Motivation in a Bubble
I have no fear of drowning. It’s the breathing that’s taking all this work.–Jars of Clay
Today the calendar promises that we are only a month away from that sweet, sweet day known as the First of Spring. But it is still today, mid-February, and an iron gray cloud hangs overhead, and my toes are numb with cold. There’s something about this time of year that numbs more than my extremities, though. Everything becomes an easy excuse for procrastination: too windy to air out the futons, too damp to clean, too cold to venture out. Sickness visits, and whole weeks are lost to a haze of medicating and recovering. The sun, so brilliant, even intrusive, in the warmer seasons, intermittently appears between the cloud curtain during the day and sinks below the mountains before dinner is cooking on the stove. I’ve read about Seasonal Affective Disorder, and while I do not doubt this is a real problem for some, I also cannot deny my mind’s powers of dissuasion from doing the task at hand. In the early nineteenth century, Shelley asked, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Hate to put a damper on things, but in my experience, yes, it can.
Winter, spring, summer, fall–these will come and go, and return again. What does not change in the natural course of things is the human need for internal and external motivation to do the work set before us. At this stage in my life, there are a hundred tasks, some big but mostly small, that fall under the umbrella entitled “my work.” In pity party mode, I go about it grudgingly, wondering why so much of it goes unnoticed and gets undone so quickly. But then one of Dad’s favorite sayings comes to me: Do you want a medal, or a chest to pin it on? Right. I wanted to a be a wife. I wanted to be a mother. I also wanted to teach. And now I am writing again. All of this entails a trail of a thousand little chores that build into….a finished product? In most cases, they consist of ongoing, unfinished projects, loose ends left straining at the corners of consciousness. I have chosen to take on these various responsibilities, so shouldn’t I just do the work involved while whistling a happy tune?
But it is nice to get that pat on the back, that unsolicited “thank you.” No one would refuse it. It motivates, elevates, and appreciates the value of our work. I love the dual meaning of the word “appreciate” in English, signifying “to grasp the worth, quality, or significance of” or “to increase the value of” something. The tone of an article I recently read in a publication for kindergarten parents struck me in its singular quality: the whole essay was devoted to telling moms they were doing just fine and to stop stressing. Here’s my translation of the excerpt that has stayed with me:
The “normal” parent does not do everything perfectly. Sometimes she cuts corners or skips something that needs to be done. But that same parent then reflects on those instances and strives to do better, because there is a part of her that recognizes a need to strive.
The reality is that getting through everyday life on an even keel is challenging. A sink piled high with dirty dishes is visible proof that we’ve fallen down on the job, but no one takes notice when all the dishes have been washed and put away. Moms work hard to ensure that their households run smoothly even when they are not feeling well, even when it feels more trouble than it’s worth.
Gratitude expressed and praise lavished definitely fuel the fires of our work ethic, but I’d say that intrinsic motivation is an even stronger pulse. How else does one explain human achievement, at any level? At its pinnacle, there is reward in riches and fame. But getting there requires the drudgery of practice, trial and error, and the tyranny of repetition. I want to believe there is value in the means, not just the glorious end. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, did it make a sound? Taken literally, the answer to this query does not matter much to me. But if we accept the falling tree as a metaphor for human effort, I really want the answer to be “yes.” I want to believe that there is dignity in all work, and in giving it my best I am proving my character to be sound. I should not be led by a hunger for attention but by the part of me “that recognizes a need to strive.”
This world does not make it easy to value menial jobs. Monetary figures attached to work tend to rise proportionately with visibility; our entertainers in sports and the arts are among the most handsomely paid. Kids take this unfortunate reality to heart early on. The high school seniors I taught this past year are bright and have many talents and charms. They are on their way to completing a good education in communication and information science. In class last month while discussing different ideas about their future, this question was posed: “What would you rather have, brains or beauty?” The answer? “Beauty, because everyone likes to look at a beautiful face.” It sort of broke my heart, but I also understood the eminent practicality of this student’s view.
Some people are like Ichiro Suzuki, who has spent the bulk of his Major League baseball career on a losing team but continues to pound out the base hits season after season anyway, and break records in the process. Sure, it’s easy to be Ichiro; he’s a millionaire and a household name. But I still admire his konjou, one Japanese expression for “determination” or “grit.” I think there’s something in human nature that resists being a winner among losers, the demoralization sapping our motivation. The ability to rise above the tainted atmosphere is something rare. My brother-in-law has found this with his new employer. He works for a small securities company in Tokyo but has previously worked for larger, more cosmopolitan firms and in the cutthroat world of day trading. His current office is populated by men who have never worked elsewhere and have become inured to the status quo. This necessarily narrows their vision and sucks out the drive to perform beyond expectation, which is relatively low. As a result, he finds himself six months into the job somewhat adrift, feeling untethered in the absence of clearly communicated benchmarks. The only verbal encouragement he has received from colleagues is “You’re working so hard,” said with a half-incredulous air. After almost ten years as a day trader, he was told, “Don’t bother coming in tomorrow” when his returns were not up to snuff; at this company he gets six months’ notice before being let go. The extreme imbalance in his external and internal motivational scales has produced a fair amount of discontent in his working life.
The better part of my days consists in pushing past the tedium and hunkering down. Getting the job done means sidestepping symptoms, moods, and inclement weather and paying no heed to drains on my energies. I can’t count on a standing ovation, or even weak applause, to mark my accomplishments, and I’ve made peace with that. I’ll continue to draw inspiration from those who are fountains of self-motivation, being careful not to set the bar too high. And sometimes I give myself permission to ride out the doldrums. Seated by the window, I wait for the skies to clear and let the sun thaw out the stifled and brittle parts of me. If March comes in like a lion, I want to be ready.