Culture Is the Key to Sustainable Motivation

January 8, 2021
6 min read

Brennan struggles to turn his beautiful tangles of thoughts into writing. Why? we inquire.

Brennan expresses his admiration for my drive to just do – I had written an article about his vision for education reform before he even had – and a connection suddenly comes to mind: the analysis of confidence and action in The Confidence Code. An inhibition from action comes from a fear of action. Brennan struggles to write because he is afraid of the consequences and accountability of writing. He is afraid that he will lose his beautiful tangles of thoughts.

The key to overcoming this fear and establishing confidence is action. This is the thesis of the self-help part of The Confidence Code. If you’re afraid of doing something, and you act upon it, and no harm comes to you, your fear erodes a little bit. Do it repeatedly, and it fades away completely, and you can move on to the next, bigger thing that you are afraid of. Tackling a fear of public speaking can start with simply greeting people you wouldn’t have otherwise. You’ll see that this isn’t so scary; you’ll grow comfortable with saying hi to people, and now you can move on to striking up conversations you wouldn’t otherwise. Then, conversations with strangers. Then, giving speeches to audiences.

How does one establish comfort with writing, or build a habit of it? There are internal and external motivations.

I believe that internal motivations created through incentives (I will reward myself if I succeed) or forcing functions (I will punish myself if I fail) are bound to fail. The only kind of sustainable internal motivation is the belief that the habit is worth pursuing in and of itself. I’ve disliked the idea of tricking yourself into good habits for a while – they never worked for me, and felt fundamentally wrong – but the positive alternative has only recently been clarified to me by a talk Satvik Agnihotri gave at TKS Community Talks.

Satvik abstained from masturbation for three months, and continues to do so indefinitely. When he offered his advice for how to achieve such a feat of willpower, there was no mention of incentives or classic habit-forming tricks. Instead: “do it for two weeks, then relapse. You’ll feel the benefits, and you’ll keep going.”

Forcing functions themselves are not sustainable, and therefore only valuable for building long-term habits if they lead to the discovery of this sustainable internal motivation. For Brennan, for example, forcing himself to write an essay per day is not valuable on its own, but would be if it erodes his fear of losing his beautiful tangle of thoughts. It would be valuable if, day after day, Brennan found that instead of losing his free thinking capacity, tying thoughts to writing in fact cleared the way for more beautiful thoughts to add themselves to the tangle. Then, even after he stops forcing himself to write an essay per day, he will retain the comfort and habit of writing.

Brennan pushed back on this point, though. “I’ve written consistently before, and when I stopped I felt horrible, but that didn’t make me start writing again.” That’s because internal motivation never operates alone. I appeal to my idea of memory as an array of locked doors, what you bring to the present a reflection of your keys in the moment rather than the events of the past themselves. Brennan gives an even better analysis.

There are two steps to doing something: starting, and not stopping, Brennan says. He brings up the analogy of static and dynamic friction. It takes some amount of force to get an object from rest to a nonzero velocity, but once it does it takes less force to keep it moving, as the coefficient of dynamic friction is lower. When we stop moving, the coefficient of friction suddenly increases to that of static friction: it takes more force to get moving again than it did to move before. So it goes that one might get into a brilliant sequence of writing – Brennan when an application he worked on led to essay idea after essay idea, for example – but then, once it’s over, not be able to start off again.

Suddenly another connection comes to mind, a number of people I know who write continuously and fearlessly: high school creative writers. How do they write so much?

Simply by starting and never stopping. To us, writing is, on some level, a distraction. We’re not building. We’re not making things happen. We’re putting words on a page, and we feel some guilt about doing it. To those who label themselves writers, on the other hand, writing is natural. Even if writing is paused for a bit, the practice of writing is never halted completely: an auxiliary force pushes it along, so that when the writer returns to continue working, they will have to put in force to accelerate their writing back up to pace, but the force required to achieve motion will be no more than what they were putting in before. They do not have to overcome static friction anew.

This analysis works well flipped around, too. At Edyfi, we find it exceedingly easy to talk about and pursue our startup ideas. We’re not the only one having these ideas. There’s no reason education reform is tied to tech; in fact, it belongs more so to other domains. Far more non-techies have thought about education reform than techies, and many have likely dreamed about starting their own company to pursue their vision. They may act on this dream if, on a certain night, a person they meet or a piece of content they consume allows them to overcome static friction and make progress. They may even look up relevant VCs and come up with an action plan. But when they drop it to go to work the next day, then come back to resume work, they have to overcome static friction anew, and chances are there’s not another person or another revelatory piece of content to push them along. So, the idea dies. On the other hand, a techie never falls out of motion. If they come up with an idea and revisit it days later, in the time that elapsed, the auxiliary force of being a techie has kept the possibility of working on it moving, so they only need to put in force to accelerate against dynamic friction, that is much more easily overcome. That’s why Brennan has been able to connect with technical leads at Astra Nova while not even having published a written piece about his education reforum vision yet.

When I say this, Mattea lights up and tells me how much the startup analogy resonates with her. She’s had ideas for startups before, but they’ve always floundered, because she didn’t have the auxiliary forces to keep her going. That’s why she came to Edyfi, to be around people who could supply such forces. Brennan shares a similar story of a startup he tried to start earlier after dropping out of college, that he gave up on after spending 8 hours on a logo. That never would have happened if he did it at Edyfi, he reflects; he would have felt shame from sharing with us his surrender when we were all pushing forwards.

I have my own example in the positive. In the spring, I joined the literary magazine The Incandescent Review. I found myself a writer among, and then an editor and director among those who billed themselves creative writers, many of whom had won prestigious awards. When it came to introducing ourselves, it was assumed that we were all creative writers. “What kind of writing do you do?” “Poetry and fiction,” one might say. “Essays and YA novels,” says another. “Journalistic writing and short fiction,” I come up with, the former a slight overstatement and the latter more or less a construction on the whimsical pieces of creative writing I had done. Yet, as soon as I called myself a creative writer, someone who wrote “short fiction,” no less, a mental block melted away. I suddenly found myself turning musings into poetry and…short fiction, when I would have left them simply musings before.

To get back to internal and external motivations: my assertion is that this auxiliary force is the only kind of sustainable external motivation. These auxiliary forces come precisely from what we call “culture.”

Just like internal (individual) forcing functions are only valuable if they lead to sustainable internal motivation, external (group/managerial) forcing functions are only valuable if they lead to sustainable external motivation, i.e. culture.

For example, TKS kids started writing daily updates because their Directors required them to. However, a significant number kept writing them after their Directors stopped pushing them to. In some cases, this is because individuals found real internal benefits, i.e. a sustainable internal motivation as mentioned earlier. In almost all cases, though, culture played a role. A critical mass of students wrote daily updates, such that a culture was created around it: an auxiliary force that made it so that, if one stopped writing daily updates, they wouldn’t have to overcome static friction to get back into it, but rather only have to pick up where they left off with dynamic friction.

“If you want to do something, surround yourself with other people who do it,” says Saurav. “That’s the biggest hack.”

In summary: culture is powerful because it provides an auxiliary force that keeps you in motion, working against dynamic rather than static friction. Staying in motion and acting is how you overcome internal inhibitions and find sustainable internal motivations for the things you want to do.