Note: if you’re a premium subscriber, you’ll be receiving a separate email from me by the end of the day Sunday inviting you to a Zoom call with me and the rest of the subscribers. There’s still time to sign-up. I ‘d like to offer these on more of a regular basis. The first one will take place in the next 2 weeks.
For this week’s regularly scheduled programming, please read on. In it, I share one of the lessons that I learned from a run-in with a hitman in Vegas.
When I was in 5th grade, I designed an orange-peeling machine for science class. I hadn’t learned the art of peeling an orange yet—I would just dig in with my thumbnail and then proceed to tear the thing to shreds.
So I imagined a better way, and I set out to solve the problem with a fancy machine. I sketched out how it would work in great detail, made a fancy color presentation on a large poster board (this was before I ever learned what a “powerpoint” was—that mind-conforming, military-banned, unimaginative pile of code—thank God), and presented it to my teacher and my classmates. Then I built it.
I received an A+++ (or something like that).
I don’t know if the device was practical or if it would’ve ever been worth the price to build at scale, but the presentation and MVP was damn impressive. I could’ve raised a few million ETH from it.
The grade didn’t matter to me at all, though. It was the process of thinking deeply about a problem that mattered to me—and then doing something about it.
I was up all night working on this project. I spent 12 hours on the assignment; the rest of my classmates spent one. They laughed at the level of effort I put it. But I didn’t resent them at all. I had lost track of time. I was in a state of pure flow. It was a joy for me.
There was a lesson to learn from this period in my life about who I am—about the kinds of things that I am most deeply motivated to do.
Recovering Memories (of Flow)
I hope I’m not going too Proustian on you—but remembering that madeleine is damn important.
It’s not as important, though, as remembering the times in our lives when we did something—when we took an important action that was truly meaningful to us. That’s what we’re interested in here.
I had completely forgotten about that 5th grade science project until a wise mentor once asked me to tell me a story about a time in my life when I accomplished something that brought me a deep and enduring sense of satisfaction.
He asked me to reflect on my life—going back as early as I could remember—and come back to him the next week with a handful of these “Fulfillment Stories.” Preferably, he said, they would come from different periods in my life. (“But don’t worry about that too much.”)
I’d never been asked by anyone in my professional life to tell them stories of deeply fulfilling actions that I had undertaken, so I jumped at the opportunity to do this exercise. It’s nice to talk about things that we really enjoyed doing rather than giving predictable BS answers to people who can’t hear what they don’t want to hear, or who can’t listen to the logos of another person.
The first couple stories that I came up with were relatively predictable for me. Starting my first successful company and building it from the ground up, the time I got into the best shape of my life, a heroic moment in my sporting life.
But the more I reflected on my past in silence, the more other things (most of which I’d forgotten) began to bubble up to the surface: a dish I concocted in the kitchen and cooked to perfection, the infamous orange-peeling machine, and a media project where I found myself begrudgingly dragged into the weeds editing the script and helping do post-production on the film, which I was upset I had to do (I was the big picture guy, I thought)—but found myself enjoying the process so much that I wished I could do more of it. What was going on?
As I jotted down the details of 9-10 stories and began to reflect on which ones were most important to me, some of the more obvious stories took a backseat. If I was honest with myself, I enjoyed creating that orange-peeling machine more than I enjoyed my greatest achievement in high school sports.
And here’s another important thing: it wasn’t just “starting and building” my first company that was fulfilling to me; there was something in particular that gave me a great deal of satisfaction in the process of starting that company. Other parts of that process actually zapped my energy and left me feeling drained. It was identifying the particular motivation that was the key to understanding how I was really wired rather than fooling myself into thinking I was motivated to do everything. (As Hustle Porn makes us believe.)
What my mentor was trying to get me to see was that I had what he called a core motivational drive . This core drive was enduring and stable throughout my life and represented a core part of who I was and how I was wired, most likely from a very young age.
