Setting Yourself Up for Success

Once upon a time I worked at a fairly high-aspiration “green collar” company. We would do all sorts of goofy tests and surveys to discover what kind of leader we were, what kind of motivation we responded to best, and which Hogwarts House we would best fit into (Ravenclaw, but wishing I was Gryffindor). Although most of them didn’t stick, one lesson stayed rooted in my mind. It’s a concrete method for working to achieve a specific goal, or more generally to create the life we want to live. This may not have paid off for the company, as it helped encourage me to leave and pursue a more creative and self-aware life. But I’ve always appreciated it, and I feel that it’s worth sharing.

A bit of internet research reveals that this is also referred to as the “Six Sources of Influence.” It doesn’t seem to be a widely-discussed strategy, but it’s out there if you’d like to find out more about it. Here’s the general idea:



Type Motivation Ability
Personal Learn to enjoy what you’re doing. Practice the skills required to do it well.
Social Surround yourself with people who are excited about what you’re trying to achieve. Spend time with people who are better than you at what you want to do.
Structural Create internal systems and rewards to urge you in the right direction. Build your physical space to encourage you to work on your goals.


I like tables.

Personal Motivation

So easy to say, so hard to achieve. Personal Motivation can be the most elusive piece of the puzzle. It takes concerted effort to develop a love for what we’re doing. We think of inspiration as this beautiful, fleeting thing that hits us in the face and makes us write or paint or whatever for fifteen hours straight. Yeah, right. Maybe once. After the honeymoon phase of any project, love for the subject must be cultivated and nurtured. It’s a relationship. Do we want to have a one-night stand with creativity, or build a long, healthy life with it? We need to appreciate the ups, the downs, and the all-arounds.

Personal Ability

And then there’s the actual work. Practice, practice, practice. Failing over and over again. It’s how we learn, how we improve. This is the everyday, gritty, painfully slow process of chipping away at something barely conceivable. It is putting in the hours even when we forget why we started doing it in the first place, even when the motivation isn’t there. Doing it anyway.

Social Motivation

The social pieces of this process are about the community we surround ourselves with. Social Motivation is finding the people who get us psyched about our projects, either because they’re doing similar work or because they’re avid supporters. Gotta have some cheerleaders. The antithesis of social motivation is that group of people who ask, “Why are you wasting your time on that?” They’re all over the place, and sometimes so subtle in their discouragement. There’s no space for those people in our lives, period.

Social Ability

We learn from doing something over and over, but also by watching other people do it. Our brains are great at mimicking, and at turning visualization into real practice. This happens in rock climbing all the time. I’ll try a route over and over and get stuck in all sorts of different places. Then I’ll watch someone do it flawlessly, and on my next attempt, make it all the way through. Ideally we can surround ourselves with people who are farther along the path we are pursuing. We can learn from their failures as well as our own to progress twice as fast.

Structural Motivation

Structural Motivation is the most subtle aspect of this method. I basically think of it as using psychology to trick ourselves into doing the right thing. Pre-paying for a monthly gym membership is a good example, and has always been a motivator for me. I keep a tight budget, so if I know I’ve already paid for the climbing gym or yoga studio, I’m going to get myself over there as much as I can to take full advantage. Paying as I go, on the other hand, encourages me to save up those passes for the best possible moment, which ultimately means less exercise. Different things motivate different people, though, so it’s important to know yourself and to experiment. Small rewards for accomplishing steps toward a goal can be effective, as can penalties for failure to meet deadlines.

Structural Ability

Structural Ability is such an important aspect for achieving our goals, but it’s one of the easiest to slack on and postpone endlessly. The idea is to create an environment which will allow us to succeed. This includes making the tools we need easily accessible, while keeping distractions out of our work space. One way I could personally do this better right now is with my art supplies. My paints are stored in a box in my closet. It only takes about ten minutes to get them all out and set up, but that’s ten minutes worth of motivation I don’t always have. I could improve my structural ability to paint by setting aside a space that stays relatively set up. Reduce the barriers to entry, basically.

Keeping in mind these six principles, we can maximize our creativity, output, and growth. Each takes intention and work to execute, but the payoff is huge. Of course this can all happen organically, but having the system makes it more concrete, and makes it easier to find our weaknesses. We won’t just magically end up with the life we want to live. We have to build it.

Internal vs. Projected Reality

As I get deeper into art, music, and writing, and start sending those things off into the world, I find that I need to hone my online persona more and more. This is totally natural and makes sense w/r/t having a business and putting on a face strangers feel comfortable interacting with. Cool. But it’s also weird. And it’s not just people who sell or promote creative work who do this. Everyone is doing it all the time. We’re constantly refining our outward-facing “personalities”, while increasingly using those as a primary form of interaction. We cultivate accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, OKCupid, LinkedIn, and all sorts of other things that I don’t even know about because I’m a major Luddite. (Although I did just replace my 2006 MacBook with a super fancy new one, and now I feel like I’m in the future.)

