Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart when the researchers gave each group a follow-up test of equivalent difficulty. The group told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test while the group told they had worked hard performed either just as well or slightly better. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for working hard, learning, and being good students did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse, and were more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. The ego does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans are. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on implementing the things we say we want to do. If we remember that the  hard work is what is important, and focus on that instead of focusing on talking about our goals then we can address the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.

Work and Identity

On a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, Klein interviewed two journalists to talk about the central role that our work now plays in our lives. For many people, work is becoming increasingly important as a way to define oneself and as a way to give life meaning. I have seen reports and experienced in my own life that we have fewer close friends, fewer social groups, and fewer organizations outside of work that we participate with. The work we do ends up taking on more importance and more space in our lives as our lives outside work becomes less fulfilling.

 

One of the big problems we can face in this type of world is with the way we value ourselves. Having a kick-ass job ends up being the determining factor as to whether we are meaningful and valuable, and it can end up putting us in a place where we make bad decisions and can’t enjoy who we are without achieving success in work. Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy wrote about what happens when how we value ourselves as a person is connected to our work, “The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. It’s a fear of taking responsibility, admitting that we might have messed up.”

 

Our egos want us to have great jobs and be impressive to everyone around us. When this becomes the only thing that gives us meaning and determines our value, we can’t take chances because a failure reflects onto us. Rather than allowing a failure to be an attempt at something new, the result of multiple factors, and driven by an unpredictable economic climate, failure is viewed almost as a moral shortcoming on our part. Our ego can be so fearful of failure that it drives us to bad decisions and drives us away from taking responsibility for our actions when failure occurs. Rather than learning, we deflect, and try to position ourselves as a victim. As a society we will need to move to a place where our work is still important, but where we have fulfilling lives outside of work. Existing under this pressure where we define ourselves by the work we do will take away from the richness of life and shut out people who may not be greatly positioned to contribute economically, but still have value by virtue of being human beings and can connect with us and others in meaningful ways that will help us find fulfillment as a society. We can still work hard, but we should find additional ways to value ourselves and our time.

Take Chances

There are a few things that I have always been terrible at doing.  Planning for trips, meeting up with friends for a late night, and getting involved with group volunteer activities are a few that come to mind.  What all of these activities have in common is that they require that I leave the comfort of my own home for a new adventure.  I enjoy the familiar and the routine, but like anyone else, I become bogged down without the opportunity to have novel experiences navigating the unknown.  The relationships I could build if I made more of an effort to get out and volunteer, spend time with friends, or explore new places would be worth so much more than the money I bank by taking things easy and settling for a quiet evening and an individual workout.

 

James Harmon in his book, Take My Advice, includes a letter written by  Michael Thomas Ford in which the author states, “Take Chances. I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s harder than you think.  I seem to pick this scrap a lot, probably because I need to be reminded of this on a fairly regular basis.  The older you get the more excuses you come up with for why you can’t quit your job and spend three months writing that screenplay or why it’s ridiculous for you to even think about running in that marathon.  of course it’s all a fear of failure. But failing is a lot better than wondering what might have happened.  If you’re pretty sure something isn’t going to kill you, there’s no reason not to give it a shot.”

 

I think that Ford’s quote hits several major points for me.  Taking chances and putting myself in new situations does sound like an easy thing on the surface, but once my day gets started it begins to feel impossible for me to do all of the things that I would like to do, especially when a bigger risk is involved with any given thing.  With my limited time I find that I fall back on the comfortable habits that I have developed.  I have worked hard to build myself a routine where I take care of all the work I need to in a day from work itself, to exercise, cooking and cleaning, prepping for the next day’s lunch, and organizing small things.  What soon looses a space in my day is the exciting and fun that accompanies the unfamiliar.  Spontaneous dinners with co-workers often don’t find a way into my plans, and I never seem to plan that road trip I have been longing for.

 

Ford is encouraging us to get out of our comfortable daily routines that maximize our responsibility and efficiency. He certainly is not advocating for us to be irresponsible and lazy, but rather he is urging us to do something new that will build memories in ways that material items and a checklist never will. The fear of failure that Ford mentions is what drives us into a mere existence as opposed to a full life.  We want to impress others, prove our mental strength, and be productive, but sometimes our motivation for these activities stems from external rewards and sources.  Shutting off the outside voices allows us to ignore the fear of what people would say or what may happen if we do fail at something, and gives us a new reason to do the exciting thing we have always wanted.