If we explored my stories deep enough, he promised, we were almost sure to find a pattern in my core motivational drive: some “themes” that would connect these stories—stories which, in my mind, were randomly pulled from different times in my life.
But there was nothing random about it. As I worked hard to identify specifically what it was about each of these “Fulfillment Stories” that made it stand out to me—the specific aspect of the activity that caused the initial joy of the moment to come back to me in the act of merely thinking about it—I learned something essential about myself. I began to see a pattern.
Two of the five core motivational themes my mentor and I identified, for example, were that I was fundamentally driven to Comprehend & Express and to Experience the Ideal.
Being fundamentally motivated to “Comprehend & Express” means that I’m not satisfied with, or even motivated by, merely understanding something unless I find some mode of expression for it. Exhibit A: an 80,000 word book on René Girard.
Being motivated to “Experience the Ideal” means that I have a vision of a good life and I am fundamentally motivated to align everything about my daily experience with this vision. I want every experience—from the culture at my company to the experience that I or my guests have at a restaurant or bar—to be as good as they can possible be. I’m a master at scene-setting. (Of course, there’s a shadow side to this: sometimes when I feel that an ideal experience has been hijacked, I can get frustrated rather than simply trying to make the best of it.)
I am motivated by these things more than (for instance) the motivation to “Organize.” Don’t get me wrong: many people are motivated to organize—and that’s a good and honorable motivational drive. Believe me, you want to work with people who are motivated in this way as COO’s and accountants and CTO’s.
But I thrive in a kind of spontaneous, combustible environment. This means that I intentionally seek out partners who are more organized than I am.
One of the many beautiful things about this exercise is the smart team-building that can happen once you have more insight into everyone’s core motivational drives—which is (arguably) more important than their skills or competencies. Where motivation is lacking, skills and competencies don’t have room to shine.
As I dialed in my Fulfillment Stories, specific motivational patterns began to clearly emerge.
But I wouldn’t have been able to see them on my own. It happened as part of this dialogical process with my mentor, Josh, who was trained in narrative psychology. This allowed him to trace the design of my life in a way that I was too close to see.
Why do I share all of this with you? Well, first: I’d like you to invite you into this process with me.
I detail it fairly extensively in Chapter 6 of Wanting because I believe that every person does have a Self that is deeper than the socially constituted Self—and this process that I’m trying to describe here helps identify your motivational fingerprint. So it is, in a sense, an exercise in becoming a bit more Anti-Mimetic. It’s a way to drop down below some of our more mimetic motivations and make contact with our fundamental ones (this concept is closely linked to what I call thick desires in the book, though they are different things; I think of core motivational drives as something like a signpost for thick desires.)
Josh ended up going on to develop an online version of the process that he used with me. If you’re interested in doing the full online assessment (which produces a detailed and personalized report), then you can learn more here and find a special code for my readers which will give you $10 off the $49 assessment (so your price is $39).
I highly recommend it. It will give you language that you may have lacked in speaking about the specific shape of your motivational drive.
It’s certainly not required to take the formal (paid) assessment to reap the benefits of the exercise, though. I’ve provided a free template at the link above to help get you started. I did find it tremendously helpful, though, because it gives some important framework.
I’m also going to offer my premium subscribers a bit of free coaching for anyone who takes the online assessment. I can’t promise a Zoom call with everyone individually (I have too many subscribers at this point: it would be a full-time jobs for months on end), but I can promise at least a review and an email with insights from me. We may also be able to organize a “group” coaching session for those who take me up on the offer.
In short, I will do everything that I can to serve you in some way. And if I can’t, I may refer you to one of my friends.
I don’t know where this will lead, but I do know that beginning to think about these experiences and have conversations about them has always led to good things for me. So let’s have a go.
In the words of the great Ted Lasso: “Takin’ on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse. If you’re comfortable while you’re doin’ it, you’re probably doin’ it wrong.”