Business Musings: Why We Do What We Do
Well, I’m sitting in a breakfast nook, surrounded by sunshine, in a condo I hadn’t seen as of January 1, living a life that I hadn’t expected to be living on that day either. Dean and I are now going back and forth between Las Vegas and Lincoln City. In fact, he’s in Lincoln City right now, while I’m helping two traumatized cats adjust to high rise living. (There’s noise! And lights! And sirens!)
For someone who really appreciates a schedule, finding myself in a new place at the end of the first quarter of the year, without planning on it, is unsettling to say the least. I need to plan my new schedule for the year, and as of last week, I had no idea what the shape of the next six months would look like.
Fortunately, Dean and I worked on our schedule while he was here last, and I now have a vague outline of how life will proceed, who will travel where, when, and how. Of course, things could change, but we have an outline, anyway.
So, I should’ve settled right back into the novel I’ve been working on (forever). But I’ve been running from it. And it took some analysis to figure out why.
I’m at what I call “the downhill slide” of the novel. That’s when I know more or less what has to happen, and there are very few (maybe no) surprises left for me. So I have to type and type and type on a project I’m mentally done with, while I’d rather be doing something else.
This is such a severe problem in my writing that when I was a young writer, I would skip this part altogether. I would write until I hit “the downhill slide” and then I would skip ahead to “and they all lived happily ever after” part.
When I would hand those manuscripts to Dean, he would quiz me on what happened in the missing part. It irritated me, and more than once I told him, I gave you all the pieces. You should be able to figure out what happened next.
I wasn’t yet a good enough writer to know that it’s my job to put the pieces together, because if I’m doing my job right, what looks obvious to me isn’t at all obvious to anyone else.
The point is, though, that I find this part of the job tedious work. It is the absolute worst place for me to quit, move across country, and then try to get back into the project. I know that, and I’m struggling with it. I’d rather be doing anything else. This morning, I even changed out the cat boxes instead of writing.
That should tell you how much I enjoy this part of the process.
So, Dean and I have been trying to figure out a way around this part for me. We’ve discussed everything from abandoning the project to writing to the end as fast as possible. To which my annoying muse replied, We’ll do it the way we’re doing it. In other words, finish this thing, and then move on.
All of that got me thinking about motivation. Those thoughts were helped along by the fact that I’m getting back to my various reading. I’m also driving more, so I’m hearing random snippets of things on the radio. (I love random snippets. I find them inspiring or edifying. I learn about things I wouldn’t have considered looking up myself.)
The first random snippet came from an All Things Considered interview with the author Leslie Jamison. She wrote about a book about being a recovering alcoholic. Only the book isn’t so much about the addiction as it is about art and recovery. (Or so it sounded from the interview.)
She spoke of her concern that getting sober would hurt her writing. I remember a similar concern when I started therapy not for addiction, but for chronic depression. I said to the therapist that I was afraid working through my demons would destroy my writing. The therapist calmly told me that my work would get better. I believed her enough to stay in therapy, but I was skeptical since she wasn’t an artist, so I figured what did she know?
Turns out, she knew quite a bit. I wouldn’t be sitting here—or maybe anywhere—if I hadn’t done the hard work on that therapist’s couch.
So, like a lot of young writers, I think I had internalized a certain mythology about drinking and writing that there was a kind of dark, moody, self-destructive temperament that sought out booze, sought out drugs, sought out intensity of experience in that way and turned it into beautiful art, that kind of suffering and dysfunction were what great art was made of.
And I had a real fear that getting sober was going to mean that all those sources of intensity were shut down, but I became really interested in the fact that some of the drunk writers that I had idolized most – Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson – had also gotten sober and had written really incredible things.
Apparently, I had internalized the same mythology. I’m not sure if the mythology had come from it the lies about Hemingway and his process that keep getting perpetuated. (The man couldn’t have written as much as he did if he had been drunk all the time.) Or if that mythology had come from the failed writers who taught English and related classes, using the drug/alcoholic myth to encourage themselves to write less (and drink more).
I just Googled Jamison’s age to see if we were of a generation. We are not. She’s 23 years younger than I am. So those myths continued, at least into the next generation. I hope something kills those myths eventually.
