Working 9 to 9.05, what a way to make a living.
June 5, 2007 10:57 AM   Subscribe

I find it nearly impossible to do any real work, unless I happen to feel like it. But I don't want to end up drifting through life, settling for mediocrity. If you managed to get your act together and are now able work hard on things you aren't interested in, as we all should be able to do from time to time, then my question is: how did you do it?

I'll spare you the David Copperfield crap and cut to the chase. I cruised through school, scraped A grades in all my exams, and got into Oxford. Now I'm there, I've done the bare minimum of work necessary to save face, and I'm failing the exams I'm sitting this week. My university doesn't do resits, or retaken years, or subject changes, so this means dropping ("flunking"?) out. Of course being a college dropout doesn't of itself destine one to failure, but a complete lack of willpower to do the smallest morsel of uninteresting work does.

I'm not just asking how to avoid procrastination, since the answers to that generally just involve raising the barriers to time-wasting. That's all well and good, but things like GTD aren't an answer to the fundamental problem of a lack of motivation in something.

Answers of the form, "I thought I was going to fail my exams but then I didn't! Perhaps you won't either!" will receive no credit.
posted by anonymous to Education (26 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
When I feel like this, it helps to remind myself why I want to do the immediately undesirable task. Usually it is to get some sort of result that I desire. Concentrate on that.

And if there's only a weak underlying reason for the task, then don't do it, or try to change your environment so you don't have to.
posted by grouse at 11:31 AM on June 5, 2007

There are some halfway decent books out there on motivation/ procrastination/ discipline. I myself haven't had the discipline to read them.

One thing I have found that motivates me is a sense of competition- although, you sound burnt out to the point that you wouldn't give a rub about topping someone else.

A healthier way to find some motivation is to aim for becoming a designer of systems rather than a cog- this perspective may not help day to day- but over the long term it really does....

Getting through day to day drudgery involves discipline- and you can strengthen your discipline through habits- i.e. commit to sitting down and working for an hour. Take a 10 min. break- go for a walk. Do another hour. Don't ask too much of yourself at first- and then build up. After a few weeks you will have created a habit and it will get easier.

Get most of your work done in the morning.
posted by mistsandrain at 11:33 AM on June 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm content drifting through life, settling for mediocrity.

It's a LOT less stressful than actually trying to achieve something.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:46 AM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Youre not cut-out for such a competiative university. Dont drop out, transfer out, and at your new school begin working on positive changes towards discipline.

Also, ask yourself if you are simply depressed.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:05 PM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is an interesting question; what do you want? The hardest times are when you want inconsistent things. For instance being admired and not running the risk of failing is a well known combination for non-performers. But there are more subtle mechanisms. Having little tolerance for non-gratification is another. There are more.

A lot of approaches follow the route of austerity coupled with more willpower. These will fail if they run counter to the kind of mechanisms I mentioned above.

The only thing that works against these mechanism is either an conducive environment that creates the right forces or skilfully deflecting the mechanisms.

What works for me is finding a good environment. I work best in an environment where I can shine a bit, where there's a bit of a stick too (for instance a bit of humiliation if I don't perform) and where there's a part of me that really comes alive doing the work.
posted by jouke at 12:05 PM on June 5, 2007 [4 favorites]

It's hard to offer specific help as there's not a lot of context or detail (what's your major, what else is going on in your life, etc.) about your lack of motivation. Are you putting your energy into something else, or just uninterested in life / things in general? If that's the case, then this sounds like a DepressionFilter, and tons of threads offer advice (exercise, good nutrition, meditation, regular sleep habits) on getting out of depression without drugs.

I'm also wondering about dope and drinking -- no value judgements, but for some folks, either of those will just take the wind out of your work-ethic sails. Other addictive-pattern activities like too much web surfing, video gaming, going out to clubs a lot, or an all-consuming relationship, can sap one's reserves to do (as you put it) the things you're not interested in but expected to.