One of the addictive aspects of all these social media is the ability and necessity to constantly “improve” upon our personas. It used to be that the best way to express how awesome you were was to have a witty answering machine message and to wear a cool T-shirt. The T-shirt thing might still get some traction, but now we can post amazing photos online with all sorts of cool filters that make us look artistic with the click of a button. We can share all the major highlights of our lives while leaving out the monotony of the moments and the moments between moments.

And people consume these things. Right now, you’re reading a piece of writing that I’m creating while enjoying a beautiful sunny day in Seattle, drinking an inspiring cup of hot chocolate, and buzzing from a great weekend spent with old friends. It’s edited. It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time. I’m not telling you about the poop I had this morning (but oh man, I could…), or how I broke my nose last week (don’t worry, it’s mostly healed), or how I got bored the other night and kind of wanted to go out and hang out with friends but was a little bit too tired. These are the moments that make up most of our lives.

Increasingly, we’re consuming exclusively the highlights of other people’s lives. But our internal reality hasn’t changed. We’re still people, and we have ups and downs and all-arounds. We get sad, we get happy, we get bored and we get inspired. The hard part is that now we’re perpetually comparing the internal reality of being human to the projected, selected, quasi-reality of being awesome all the time. We have enough friends on Facebook to make it seem like everyone is constantly going on epic backpacking trips, taking fantastic photos, traveling to far-away worlds, having beautiful weddings, and popping out adorable babies. Well, these things don’t happen that often. Most of the time we’re not missing out on anything.

Clearly we don’t want a constant news feed of the mundane. But it would probably be healthy for us to acknowledge it more often, and maybe to see a more true-to-life relative frequency between “Just had the time of my life!” and “Spent the last half-hour masturbating, it went pretty well!” We are all full of insecurities and boredom and uncertainty, and those things are great sometimes. They should be celebrated within ourselves, and they need not be compared with other people’s highlights. It is easy to fall into a trap of impossible expectation, jealousy, or just feeling kind of bummed that amazing things are happening to everyone but us. Instead of getting down, let’s use those moments as inspiration to do more and to be more true to our hearts. But most of all, let’s remember that there’s big difference between our own internal realities and the realities people project out into the world.

We’re OK.

A little mossy....

Personal Renaissance

The whirlwind of spring and summer is winding down, allowing deeper reflection on my life and priorities. After India, I spent a couple weeks back home in Vermont, then flew out to Seattle to start my job leading backpacking trips with the YMCA. After 40+ nights in the woods, a few weeks on couches, and a road trip through Oregon, I’m ready to settle down a bit. The combination of experienced students and great co-leaders on my last 2-week trek allowed me time for self-examination, which I’ve never experienced on course before. I’ve decided it’s time for a Personal Renaissance.

Here’s what I’m thinking, and maybe you can relate:

Music. I’m ready to play in a band again, and to get back to my roots in classical music by joining a string quartet or orchestra. I haven’t been keeping up with all the great new music coming out, and I want to make that a priority.

Art. Being a vagabond is not conducive to making art. I’m ready to be in a place where I can set up a small studio, rediscover my painting practice, and explore the creative nooks of my visual cortex.

Connections. I haven’t been in one place for more than a month straight in over a year. In a lot of ways, this has been a wonderful growth experience. I’ve seen (a small part of) the world. But my relationships have suffered. It’s time to reinvest in my local community and forge new connections.

Outdoors. I’ve been outdoors a lot lately, but all for work and no play. I’m eager to rekindle my personal connection with nature and explore beautiful places. For the first time, I feel invigorated to go outdoors after a course rather than burned out.

Mindfulness. Meditation and yoga require stability and a solid routine in order to make a deep impression on our consciousness. For months I’ve structured my life just the opposite. I’m going to reincorporate mindfulness by building my life around the practice.

Motivation. Here it is. This is the crux of the Renaissance. Cultivating a meaningful life requires intention and action. A strong internal sense of motivation is what makes it all happen. For me, especially during bouts of depression, weak motivation has been the crumbling foundation that caused everything else to crash down. We must find ways to make a motivated state the norm. Personally, I maintain it by always learning something new, reading a self-help book on the side, exercising a lot, and meditating regularly.

All too often it feels like life flies by in a swirl of appointments, long days at work, and rushed time at home. Sometimes this is how things need to be. But not always. We need to dig deep to find gems of motivation and inspiration in our lives. We all crave greater purpose, but it takes concerted effort to find it.  We must set meaningful intentions and work hard to follow through. We must allow ourselves to be continually reborn.

A wise man whispered in my ear: Drink life’s every moment like your last sip of water.

What does your Personal Renaissance look like?

Culture Shock v2.0

I’m quickly approaching a month back in the States. Culture shock continues, but in a much subtler and more drawn out way than the initial jolt. Mundane activities like grocery shopping, walking to a park, and meeting a friend for coffee have stopped blowing my mind. I’m slowly making less eye contact. But a seed of disorientation persists.

