I was driving with a friend recently and telling him about some projects that really excited me. I mentioned a new book I’m working on, an article I’m writing and this new hobby of adventure motorcycling in the desert.
He interrupted me and said, “How do you stay so motivated and so excited about things?”
It caught me off guard. I hadn’t really considered the “why” behind my list of activities. But as I thought about it, I realized that the one aspect each of these projects had to make me so motivated — the common thread — was the feeling of being in just a little over my head. In other words, doing things despite the fact that, as the marketing guru Seth Godin likes to say, “this might not work.”
Now, that may sound a little bit counterintuitive. It’s easy to wonder how doing stuff that makes you uncomfortable, and might not even work, is a source of motivation.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this paradox, and I could not get my friend’s question out of my head. I wondered whether I’m wired differently. But there’s something about a sink-or-swim environment that excites me.
I posted on Instagram about constantly getting in a little over my head, and my friend Dallas Hartwigtold me about this concept called hormesis, a phenomenon by which something that could significantly impair or even kill you in high doses can make you stronger in low doses. Or as the National Institutes of Health puts it, “In the fields of biology and medicine, hormesis is defined as an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress.”
Of course, I thought. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s not a new concept. It’s well documented that the way to grow muscle is to rip the muscle tissue, and then give it time to regrow. You give it stress, then rest, and it comes back on the other side stronger than it was before.
So what if we did the same thing in other areas of our lives? In our work, in our family life or in our recreational activities?
It makes sense that the business equivalent of building muscle is trying new things. When you throw yourself into the deep end of something new, you often face a steep learning curve. That forces you to grow, adapt, change and develop your skill set. It’s almost irrelevant if the particular project ends up succeeding. The very act of taking on something new helps you become better at your work over all.
You cannot spend your whole life in the deep end, as that is a recipe for drowning. Muscles get tired. So just like physical exercise, you have to take breaks. You have to calibrate the stress and rest cycle of any sort of entrepreneurial or creative work.
The more I thought about it, the more I began to see these experiences, of diving into the unknown, for what they really were. Some people call them work projects, but I call them adventures. After all, isn’t the definition of “adventure” to set off into the unknown, endure hardships, come back and then rest?
With this reframing, I finally had an answer to my friend’s question about how I stay motivated. It’s because I’m constantly setting off on the next adventure! How could I not?
I know that adventures are not for everyone. I know they can feel scary and intimidating. But making a habit of seeking adventures, in spite of how scary they are, may be the secret to staying motivated about the things you do.
And that, if nothing else, confers a key economic benefit onto anyone who experiences it. Even if we set aside all the tangible benefits that come from stepping outside our comfort zone, it is intuitively obvious that being more excited about your work is a surefire way to improve your performance – and turn your various ventures into adventures.
This commentary originally appeared April 11 on NYTimes.com
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