Then there's the matter of reward. Many people look for courses of study or careers in things that are rewards in themselves, that they love doing. Not everyone can have that, so for others, the reward needs to be big money or prestige or the satisfaction of supporting a family. If you're studying something you don't like, can you re-motivate by anticipating some sort of reward at the end of the process? Imagine that the boring work of today will someday get you what you want? If there is no prospective reward, you might seriously want to change course now and get on with something more suited to you.
posted by aught at 12:09 PM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

In the end you learn that if you have goals and you want to meet them, then you buckle down and do it. And although, laziness, lack of practice, whatever, sends you away from your desk after 5 minutes, you go and put a load of laundry on and sit at your desk again, and again and again.

Don't pay so much attention to how you feel. Set your goals (study for this long, read this many pages, understand this bit of theory) and then do it.

It's not easy, but it's simple.

I'm sympathetic to your plight because this year was the first time I ever had to learn something that wasn't easy for me. Everything else I could either understand almost immediately, or I could abandon. I cried, wanted to scream, fought with my family, ate heaps, but that didn't make the work go away. So I did it. The satisfaction that came after I succeeded was enormous (so was the weight gain - but I'm working on that).

So, do it. Seriously. Sit down and do it. And if you can't concentrate, read that damn page 5 times, find some internet support, get a different book out of the library for a different perspective and then read that damn page another five times and make notes. Just do it.
posted by b33j at 12:12 PM on June 5, 2007 [5 favorites]

My life changed when I realized that every moment is my own, and I get to choose to waste it or not. Whether you're chained to a cubicle or a study carrel for 8 hours every day, or whether you've got all the free time in the world, you're choosing how to spend your time. And lo and behold, all those moments that you think don't matter, they add up to your life. It's a lot of responsibility, but also a lot of freedom. My time here is finite, and I'm determined to make the most of it.

I've got two questions I ask myself, depending on whether I'm at work or not, when I feel like slacking. If I'm at work, "Would I do [this slacker thing] in my free time, if I wasn't forced to be sitting at this computer?" If I'm at home, "What would I most wish I could do if I were stuck at work right now?" These help me figure out whether I'm spending my time in the best possible way. Sometimes the very best thing is sitting and watching the clouds go by, and other times it's buckling down to achieve something I want, even if I don't enjoy the process. When I choose to be idle, I don't waste time feeling guilty about it, and I don't fall into a downward spiral of procrastination, because I consciously chose to spend that moment being idle. The choice is how I know that I'm living my life, rather than letting it slide by.
posted by vytae at 12:26 PM on June 5, 2007 [25 favorites]

This sounds familiar. I thought I was an unmotivated loser. Turns out I had ADD. "I can't get my act together" is a familiar refrain for folks with ADD--it's just really difficult to buckle down.

This may or may not be you, but it is certainly worth finding out before your life has passed you by, with you unable to accomplish all the things you so wish to do.
posted by frykitty at 12:35 PM on June 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

I just erased a long answer to boil this down to the bullet points:

- are you ok physically? enough exercise, sleep, eating properly? sometimes I get in a funk about some aspect of my life, and I have to force myself to evaluate my physical state. if it's not in check, I know I can't possibly objectively evaluate anything else.

- is this given particular field of study boring to you, or is it that you need constant change? some fields offer that.

- the study aspect may bore you, but the job it gets you might be stimulating. if you haven't already, think ahead to what the job this education will get you would really be like, day to day. if that doesn't stimulate you, get out sooner rather than later. be honest with yourself.

- there is no replacement for liking both your field of work and its execution. your off hours, no matter how great, can't replace it. when you find it, mediocrity won't be an issue, because your interest level will be high and extra effort will be fun!

- be tough on yourself when it comes to your own assumptions. are you confining your choices to some "acceptable" range? don't. certain goals -- a family, assets, wealth -- tie you to certain choices, but those are choices, too. your life is an open experiment. go find what interests you. imagine it as a job. if that isn't to your liking, keep it as a hobby, and move on.
posted by dreamsign at 12:38 PM on June 5, 2007

I struggle with this, and I don't have any instant fixes, but here are some things that help me:

1) Have some proper fun outside of work. Good times with friends, fulfilling personal projects etc. You might think that this would make the work seem even worse in comparison but in my experience the opposite is true - it brings your general mood up so the work doesn't seem so bad.