A big part of my confusion is the enormous disconnect between life the States/Vermont/Seattle and life in India. There’s basically nothing in my life here that reminds me of my life over there. The trip is starting to feel like a weird dream that happened a long time ago that I can’t quite describe to anyone. The comfort I acquired in bouncing between extremes has been replaced by wondering why things are so easy and straight-forward here. People make plans? Get places on time? Expect this from others? Days float by.

I continue to be struck by the wealth and assumption of comfort here. We all have relatively so much, but it’s not enough. We allow ourselves to get worked up over little things and problems we’ve created just for the sake of having problems. Traffic, slow service, soup that is too hot. At the same time, we hoard our wealth instead of using it to fix the inequality, injustice, and exploitation all around us. This is the downside of the adaptability of humans: when things are good or great, we get complacent and form expectations.

This is all starting to sound like a major downer. It isn’t meant to be. Life is amazing here. We have green spaces and potable water from the tap and clean bathrooms and time and space to exercise and pretty much do anything we want. The country is fantastic and beautiful. It’s just a lot to process.

I’m sure all this will calm down as I settle back into Seattle, but part of me doesn’t want to let it go. During my travels I developed a healthy sense of urgency to make something of my life and my privilege. If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you’re well-off, well-educated, and empowered. We need to remember and appreciate this, and acknowledge that these are gifts that we can use to help others achieve the same freedoms that we enjoy. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama comes to mind again:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Survived India!

Wow. I just went from a city of 22,000,000 to a town of 1,600 on the other side of the world in 36 hours. Wow. I made it. I’m in one piece, healthy and happy. I barely got sick. And I managed to trick jet lag by staying up until 5 am my last few nights in Delhi. After a taxi to a plane to a bus to a plane to a shuttle to a plane to a train to a train to a train to a car, I arrived home to Vermont last night around 8 pm. I had a salad (!!!) with my mom, went to bed at 9:30 pm, and woke up at 7 am feeling surprisingly well-rested and alert.

So there’s a thing called reverse culture shock. It seems to be bigger and faster than regular culture shock because all the differences hit you at once, instead of slowly revealing themselves as you get to know a place. You’re back in a place that’s familiar, except nothing works as you’ve grown accustomed. A lot of my experiences in the past (long hikes, meditations, etc) have given me the sensation of a crust being cleaned off my brain, allowing me to see things with new eyes. Right now is the strongest I’ve ever had this sensation. My brain is entirely crust-free.

Here’s what is different:

Clean air. I just went for a three mile run and my lungs feel wrecked from four months of the pollution. We’re so lucky here.

Clean water. From the tap. Amazing. It tastes like unicorns and rainbows. Clean ones.

Trash. Where is all the trash? Not burning in a pile next to the street?

Empty space. There is so much space here, and so few people to fill it. But they do manage to fill it, because

Personal space. You don’t get any in India. People here expand to fill the space they’ve got. Touching suddenly feels weird. I probably touched (inadvertently, shaking hands, etc) more strangers in the last four months than the rest of my life in the states.

Bare legs. Whoa. You’re wearing a miniskirt on a train?

Phones. Most people in India have phones, but they don’t stare at them as much. They’re usually in a group of real-life people instead. It felt like all the New Yorkers on the train had their heads down.

Quiet. It’s so quiet my ears hurt. I didn’t know this was a real thing.

Lawns. Houses. Cars. All so big.

No people. Even Penn Station felt like a tidy little community gathering. Nothing like a ‘crowd’ anywhere. But still people seemed to be in a big rush. I didn’t see a lot of rushing in India, or at least not a lot of stressful rushing. You’ll get there when you get there, and that’s mostly out of your control. Which relates to

Stress in general. People here have it, a lot. In India, there is non-stop honking in the streets, everyone is constantly cutting everyone else off, dipping in and out of lanes. But nobody takes it personally. It’s just how things work, and there’s a sense of “we’re all in it together”. Here it feels a lot more like a competition. And big trucks.

Trucks. And people driving them. If you had enough money to have a truck in India, you’d probably be using it to ship goods and you almost definitely would not be the one driving it.

Highways. They pretty much don’t exist in India.

White people. Black people. India is mostly all the shades in between.

Communication. I can understand everyone. I kind of wish I couldn’t. But mostly people don’t seem to be communicating, they’re in their own bubble.

Dogs. Someone had a dog with them at the grocery store. I was not afraid of it biting me and sending me to a hospital for a rabies shot. Also no scary monkeys.

Trains. Here they’re late and clean.

Bathrooms. They’re everywhere! No more pee anxiety!

Recreation. People are doing things for fun all over the place, and a lot of it involves exercise. I didn’t see much exercise for health or recreation in India, and what little there is mainly consisted of getting huge at the gym.

Bare feet. Without fear of hookworm.

Did I mention the clean air? I also have a strange desire to take pictures of people sleeping in awkward positions on the train. This might not have to do with culture shock.

I can already feel my brain adjusting to the vibrations of life here. We’re such adaptable creatures. I feel really lucky to live in such a healthy place full of so much opportunity. Now I want to do something with it.