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  • Writer's pictureHugo Menard

Adapting motivation to the modern world

There seems to be a godlike status given to motivation and intense focus. We often look up to people who work out hard at the gym, who are always “on”, who are driven at work and talk about “crushing” the day. While a strong drive is incredibly powerful for overcoming obstacles that inevitably come up, the intensity of that energy is really better suited for a hunter-gatherer. It’s an energy that comes from a time when physical strength was critical for survival. In the modern world, this energy can be counter productive for the work most of us do.

We no longer require the courage and intense focus to battle a neighbouring tribe with brute force, or throw a spear at a wild animal to get dinner. Our lives are often spent sitting at a desk, listing to someone in a meeting or walking from one room to another.

A warrior may have found anger useful in a fight. It may have given him an extra edge and meant he survived to pass on his genes. But nowadays if we use anger in verbal fights it often causes far more problems than solutions.

Our ancestors may have pushed their bodies to walk long distances in tough conditions. The reward was getting food and finding a safe place to rest. But if we push ourselves too far at work, we lose our mental clarity and our emotional intelligence, and thus we are more prone to mistakes and more likely to be ineffective.

In other words, the things our ancestors relied on to survive, can more often thwart our true intentions in the modern world today.

Our greatness no longer lies in our physical strength and bravery. In today's world, it’s the greatness of our ideas, the greatness of our thoughts, of how we communicate, how we collaborate, how we help others. It’s not about conquering the enemy who holds a spear, it’s conquering our beliefs about what’s possible, conquering our biases that blind us, conquering our ego’s that limit us. It’s an internal greatness, one that is quiet and often hidden, but nevertheless critical to our success.

This change has been quite sudden when you take the whole of human history into consideration. It can be particularly jarring for men or those with a strong masculine side, as these were the attributes that were a core part of survival. Standing your ground against an oncoming enemy to protect your family or tribe was an act of heroism. But today, if that enemy is a tyrannical boss, and they tell you to do something that you don’t think is a good idea, standing your ground, rather than finding a way to negotiate, is more likely to cause problems. We no longer fear losing our life in a sudden brutal attack, we fear failing a project and not being on top of things, which if done too often could lead to losing our job, which could lead to being unable to pay rent and slowly falling into greater and greater suffering.

We can engage this warrior like quality by playing sports or having an intense workout. But we don’t spend our lives on the playing field or in the gym. Our life doesn’t depend on being a beast in the gym, it depends on us being able to do the work that is required, and doing it sustainably so that we don’t burn out with the mammoth amounts of action items, pressure and responsibility of the modern world.

Stress has become a badge of honour

It may be because of this dynamic that stress has become a badge of honour. No doubt, most of us wish we could have less stress in our lives, we wish we could just slow things down for a little while to catch our breath, to get things sorted, to make things right before moving forward again.

But I believe it is also true that because we can no longer walk with pride knowing we survived a brutal battle with our courage and strength, we walk around telling others how stressed and busy we are. We boast about our workload and how difficult our job is as some kind of victory. We cannot fight physically and tell the tale of our victory, so we fight internally and tell the tale of how we have more on our plate than others, how we are more stressed, how our problems are bigger and more important than someone else’s. We seem to confuse beating ourselves up with strength. We think “I’m great by how tough I am on myself”, while ignoring or being unaware that by doing so, science shows we unknowingly cut down our true strength.

Perhaps one way to begin to break this detrimental illusion is to look to those who demonstrate the peak of human physical capability in the modern world - athletes. While many of them exert tremendous effort on a regular basis, they also take tremendous care of themselves. Many of the top athletes talk about the importance of self care. Whether it’s sleep, nutrition and rest, warming up, massages, structural alignment, meditation etc. And that’s what allows them to be at the top of their game.

What if we applied this same principle to ourselves? What if we ensured that the mental and emotional effort we use to work with people of different temperaments and find solutions, was balanced by taking care of ourselves where possible. If you work out the same muscle everyday without giving it a chance to repair and grow, not only are you limiting your capability in the gym, you may also be causing yourself harm. Yet many of us use our brains, our mental attention and our will power like there’s no tomorrow. We try and crush it all day every day and then “rest” by numbing ourselves with TV and getting some restless sleep.

