On Motivation

What motivates the brain to call the body into action? I imagine many things, they’re probably ranked, and high on the list is the threat of punishment, or in the grownup world, embarrassment. For example, the possibility that someone might come over (say someone who’s picking me up on the way to the airport) was enough to get me to clean the bathroom halfway. If people were dropping by once a week even, this place would be spic and span. As it stands, I don’t have much social shame to keep me in line.

Why is it that I can live with piles of envelopes collecting on every flat surface in my apartment (including under my left arm and laptop as I type this)? It probably comes down to the fact that I really don’t care, and I’m sure it’s not helping that I don’t have a 43 folders-esque system to scream at me when the piles reach a sort of critical mass. I think things started getting out of control because the previous tenants still get piles of junk mail every day, none of which seems to get forwarded. Since the modern world requires such a high noise threshold, I feel like many things become just too banal to bother with.

At Tony’s BBQ and pool party on Saturday I met the wife of a O’Reilly employee who is a professional organizer, in addition to being a full time mom. Wow. Believe you me, it has crossed my mind to contact someone like her to figure out some strategies to deal with my envelope pile problem. I’m already thinking one solution might be to buy a console table to put near the door to create a central drop spot for all the paper that comes into the apartment. And maybe on top of that a snazzy leather envelope sorter or something. Clearly I need to make filing sexier.

There’s this line of thought I’ve been having lately, namely the sense that previously exceptional individuals (in their mid-twenties) are finding themselves on a precipitous trajectory towards mediocrity. In this instance I’m actually worrying about myself. I’m thinking the cause is as follows. Those of us who thought we were exceptional were able to succeed by gaming our educational institutions for the past 17+ years. I think graduate school was really the death knell, where I elevated doing the least amount of work for the highest possible grade to an artform.

Now that I’ve been ejected out into the larger, heterogenous world, the rules of the game have changed. In fact I don’t even know what they are, and I’m pretty sure the ones I’ve figured out I don’t like. So I and anyone who feels similarly are kind of struggling to right ourselves. Trying to find like-minded individuals not because we need an echo chamber of sameness, but because the rest of society can seem like a blackhole sometimes, diffusing our once exceptional talents with a revolving litany of papers to file, bathrooms to clean, laundry to wash, food to buy, meals to plan, bills to pay…


I dunno….even doing all that laundry, filing, cleaning, etc., I still feel pretty exceptional.


Recently on TV there has been a program entitled Brat Camp where a bunch of misfit teenagers are sent to a multi-week wilderness experience. Naturally none are too happy at being there. After a few weeks and as part of their therapy they must spend three days and nights alone, that is, “solo”. During that time they write about what motivates them and why they do what they do. Somehow this post reminded me of them and that you’re on your own “solo”.

I honestly don’t know how to respond. I was feeling out of it this morning (too little sleep?) and when I saw all these comments at 9am PST (noon on the east coast) my eyes started to well up. I was at work, so I didn’t even have time to read anything, but I was really touched.

Rest assured Robin, I think you’re pretty darn exceptional. And Dad, “Brat Camp” sounds pretty much like Outward Bound, which I went on for a week and had only a single night to “solo”. I wasn’t blogging then, but the pictures are online here.

Patrick, you’ll be disappointed to hear that I recently got a shredder. Clearly I need to put it into more active service. Terrie, thanks for the link—shouldn’t you be on vacation? :) I’ll take a look this evening.

Brian R, thanks for the kick in the pants. I’m no Party Girl, but you’ll be sure to read about some of my exploits and adventures here. Trish, we could probably call it a post-graduate crisis. In fact graduate school was honestly an attempt by me to put off jumping into the world for two years. Then I stuck around for one more.

Mush and Jackie and Kansas, eventually the mail will be cleared, much of it will probably end up in another stack on the desk in my bedroom. Then I’m thinking about putting post-it notes on my tables and countertops reminding me not to set shit down on them. Kind of like coating a thumbsucker’s thumb with something bitter. I’ve just got to clear them off first!


Solution to your envelope problem: Shredder. It’s fun to use and helps with cleanup.

