any task that you do for the sake of your love and passion for it, not for the expectation of a favorable outcome. If you do that, you will find a sense of peace and happiness in your life, that people who live and die by results are incapable of experiencing. By adopting this mentality, you ensure that you can not fail. You might not get a favorable result, but it is OK because your love and passion are fueling your efforts, not your desire for any particular result. And, contrary to what most people believe (and will tell you so), this does not mean that you are consciously settling for mediocrity. If you have passion for what you are doing, and enjoy the process of doing it, over time you will inevitably excel at it. This is what will separate you from the rest. The fact that you will keep on going, inspite of failure or success, because high performance is not the end goal, the enjoyment of your work is.