What Jamison was doing, as she saved her own life, was searching for motivation to continue writing. When myths like that go in deep, it has a serious impact on the writing itself.
Jamison had to figure out what fueled her writing. Did the booze and the darkness fuel her writing or was it something else? I recognize that space, because I’ve been there too.
And I wonder about it with other writers, and with others who work in non-traditional professions. Frankly, it’s pretty easy to figure out why most people work their day jobs. Most people do it to support their families and sustain their lifestyles. Most people are disconnected from work. It is what they do to make the money to allow them to do something else.
Some people are lucky enough to work in traditional professions that they happen to love. My father was one of those folks. He worked as a professor to make money, yes, but because he loved teaching. (In fact, as being a prof changed toward the end of his career and “publish or perish” became a thing, he fought against it. He didn’t want to publish articles or write books; he wanted to teach. And he did.)
But those of us who do what we’re compelled to do, what we love, and what defines as much or more than how we look or where we live, we have to be really careful of motivation. Because the wrong motivation—or a motivation that was set improperly (and set deep) like the one about darkness and writing—can destroy a writer. If the writer’s motivation is to become a bestseller, what happens when she does? Goal achieved, there’s no more need to write.
I’ve spent my entire career studying writers (and others) who’ve succeeded, searching for the motivation that keeps them working long after the obvious goals were met.
In addition to Jamison, I heard about three other types of motivation this week, from three different types of professionals—an athlete, a musician, and an actor.
Athletes fascinate me the most. Because they know that their careers are going to be short. They’re not going to be ninety and winning races against twenty-year-olds. A professional athlete learns a career that will leave them as they age. Some plan for that change. Others keep going as long as they can.
And what about the athlete at the top of her sport? What happens after she wins the contests she puts herself in? What happens when she achieves the goals that drove her? Does she retire or does she continue, even knowing she faces injury and slow decline?
(Writers see the slow decline only if they’re diagnosed with some kind of dementia. Otherwise we can keep working, albeit slowly if our health is poor as mine was earlier this year.)
The answers to those questions came from the second thing on motivation I saw this week. Esquire interviewed 33-year-old Lindsey Vonn, arguably (as they say) the best female skier of all time—81 World Cups in alpine skiing, one of two women to win overall World Cup championships, and one of six to win races in all five alpine disciplines. Then there’s the Olympics. She earned a bronze this year to go with her gold from 2010.
She’s at an age where athletes decline, and while she’s faced a lot of injury, she is still going strong. The interviewer, Adam Grant, asked how she continues, even though she has “achieved everything an athlete dreams of.” Vonn’s answer is this:
Because I love it. I love going fast. I love competing. I love the adrenaline and taking risks. I think that’s missing a lot in sports. A lot of time, on the professional level, people just do it to get money—and I’m exactly the opposite. All I want to do is ski fast.
Grant, who co-wrote a book with Sheryl Sandberg on resilience, is focused on this topic throughout the interview (which is worth reading). He asked the question about motivation in a different way later in the interview, asking how she maintained her love of the sport in the middle of competition. Vonn answered:
Competition is what I find joy in as well. I like pushing myself. I like setting those goals. I like knowing that I’ve executed the plan I have set forth. All those things feel good. I don’t mind the mistakes. Failures are new challenges—they make me more excited to go back out there because I did something wrong and I know I can fix it.
The bottom line is that no matter how Grant asked the questions, Vonn’s answers were the same. She loves what she’s doing, and didn’t want to do anything else. (She also talks about overcoming injury and staying focused, again, things that sound familiar to me, but are outside the scope of this post.)
Vonn does what she does because she wants to, not because she has to. She’s excessively driven, and she seems to have filtered out the noise that sometimes comes with extreme success and fame. I say seems to because there are hints that her life isn’t perfect (her mention of her dogs as motivation to get out of bed on dark days, for example). But she has figured out how to work around whatever it is that comes her way, and manages (or tries to) stop her.
I say the same things about myself—that I do what I do because I want to. I also make it sound like I have no choice but to write. But that’s not entirely true. I do have a choice—a rather ugly one. If I don’t write, if I worked a day job (or a series of them, given my temperament), that depression that I received treatment for would have dominated. I would have been an utterly miserable person, and I would have been extremely unpleasant to be around.