2) Have something to look forward to. Preferably several things: something in the short term, something in the medium term, something in the long term. Sometimes it's possible to squeeze a couple of extra hours of work out of a boring day just from anticipating a cold beer at the end of it. If you've got something really fun happening at the weekend, you can draw strength from that all week. The better you can imagine it, the more it will help you.

3) Cultivate physical relaxation. When you are not tense you need less energy and enthusiasm to get going on something. Exercise is good for this.

If I had to nominate one of these as the most powerful it would probably be the second. When you don't have anything better to look forward to you are absolutely screwed when things get difficult.
posted by teleskiving at 12:50 PM on June 5, 2007

I went to Oxford and I DID change subject, in fact, but it required a massive effort.

The problem here is that you need to figure out what you are passionat about and do that. Degrees are neither here nor there.

As a first hint, what were you happiest doing when you were 10 or 11 or 12? Get a job in that area. The surest prescription for happiness I know.
posted by unSane at 1:00 PM on June 5, 2007

What you have described is quite often the curse of the gifted student. You spend your childhood learning things easily while your classmates struggle. Unfortunately, this means that your classmates learned a much more important life skill that you never did--dedication to completing a difficult task.

Seriously, do you think other people really enjoy slaving over their homework while you bang out A-quality work in a few minutes? Do you think there's some special secret that allows people to work for hours on challenging projects? Well I'm here to say they don't and there isn't. The only thing they do different is they don't give up when something is difficult.

So the challenge isn't how to magically transform something uninteresting into something fun. It's learning how not to give up. Thankfully, there is only one thing you have to do to not give up, and that is to not give up. Suck it up and keep working.

If you really "don't want to end up drifting through life, settling for mediocrity", that's all you have to do. If you can't even do that much, then maybe mediocrity really is for you.
posted by turaho at 1:18 PM on June 5, 2007 [17 favorites]

My one word reply (amphetamines) got deleted, but I wasn't being a smartass.

This sounds familiar. I thought I was an unmotivated loser. Turns out I had ADD. "I can't get my act together" is a familiar refrain for folks with ADD--it's just really difficult to buckle down.

Amphetamines are quite often prescribed people with ADD. What they don't always tell you is that these stimulants have pretty much the same effect on people without ADD.

Want to get a lot of work that you couldn't begin to care about done in a hurry, and with plenty of gusto? Take some amphetamines. I wasn't talking about street drugs. You can ask just about any doctor to prescribe dexedrine or adderall (at least in the US, I don't know about the UK).

Drugs are not the solution to all of life's problems, but if you're looking to get motivated about something that holds no interest for you, they'll do the trick in a hurry.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:59 PM on June 5, 2007

As a fellow Former Gifted Student, I think turaho is on-target here about the causes of this frustrating state of affairs. I suspect that persistence and perseverance are (like languages and gymnastics) easier to learn when you're very young; OTOH, better to learn them at your current age than when you're in your forties. (TRUST me on that...)

What's helped me much more than "buckle down!" self-exhortations is finding or figuring out ways to ally with other people in keeping myself focused on tasks. For example, the *only* way I stuck with the studying to pass my statistics prelim was by meeting every week with a group of fellow students who were also prepping for the exam. We'd take a few minutes to piss and moan about how much we hated stats, and then we'd work for a solid block of time, and then go hit the beers. When I need to do some writing that I've been avoiding, I find that even just sitting across the table from a friend, both of us typing quietly (or staring wretchedly at the screen) keeps me from drifting away, mentally or physically. In my current job, there are many things I have no motivation whatsoever to do; but if I can call up a colleague, and talk through whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing, it often gives me enough of a boost to at least get some headway made.
posted by Kat Allison at 2:07 PM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and something odd that might or might not work for you (it often does for me) is a type of paradoxical-intervention technique called "symptom prescription." Say you've been procrastinating on a specific task--writing a paper, perhaps--that you have *no* motivation to do, and you try and try to make yourself do it with no success. In this approach, what you do instead is direct yourself to perform the symptomatic behavior. In this case, you'd set aside a half-hour, say, during which you have to practice your procrastination. Under no circumstances can you work on the paper during that time.

