There’s been a conversation going on about the idled workaholic over on discuss.userland.com. I was composing a response to something Jacob Levi wrote, and I decided it was getting to long-winded and off topic, and it would be better posted here.
Jacob Levi wrote:
The top-line of this is that for me, personally, money is not the reason I do things. I suggest we all dig a bit deeper. I know where my drive comes from — the need for approval, achievement, love. “See! I did this cool thing, won’t you please love me?”.
It struck a chord because this is definately a major motivator for me. Maybe it’s a bit childish, but the want for approval and love looms large in my life. It’s often been the thing that drives me to success, but it has its traps too.
If I take, for example, my three-year stint in Amsterdam, as an almost rockstar, I couldn’t possibly say that my motivation was money. It was 99% about recognition for my achievement, my skill, and my talent. How could it be about money when we were living on about $30/wk after expenses (sometimes less). Of course, there was always the long-shot possibility that we’d have a #1 hit, get on MTV, strike it rich, and not have to worry about working for material gain for the rest of our lives. But I believe that even if that had happened, we’d still be working our butts off trying to make great music, and get recognized for it. My music, has always been like that for me. I drove my college roommates nuts saying to them, “Hey, check out this Led Zepplin song I just figured out, isn’t that cool? I didn’t know I could do that!”
My work on software and websites has often been driven by much the same motivation. Even as a 12-year-old kid writing programs in Applesoft BASIC, and 6502 assembly, it was a big part of the process. I’d get to a milestone with one project or another, and I’d run downstairs to grab my mom and say, “You gotta see this cool thing I just made.” More often than not, I didn’t have a knowledgable audience for my more geekly pursuits, even though my dad kind of got it. When I was even younger, I made gigantic lego space-stations with my brother and a friend. I would describe to my parents, in great detail, what every little lego widget did. To them, it didn’t matter that it was mostly useless on the face of it. My parents saw how excited I was about solving the problems, and learning things, and they supported me in it for the learning I was doing. They supported it with love and recognition of my creativity. I got the positive feedback at a young age, and it stuck. And I also gained some good problem-solving skill in the process.
The trap for me goes like this: It can be easy to become a workaholic in an unhealthy way. I’ve been in a few situations (the rock-star lesson was the hardest), in which I’ve gotten a lot of recognition and love at the begining, which spurred me to take on more and more work. Later on, I’d get taken for granted, little by little, and get less and less recognition for the good work I’m doing. After all, if I take on this one more thing, I can get that much more love, right? Maybe. But only if I continue to ask myself, “Is this possible? Is this worth the work? Do I have the time and energy to do this?” and be willing to answer any one realistically with a “no.” If I don’t do that, I end up with a plate that’s so full, that all of the sudden, I’m facing burnout. I think it’s also been important for me to keep asking for recognition of my ongoing achievements, while giving it back in turn.
But what happens if I’m the one taking myself for granted? I stop asking, and giving. I end up juggling too many crystal glasses at once, and one of them falls and breaks. Then all the attention turns negative, and the few positives that are left don’t balance it out. The attention and love is a two-way street. I’ve got remember to be just as willing to tell others how cool I think they are for all the great things they’re doing. I have to remember to spread the love. It all comes back. If I’m too busy to do that, then it’s time for me to take credit for how powerful I can be, by honestly saying, “I can’t do this one more thing, because I’ll drop something. Isn’t it cool that I can say that? While I’m at it, let me remind you how great you are, because I’ve been so busy that I’ve been forgetting to do that!” It’s not been easy for me to learn this, and I sometimes forget it. It’s one of the life-lessons I’ve been struggling to get to sink in, since I graduated from college. I’m getting it little-by-little, but I still have to remind myself once in a while.
Now that I’m here in the Valley with all these maybe-a-million-dollar carrots around, I still find myself looking towards projects and people that create in myself the desire to solve problems for their own sake, and for the sake of being able to hold up a solution and proudly say, “Check out this cool thing we made!” It’s important for me to do the work, but it’s also important to get the recognition from my peers, my friends, and my family.
Who can say they’d outright refuse a billion dollars? I’m sure some would. I probably wouldn’t. I’m sure I’d pay bills, buy a house, get a nice car, buy my brother a house, fund my friends’ startup companies, and hold on to enough that I’d never have to worry aobut money again. Maybe I’d start my own company. Undoubtedly I’d give away large sums to good causes. Look at Mozambique. A few million dollars could go a long, long way there.
But I definately wouldn’t just sit back on and spend it, waiting for my ass to get big, and my chin to sag. I’d seek out projects and people that I could feel good giving my love, my skill, my creativity and my energy to. Once a while I’d hold up something we’d done and say, “Isn’t this stuff we’re doing really cool?” It’s part of who I am, and I wouldn’t change it.