I work hard at making sure I can write, just like Vonn works hard at making sure she can ski.
But even that compulsion, even that desire to do what you want, isn’t always enough, particularly when you’ve made enough money and you have had acclaim, and you realize that you could live a “real” life instead of the one you’re living.
So what motivates the work?
Well, in another interview in Esquire, Donald Glover answers that question. He’s staring down the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story in which he has the coveted role of Lando Calrissian. He knows it will take him from famous to superstar, just by being part of the Star Wars juggernaut.
He says the upside of it is that it will give him freedom.
And what, interviewer Bijan Stephen asked, will Glover do with that freedom?
Make stuff that no one else will make. Part of the reason I do what I do is because I’m the only one who can do it.
And there it is, that thing, that truth. I don’t believe most of us think about that much. We’re trying to get our stories on the page. But in reality, they’re our stories, not someone else’s. We write from who we are. We can’t help it. If we allow ourselves to be ourselves in our work, then our work will feel original. If we try to emulate others, it won’t. (Vonn says the worst advice she ever got was to try to be like someone else.)
Glover’s pithy paragraph encapsulates Jimmy Buffett’s entire life and career. Buffett is the musician I mentioned earlier in this post. But Buffett isn’t just a musician. He’s an awesome businessman who has turned his signature song into a lifestyle—one the New York Times gleefully pointed out earlier this year that he does not live.
Buffett’s empire has 5,000 employees. He doesn’t license the rights to his stuff. He creates everything associated with Margaritaville and he tours and he performs and he micromanages the new projects. He is, according to a Times witticism, “the lone occupant in the Venn diagram of People Who Outearn Bruce Springsteen and People Who Are Mistaken for Men of Leisure.”
Buffett’s not a man of leisure. He sees himself as being in the good and services business. He says,
If you like what I do in goods and services, if we make you feel better after a hard day of work and you want to come blow off some steam and you pay for that, I’m going to give you your money’s worth and have a good time doing it.
But, as the Times points out, he still oversees that good time. They write,
The work ethic his family instilled in him when he was growing up in Alabama means that he can never really hand the wheel over to someone else. “I think it was just the way I was brought up in a seafaring family,” he said. “I wanted to be in charge, like a captain of the boat.”
He is in charge. He could, as the Times says, “never work another day in his life and still dive like Scrooge McDuck into a swimming pool full of money.”
But he doesn’t. He still, according to the Times, remembers what got him to this place. The Times believes that’s motivation enough to keep working harder than most people ever work, let alone at the age of 71.
I don’t think that’s it at all. It’s clear that Buffett loves what he does. And he respects his fans. And he enjoys the business part of his job. And he refuses to provide an inferior product, even if it’s easier to let someone else license his work.
I find inspiration in all four of these people, for different reasons. Jamison, for facing her fears. Vonn, for continuing through the injuries and the success, Glover for following his vision, and Buffett for maintaining his vision throughout the decades.
I saved Buffett for last for a major reason, though. Buffett established his own record label in 1999—long before the internet made what we all do now possible. He held onto his rights, which enabled him to build a net worth of $550 million (according to Forbes, reported in the Times). That net worth inspires him not at all. The product—the goods and services—inspire him. His business sense allowed him to keep control of what he does.
I admire that more than I can say. But Vonn is the one who put it the most succinctly: “…it doesn’t matter who your coach is or who helped you along the way—it’s still you at the starting gate.”
That’s why I don’t take credit for my students’ success. The successful ones did it on their own. They picked the bits of my advice that worked for them. Just like I’m picking advice that works for me. As I’ve done in this blog post. I’ve found the bits and pieces of motivation in a whole bunch of different areas, and combined them into something that means something to me.
And, I hope, it’ll help you as well.
Now, excuse me. I have an annoying novel to finish, so I can get to something new and exciting (which will, some day, become just as annoying). Until next week…
The move still isn’t over. Half my stuff is in Oregon, and half of it is in Vegas, and Dean and I are still trying to figure out what remains up north and moves down south. But we’re more organized than we were three weeks ago, which is saying something. And I actually have time to contemplate things like motivation, rather than struggling to set up my office. (Which still isn’t set up entirely, but at least I have a desk and a chair!)
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“Business Musings: Why We Do What We Do,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / PhotoEuphoria.