Weirdly enough, when I do this, I often find myself after a few minutes thinking "Oh for GOD'S sake," in an internal voice of amused exasperation, and I suddenly feel a free flow of energy to work on the thing I've been avoiding. If you suspect you're someone whose blockages come out of resistance to compulsion ("You can't MAKE me do it!!"), it might be worth a try.
posted by Kat Allison at 2:24 PM on June 5, 2007 [11 favorites]

> My one word reply (amphetamines) got deleted, but I wasn't being a smartass.

My one-word reply is adderrall. But there's a much cheaper generic now, containing amphetamine aspartate, amphetamine sulfate, dextroamphetamine saccharate... you get the picture. I persuaded a doctor I was ADHD by (truthfully) describing myself as having the attention span of a retarded grasshopper, but the prescription doesn't have some mysterious effect on some mysterious mental facility called variously "discipline," "concentration," "focus," etc. It's just plain speed, and it zaps precisely the attitude that I previously (and correctly) called laziness--I don't fucking want to be doing this boring shit, I want to be doing that fun, interesting thing." On this mild form of speed I look up and find I've completed both this and that, and now have time for the other, whatever it is. Oh, physical side-effects: it doesn't make me feel bad at all, not nearly as bad as too much coffee does. 15 mg fake adderrall at 5 AM and another 15 at noon and it's out of my system enough at bedtime (9:30 PM) that I have no trouble sleeping. Miracle drug. I'll fix my character through meditation and cold showers in my next life.
posted by jfuller at 2:39 PM on June 5, 2007 [4 favorites]

im exactly the same way (never did a scrap of homework or studying and slid through school on test scores). I dropped out of college as well. My solution was to find something I loved and found work doing that. I still struggle with motivation, but its lots easier when you like doing it.

if you're like me, your motivation problems may stem from "whats the point?" a big help was learning to square with the fact that life fundamentally lacks meaning or purpose, nothing you do on earth will ever matter - even if you're jesus himself christ, and people are irrational little white ants that say and do infuriating things. (there isnt' an answer or any bit of wisdom that makes any of it ok, its just a rock in your shoe you learn to live with)
posted by nihlton at 2:56 PM on June 5, 2007

actually - listen to this one>>

I'm content drifting through life, settling for mediocrity.

It's a LOT less stressful than actually trying to achieve something.

that was gonna be my fall back plan but I sort of fell into a profession. google diogenes - didn't even own a cup. "The gods gave man a simple and easy life. It's us who fuck it up with all these ideas about success and achievement" (paraphrase)
posted by nihlton at 2:59 PM on June 5, 2007

This isn't a direct answer to the question ("how did you do it?") but I'd like to point out that the Oxford system does not give you much externally-imposed structure, nor does it give you little rewards for good work along the way. You're given a large chunk of time (1-2 years) to prepare for a really complex, difficult task (mods/prelims and then exams). For some people, the key to being able to "work hard on things you aren't interested in" is to have a) a very structured work environment, with lots of short-term goals and deadlines, and someone else holding you accountable for them; and b) frequent rewards for doing well (e.g. good grades on coursework in an American university, or praise for your work at a job, or income from completed freelance projects).

So, I am not at all dismissing the suggestions above about how to work on yourself, but it may be that part of the answer will be a change in your environment.
posted by Orinda at 4:08 PM on June 5, 2007

I've been there (not Oxford), and I really think it comes down to being in the wrong subject, and thinking you have to do some specific thing, whatever it is you happen to have enrolled in, and having it be the exact wrong thing for you.

You have time. Drop out. Do something else for a while. Make a bit of money. Learn what you like. Do that instead.
posted by blacklite at 4:41 PM on June 5, 2007

Tell the part of yourself that wants to do nothing that you love and accept it, and if it wants to do nothing -- well, then, you will do nothing. And do nothing in STYLE: go out, have fun, read, relax, actively do what you secretly want to do and protest. Do it wholeheartedly. Give up your ambition to be different: seek to love yourself and do what you deeply want (even if it's "nothing"). Stop fighting yourself.