Also In graduate school I had a hidden spot in the corner behind my couches that you couldn’t see unless you were really looking. I used to just throw all my old bills and stuff back there and forget it. It was a good system but I eventually regretted it when I had to move out.

Careers and Games

Justin starts off blogging about motivation. Then he gets to this quote, which perhaps gives insight into some of the motivation for seeking a career in academia.
Those of us who thought we were exceptional were able to succeed by gaming our education…

A lot of life is pretty mundane. I’ve lately come to realize how different my life is from that of my parents, who worked at places that almost literally sucked the life of them. The things I consider mundane chores were pretty much all they were able to do outside of work, and their work was pretty unrewarding. I think this is the reality for most people. I feel lucky, and maybe sometimes a little guilty, to have escaped playing by those rules.

You might like this article from the Atlantic monthly: “Lost in the Meritocracy”, by Walter Kirn,

There’s something underlying his specific experience that really speaks to me about how I’ve felt about my own education.

I moved to LA by myself in ’97 and knew one person there. While looking for a job I lived in a basement apt behind a liquor store. Bad proximity. So… I had lots of time to think. To much thinking time actually.

Go out every other night to places that have lots of other people. (I’m sure it’s MUCH more friendly their than LA) Leave the laptop at home once or twice. Take up bowling. Join a book club. Stop drinking. Ride your bike. If you don’t have one get one.

All this advice is for you not me. ;-) When I was alone in a new city I tried to convice myself to do this stuff and never did. You’re so much more brave than I ever was. And for that life will reward you!

I think this URL will get you into the Atlantic article for something like three days:

Welcome to the inevitable midlife crisis. It’s not so much that we were exceptional and are now heading toward mediocre. You’re right, we’re just interacting with the real world outside of academia that uses different standards. You know you’ve made it when you find some form of contentment in having a job, having a place to live, and being ok with that as your life.

Read (or watch) American Splendor. I never knew about it until I saw the movie, but the character’s day-to-day monotony sometimes is worth it – life as art, so to speak.

Mail: sort it immediately, chuck ALL THE GARBAGE instantly. As in, put a paper recycle center right by the front door if necessary. Put the save pile of mail somewhere cute, like a leather envelope sorter.

Banality: I have no idea how people survive 70 years of laundry, toilet scrubbing, mail sorting, and filing. It’s freakin’ killing me.

Exceptionality: School isn’t real. Being clever at school is not the same as succeeding in ‘the real world.’ It’s a damn shock to figure that out, innit. *sigh*


Forcing myself to DEAL with the mail was one of the hardest things about the adolescent-adult transition. I felt like the mail was controlling me for a long time. The mail was my destiny, and the only way I could gain a temporary hold on it was to ignore it for as long as possible. No mystery my bad credit.

Eventually, the sheer direness of what was in the mail, and also its escalating diresness, forced me to deal with it. Now I deal with it out of habit, immediately, and find that it is much less scary, dire, and copious. I highly recommend a table or area just for all the uncategorizable stuff. Plus, it means you get to go to the container store: groovy.


Since I still don’t get any mail it isn’t a problem. My problem is all my files from my years of schooling. I can’t bring myself to chuck them nor do I have filing cabinet yet. Sigh.

Regarding the mail issue: it usually piles up on my entertainment center and my dining room table. The unfortunate thing is that I have roommates who never seem to “get” their mail from those surfaces and so I’m hesitant to throw things out. But eventually, I get fed up and after 2 years of sorting mail, have figured out which ones are worth opening and which ones can be dumped straight away.

Regarding your “blackhole” of life problem…I’ve struggled with this myself from time to time. My biggest problem is that I always need to have one thing planned in my day to look forward to in order to find waking up and going to work worth my while. So I’ve had to adjust what I look forward to to include such activities as watching a new movie everynight (or a good t.v. line-up that I can record while I’m at work). It’s especially difficult considering I get off work when most people are going to bed.

But anyway…it does get better. And suddenly you find that doing the dishes gives you a strange sense of satisfaction.

Or…you can go out and get a few dogs. That helps entertain as well. And suddenly mail filing is soooo not that stressful.


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