Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Loss of Motive Power

Constant frenetic activity is an opiate for the soul (my apologies to Karl Marks). Moving and not thinking, ticking off things completed and not reflecting, achieving and not questioning -- they all have a calming feeling, giving a sense of purpose to what otherwise might look like a random walk down the path to ??? When in the midst of that activity, it can be comforting, almost a siren's song.

Activity that is directed toward a goal and generates movement (real or apparent) toward that goal creates energy. Energy is harnessed into motive power, which then feeds back into the cycle. The result is a virtuous circle that is self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. I think of it as a spinning bicycle wheel, a flywheel where continuous input of energy can result in a very powerful source of stored power. When you are in the virtuous circle, it seems like it is the whole world -- you become increasingly focused on, even obsessed by, increasingly finer levels of minutiae.

The problem comes when something happens outside of the circle -- and there is a whole real world outside of the microcosm of the virtual world of the virtuous circle (now if I could just figure out how to get virtuoso in this as well, I would feel like I didn't need to start words with a 'v' for at least a week!). And something always happens -- job loss, death, something that causes a disruption from the outside. It could be something as simple as waking up one day, and realizing that you've stretched yourself way outside of the person that you naturally are, and are just dang unhappy.

Whatever the cause, the disruption is just like stuffing a 2x2 between the spokes of your spinning bicycle wheel. When that happens the circle isn't just disrupted, it's destroyed, and the energy that the cycle generated dissipates leaving nothing intact. And the faster it was going before, the greater the destruction when the flywheel is disrupted.

So what do you do when that calming spinning virtuous circle falls to pieces? The first instinct is to try to pick up the pieces and put it back together again. That usually takes some time, however, and as you are looking for a few missing spokes or pounding on that out-of-round rim with a hammer, you begin to notice things. Mostly you notice that the whole world isn't a spinning bicycle wheel. There is huge variety and choice out there. If it takes long enough to rebuild your wheel, you might decide that you've reached a point where you don't want the bicycle wheel any more at all!

Without that familiar virtuous circle, that spinning flywheel to offer comfort, however, your motive power is gone also. In fact, everything you ever learned and knew about generating energy and storing it was tied up in the flywheel concept, and now it's gone. And that is where the real conundrum is -- how to reclaim motivation and the energy to move forward without the old familiar tools? How do you motivate yourself when you now know that spinning bicycle wheels are no longer in your future? Other people seem to be doing it, but the secret is somehow hidden from you.


  1. It strikes me that you are really describing two separate issues in the above post, but might be blurring the line between the two.

    The first appears to deal with the need for introspection. Do/should we live our lives in a manner that we have the time and peace available to introspectively examine ourselves to assist in day to day guidance of goals and time allocation? More specifically, do we allow the pace our life to interfere with the very activities that should be helping us to determine the correct pace of our life. I'm inclined to believe that for US culture the answer is too often that introspection is a lost art. Because we don't practice, we're not that good at it. Because we are not that good at it, our faltering activities initial feel very non-productive. Of course we are comparing this to the well polished approach we have to getting things done under pressure and at fast pace. I wonder how long it actually takes to become good at being introspective.

    The second issue appears to be how many wheels should we have going at any given time and how much attention is appropriate for each of these wheels. Life's balance - do we focus a one (or a few) things and become deep experts in a field; or do we generalize in many things, being the world's leader in none but competent in all. Regardless of which path is chosen, I suspect there is always a residual question of what might have been.

    A caution. I think there are problems with mixing the two issues above. How we examine ourselves and how we allocate ourselves to the world around us are distinctly different ideas, just like which bike you ride is not the same as how fast you ride it.

  2. I was thinking specifically of the first aspect and not the second at all. I admit, the illustration is less than perfect. The primary point is that there is a temptation to become so deeply drawn into the thing that we primarily do (especially, in my case, my career) that it becomes the only thing we think of and tend to forget much of what else goes on in the world. We draw inspiration from our successes and goal achievement and feed that back into the work world, which draws us suductively ever deeper.

    If the whole thing falls apart, as it did in my case, you lose not only the narrow viewpoint of what 'the world' is, but the primary tool you used to generate motivation. You could be right that it just feels like there is no energy, because the 'other space' is alien and difficult to understand, and we culturally aren't good at this kind of a major life transition, because it "isn't supposed to happen like that". An alternate explanation is that you just need to look deeply inside for long enough to find another energy source.

    Not sure if either of these explanations is right or not, but it is very odd waking up in the morning with an absence of drive...