Tell us what happens...
posted by shivohum at 5:05 PM on June 5, 2007

How far through the program are you? I hate to be all heartless about it, but if you can stick it out for another year or two, just do it. Get yourself some ADD meds, good health habits, and get that degree. You'll be glad you did, even if you don't use it. I regret not finishing my first degree and am considering going back to finish it now, ten years later. It's a huge pain now that I'm out of that mindset and lifestyle-- huge huge huge huge huge pain. I wish so much that I would have used all the possible resources around me to my benefit and just stuck it out. Damn. Good luck to you.
posted by orangemiles at 6:22 PM on June 5, 2007

For me, the key to getting through my 'lump' was starting antidepressants. Your mileage may vary.
posted by SpecialK at 10:46 PM on June 5, 2007

a complete lack of willpower to do the smallest morsel of uninteresting work--

Seconding turaho. When I was starting my second year at university, one of our instructors told us that a lot of smart kids get good grades in high school without having to do any work. They get to university, where everyone is just as smart, and they flounder, because they've never developed any study skills. (He recommended that we take a study skills course offered by the university, which I did.) A list of suggested books on study skills: scheduling, taking notes, reviewing, preparing for tests, etc.

Discipline, like most things, takes practice. Why is it that you can't sit down and study when you don't feel like it--when you're distracted, bored, frustrated, sleepy, lonely, or just thinking about something else? If you've never had to do it before, it's not that surprising. It's like saying that you've never run before, and then wondering why you're having so much trouble running a marathon.

mistsandrain: you can strengthen your discipline through habits- i.e. commit to sitting down and working for an hour. Take a 10 min. break- go for a walk. Do another hour. Don't ask too much of yourself at first- and then build up. After a few weeks you will have created a habit and it will get easier.

Excellent suggestion, only I'd suggest starting with ten minutes and building up from there, instead of an hour.

If you want more advice on how to strengthen your discipline, try reading a time management book--my standard recommendation is Alan Lakein's How To Get Control of Your Time and Your Life.

I don't want to end up drifting through life, settling for mediocrity.

I think the key thing to recognize here is that life is difficult. No matter where you get to in life, you're always going to have some major challenge ahead of you. That's okay; if life were easy all the time, it'd be incredibly boring. If you can learn to face up to challenges and endure some amount of pain--again, this takes practice--you'll be able to achieve much more than if you avoid them. Taking on problems is what forces you to grow, to become more competent and responsible. When life is easy, you don't learn anything.

See M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled. The Stoic philosophers, like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, also have a lot of good advice on dealing with adversity.

Of course Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius didn't have the Internet to distract them. If that's a problem for you, check out Lifehacker's Invisibility Cloak.
posted by russilwvong at 12:40 AM on June 8, 2007 [3 favorites]

First of all: everyone faces this problem at some time or another, and it comes in a variety of different flavors. There are different reasons and patterns for different people, and everyone has their own solution. Know that you're not alone, and you will figure it out eventually. Also know that in the end, it will be worth the time it takes to get it right.

I'll admit that I had the ADHD problem as well, and getting that sorted out was the real game-changer. I'm reluctant to mention it, because some people seem to think it a cop-out, as I know that I would have at one point. The whole "amphetamines make dumb stuff stuff interesting!" attitude still rubs me the wrong way. But the issue was so central to my problems that it would be dishonest to start anywhere else. Don't listen to other people on this issue. You are old enough to figure it out yourself, and trust me, if this is your issue, you'll know. And if this is your problem, you need to address it. If it's not, it's not; but if it is, it will put the brakes on everything else and prevent you from moving forward.

I'm going to go on a long tangent here, but this isn't specific to ADHD -- it's about rationalizing the very behaviors that prevent you from reaching your goals. For me, this was simply about my the methods I used to do my work.

I was skeptical about the ADHD thing. I insisted on getting a battery of tests before I'd let my psych prescribe me anything, but seeing the end results was like a kick in the stomach. Now, I wish more than anything that I hadn't been so stubborn about getting evaluated in the first place, because I now feel like essentially wasted most of my education. Don't let this happen to you. (Also remember that if this is your problem, you don't necessarily have to take meds to deal with ADD/ADHD -- behavioral therapy works as well, for example. The key is that you identify and address the problem if it exists.)

That said, I never had issues in school, even thought I get distracted by shiny objects -- in fact, I was proud of my ability to knock out an A-quality paper in the hour before class, when everyone else had to spend weeks on the same assignment. This is a stupid, arrogant attitude. I honestly cringe when I remember thinking like this, and even saying it to others. I always had good grades -- not perfect, but very good -- and the highest test scores among my peers, so I contented myself with the notion that if I really wanted to, I could have that perfect GPA. I just didn't have anything to prove, so why waste all the time?

