Commitment vs. Gratitude vs. Doubt

Every Monday, I share what’s on my mind. In the midst of the pandemic, I’ve come to realize that one of the things that truly bring me joy — writing — is missing from the equation. This is my attempt to rectify that.

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I’m committed to doing certain things, on a professional and personal level.

Professionally, I want to continue to develop my mind and skills. I want things that I’ve worked on over the course of my corporate life — managing people, communicating clearly, leading by example, making quality decisions — to persist for the foreseeable future.

I want to maintain a positive mindset every week so that I can deliver the best possible results, and not live in any state of regret.

To support these goals is the mental equivalent of going to the gym. To get stronger at things, you keep doing them. Over and over and over, lest the mental muscles atrophy.

Over time, it can feel like you’re trying to over-exert just to maintain the same level. And that’s OK.

A friend once asked me how I maintain my motivation, especially when it comes to being part of a globally-distributed startup. There is no office, and I act as my own boss.

The answer for me has always been three-fold:

  1. I am driven by anxiety. I can’t sit still. I need to channel my energy and focus into something. I do it because I can’t imagine lounging by the beach, literally or metaphorically. Every year, it’s wanting to grow the business and feed my career ego — proving that I made the right career choice. It also manifests itself in personal ways: weight loss, running a marathon, writing a book, learning a new topic, and so forth. (All of these things will be covered in future updates.)
  2. I am driven by my co-founder and business partner. We have a simple system of weekly discussion: what are we doing this week, and how are we thinking about the future? Joint accountability taps into the essence of human nature — we don’t want to let our comrade down. Or our investors, for that matter.
  3. I am driven by not wanting to go back to the corporate environment. I have been spoiled by 2+ years of relative freedom, not having to get to the office across town by 9:00 am, etc. We’ve worked hard to make the business run well, and we need to keep at it.

90% of the time, the above system and train of thought works for me. I am content to go about my week-month-year doing these things. I’m a happy hamster on the wheel of life.

I started a journaling practice three years ago. It involves writing down, every week, a list of recent things that I’m grateful for.

Sometimes it’s as trivial as the nice weather. Other times, it’s about a friend who came through for me in a meaningful way.

Physically writing things down is quite effective, even if I rarely go back and review my entries.

Gratitude? Check.

But 10% of the time, I’m in a mental state where gratitude and feeding the ego don’t quite work.

The anxiety gives way to self-doubt.

A question arises: is my system really working for me? Am I “progressing”? Or am I just doing the same things over and over, without real gains?

Let’s say that your goal is to get physically stronger. You want to benchpress a greater weight, or to look better with your shirt off, or get to 12% body fat, whatever.

In the fitness world, there is a clear way to achieve these things. You begin a tailored exercise program combined with dietary changes. Both the starting and end states are quantifiable. You’ll know once you get there.

Professional commitments and goals don’t work that way. In the corporate world, the closest equivalent is to set your goal to become [Prestigious Title] within [X] years.

But that has been proven to be ineffective. People who have “made it” don’t think that way — they do good work every week-month-year and let the gains compound over time.

So what can I do about that 10% self-doubt? The only thing I can do is to believe that I’m mostly correct about my system, but that there is room to change it — and that the anxiety and second-guessing is never going to completely go away.

The world isn’t deterministic. We have to believe — truly believe — that what we do has some outward impact on others and ourselves.

The alternative is to give up on life, or to become cynical to the point of losing all effectiveness.

Maybe I needed to hear “this” more for myself than anyone else. Could be why I wrote all this down.

Regardless, that is my random thought of the week. More to come in subsequent weeks.

Whatever “it” is. Go get it, friends. Take care of yourself and be excellent.

What I’m reading

Just finished The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which is a nice study into what we perceive to be moral and how contemporary American political discourse came to be.

One key takeaway of Haidt’s book is that humans tend to rely first on intuition for deciding on what’s right, and then fill in the gaps second with rationalization. This is complementary to works such as Gladwell’s Blink and Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Good things to consider the next time you enter into Yet Another Meaningless They’re-So-Stupid-I’m-So-Smart Facebook Debate.

On the article front, Ed Yong of The Atlantic has been putting out some stellar COVID-19 reading material. Two recent pieces: Immunology Is Where Intuition Goes to Die and How the Pandemic Defeated America.

This long read about the pros & cons of restorative justice, as it relates to one specific family tragedy, is particularly powerful.

What I’m listening to

Podcasts, baby! Even in coronavirus times, podcasts power me through workouts and long runs.

The Athletic NBA Show is a fun listen. My friends know that I’m a HUGE fan homer of The Athletic, and this podcast exhibits the quality of their writing team — funny, spontaneous, well informed.

The hosts try to be serious for the opening 20-30 minutes and then ham it up the rest of the way. They’ve made me consider new things about the NBA restart — a good mixture of information and entertainment.

The Ezra Klein Show. Recent episodes with Jia Tolentino, and analyzing the Harper’s open letter, have been highly listenable. I mostly listen to it when I’m cooking.

Mr. Klein does his prep well and it’s always a good time, regardless of your political leanings. He plays contrarian to his guests, and that makes for a strong, stimulating listen.

That’s a wrap! See you next week.

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One Comment

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  1. James – so happy to read this. I’m trying to build my writing practice too… seems like I’m three years behind you 😉.

    Incredibly pleased for my and my brother’s investment in your and Wilson’s company. I wish I was doing do more to actively support you guys.

    Psyched to re-read this again later and reflect on it :).


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