Lies and self-deceit. There is no substitute for hard work. You can do many things with raw talent, but you'll never fulfill your potential unless you develop dedication as well.

I imagine that there are many bright people out there who develop this same coping mechanism: they become really good at doing slipshod work that looks like it's actually intelligent. (This isn't necessarily indicative of ADHD, but I imagine they're correlated.) At any rate, everyone who behaves this way will eventually hit a wall where doing slipshod work just doesn't cut it. For me, this happened when I got my first real job. While I could do in 5 minutes what would take most people 2 hours, what I couldn't do was work for two hours. Surprise: no job in the world rewards the ability to fake results. (Well, not to the organization you're working for, anyway; many jobs reward fakery.) Worse, you won't be able to fake it consistently enough to succeed.

The weird thing was that it wasn't that I didn't like my job -- in fact, I loved it. Where the ADHD issue kicked in was that even when I was working on a neat project, I would kick away at it for 15 minutes or so, and then realize I was reading CNN, had 20 different unrelated browser tabs open, and was doing some tangential research, and -- holy shit -- two hours had gone by. I remember one day just stopping and staring at all the crap I was doing -- none of it related to work -- and thinking, "Wait, how the hell did I get here? Last thing I remember, I was getting stuff done." It was actually a surreal moment. Thus, the questions with the psychiatrist about ADHD, and so forth.

However, that may well not be your problem. Again, I don't want to impute the ADHD thing onto you; it's just that some of your confusion sounds like what I was experiencing. I was bored throughout undergrad, and now that I was challenged and engaged, I wasn't able to perform. It was terrifying. I'd always figured that since I spent so much time at my hobbies, that would transfer over to the workplace.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Your talents are distinct from your methods. You can be an amazing writer, but that doesn't mean you're a novelist. A novelist is a writer (maybe not amazing) who can write 100,000 words in a row. These are different things.

So the first thing to be aware of is that what you might have thought was necessary to achieve your goals (and what you were probably told) might not be what's actually required. You sound like you're at the point of saying, "OK, I've done everything I was supposed to do -- why isn't it working?" The first and most obvious answer to that question is that you learned the wrong things.

What I'm trying to get at is that if you've done what you thought you were supposed to, and things aren't working out, you need to check your assumptions.

Don't rationalize your behavior just because it's gotten you to where you are; you can win the first few minutes of a marathon by sprinting, but you're sure as hell not gonna win the race.

The second thing to think about is what you really want to do, and to be prepared to change course. It sounds pat, but it's still important. I came to college for Computer Science, because computers were just what I did -- but when I started taking CS classes, I realized that I enjoyed it too much to do it for a living. I realized that 10 years down the line I'd be in a cubicle next to the kids who sat next to me in class, under the same fluorescent lights, listening to the sounds of Counterstrike, smelling Doritos and Mountain Dew, hearing endless arguments about Agile Programming, GPL versus BSD licenses, object-relational impedance mismatches in databases blah blah blah.

I didn't hesitate to quit. If it's not working, stop doing it. I became an English major. It was around then that I realized I wanted to go to law school, so I set my sights on that and then spent 4 years trying other things -- writing, editing, politics, management, business. Most were interesting at first, but none quite fit. And law looked better and better as I learned more about myself and what I wanted from my life, so I kept on the law school track -- as of now I've just finished my first year, and I couldn't be happier. It's probably not for all people, but it's the right thing for me.

The point is that I can't tell you how much of a difference it makes to be working on something that you care about. And I don't mean "care about" in the sense of "enjoy" -- for example, I really, really, really enjoy programming, sometimes more than law. But if I'm having a down day, I can't go and start coding. But I can read about law, for some reason. I can't explain it. But no matter how depressed I am, I can pick up a textbook from a class that I couldn't care less about and just read and read. And highlight. And take notes! Stuff I never did in undergrad, no matter how cool the topic. I can't say how good my GPA would have been if I hadn't worked my ass off (probably bad), but I do know that I've never been as proud of my work as this -- and even the same GPA wouldn't mean much to me without that feeling of pride.

I've also found a radical difference is in how I treat my off time now. My down time is actual down time -- I can read about pirates or work on my programming without feeling like I'm neglecting my studies. That makes a huge, huge difference. When I'm relaxing, I'm actually relaxing, not procrastinating or avoiding work or taking time off because I've got work but damnit I just need to blow off some steam -- I'm just... relaxing. It's weird that I'd never really known what that felt like. And strangely, I find myself needing it less. :)

There's no substitute for doing what satisfies you. Not screwing around with that "follow your dreams" stuff, but the thing that makes you feel complete and good at the end of the day. Many people make the mistake of trying to make their hobbies into their careers -- also remember that nothing is the same when you have to do it 200 days a year as when you can do it at your leisure.

Remember: you can make the thing you love into a career, but you can't make yourself love something just because it's your career.

I'll cover a third point and leave it at that, because this is already too painfully long for anyone to read. And that's to echo the "lifestyle habits" bit a few people made above. It's hard to talk about this stuff and not come off as preachy, but partying habits are often incompatible with lofty goals, sometimes in insidious ways. And I'm not just talking about the talented friends we all had who smoked too much weed and still haven't moved out of their parents' houses. That's obviously not the person this question is directed at.

I'd just encourage you to consider two things on the topic of drugs, alcohol, partying, and so forth. (And keep in mind that I'm not coming at this without some background in these topics -- how extensive, we needn't get into, but suffice it to say that I know what I'm talking about.) You can get away with a lot of bad habits and still be perfectly functional. There are many high-functioning stoners out there. Everyone has the genius pothead friend. But just as with the talents/methods distinction, your habits might not keep you from reaching the 90th percentile, but they will make anything past that practically unattainable. For some of us, getting to that 3.6 or 3.7 GPA actually isn't that hard -- but getting to the 4.0 is really tough for almost everyone, and in some ways it's tougher for us. Drug use, same thing.

Second, consider that not only do these things affect people differently, but you must keep in mind the confirmation and selection biases at work. You see your friends out drinking and having fun much more often than you see them hung over and puking. You don't miss the guy who only comes out 1 of 3 times (he's not a shut-in), but two of those times he's up in the morning working while you're slamming down the Advil. And this is all even putting aside potential legal and health issues, which are game-enders in many cases.

The point is that all of this stuff adds up, and the cumulative difference is substantial. I quit drinking when I got to law school (which is saying something, because law students drink a lot), and found that I didn't miss it. (Incidentally, if you really can't help yourself from going out to bars, try getting lime-and-sodas and telling people they're vodka tonics. I've grown to find this more entertaining than actually drinking.) I also think that I wouldn't have made it through my first year any other way.

Ultimately, it sounds like you're wondering why it is that you've gone through the motions, but things aren't working out. When that happens, usually it means that you need to check your assumptions. Start by digging down into these simple, foundational things, like what you really want to do (on a purely conceptual level), whether you're getting to 90% but what you want or need is to get to 100%, whether there are psychological or structural barriers preventing you from getting there. Write it all down. Try new things.

Perhaps best of all -- find someone older who you respect and learn about their habits. I found that the most accomplished adults I knew, who were often the life of the party, are in fact very driven, focused, detail-oriented people, almost to the point of being mundane, but they all enjoy doing it (and the results) so much that even the minutiae is fun for them. You'll probably find as well that there's often no such thing as pure talent -- merely people who work hard and make it look easy.

The Book of the Samurai says, "If one is but secure at the foundation, he will not be pained by departure from minor details or affairs that are contrary to expectation. But in the end, the details of a matter are important. The right or wrong of one's way of doing things are found in trivial matters."

I used to play with my desktop picture compulsively, like many people. About a year ago, when I found out I'd been accepted to law school, I changed the desktop on my computer to one line and haven't changed it since:
I will pass this way but once. Therefore any kindness I can show, or goodness I can do, let me do it now -- for I will never pass this way again.

Good luck.
posted by spiderwire at 2:26 AM on June 10, 2007 [16 favorites]

« Older Finding a way out of a tangled web of financial...   |   Help me identify this Constructivist book. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.