Shifting to long term results

The pace of work is also different. While technology is creating progress at an unprecedented speed, and we are getting more and more instant gratification, there are some caveats. One of these is that in the past, we either killed the prey or we didn’t, we found the tree with the berries or we didn’t. It was very clear and instant. Once we threw our spear we didn’t spend weeks or months waiting to see if the animal would die.

But nowadays we have progress. We no longer get things done in a single throw of the spear. Nowadays there tends to be multiple moving parts. We begin working on a project, but we then realise we need help from someone else or we need additional info. Even once we finish our part of the work, we may need to send it off to someone else to handle a different part of it. We may not know whether what we did was successful or not for a long time.

We might offer a service to someone who never tells us how things went as a result of our work. We might think that it’s because what we did wasn’t good but we don’t know that for sure. And even if we did, we might not know specifically what part wasn’t good, why it wasn’t good or what we could have done differently. The reality is, maybe they loved our service but they were just too busy to contact us back.

And there’s progress within progress. For example, you can get better and better at a specific task (such as creating preliminary designs if you’re a designer). But this often takes patience and repetition before you see the fruits of your efforts. It is now unwise to exert yourself to the limit in order to achieve the end result, because the game you are now playing spans a much greater length of time. If you do try and get it done in a single leap or a single throw of the spear, you’re often short changing yourself in the long term.

Loving the process and engaging in it at a genuine level bears far greater rewards than narrowly focusing on the end goal the whole way through. Yet this is very counter intuitive when you consider our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They may have found greater and greater rewards the harder they threw their spear, but we will likely find greater and greater failures the more we doggedly try the same thing. It’s like a fly trying harder and harder to pass through a solid window. If it just stopped for a moment, took a rest and looked around, it would see the open door just a few meters away.

The tunnel vision that has served us so well in eliminating all the chirping birds and other possible distractions so that we could focus on the rustling in the bushes caused by an animal, now limits us when the solution needs to be creatively thought of.

A shift in perspective

While some may try to act tough and out work everyone else, the short term gains can be very limited. You may try to banish all negative thoughts and doubts and surpass all the petty bullshit that goes on between your ears. But, eventually you will get tired or sick or falter. And when you do, all those things you tried to push away and ignore will come back with a vengeance.

All the annoying and petty problems that our ancestors never had to deal with, cause a negative effect that our brain and body were never designed for. Whether it’s dealing with computer glitches, printers getting jammed, doing paperwork that no-one will ever look at, reading jargon filled legal requirements, staring at a computer screen when your brain is fried, getting through to customer service after waiting on the phone for an hour etc. All these things add up.

A greater perspective was likely a natural part of our ancestors lives. If someone was annoying, it could quickly be forgotten when your life was on the line because the tribe over the hill were feeling a little violent and lusting for power. Just the physical lifestyle may have been enough to work through frustration and anger towards someone else: Try hunting in the middle of winter for however long it took to get dinner and then see if you can even be bothered holding onto a grudge. I’m not saying our ancestors were perfect, nor that their lifestyle was ideal, but there were definite advantages.

A little hope

On the one hand we can see that things have changed in a major way and so we need to adapt. But our ability to adapt may be much more accessible than we think.

For example, if we look at the micro level, science shows that 98.5% of our DNA lies dormant. Scientists call it “junk DNA”, which is essentially their way of saying “we don’t know why it’s there or what it’s supposed to do”. But many thought leaders have pointed out that nature doesn’t just randomly create a whole bunch of DNA for no reason. This “junk DNA” may be an unimaginably large library of potentials to help us adapt.

If we look at the macro level, we can see that there’s an overwhelming amount of information that shows the history we learnt in school has giant holes in it. There is evidence that human beings have had advanced past civilisations and technology (and thus a way of living which may be closer to how we live now rather than the typical image of our hunter-gatherer ancestors). This means we may not need to adapt quite as much as we think, if our past is filled with such civilisations and levels of intelligence.

But how do we deal with problems today? What can you do right now to adapt? One method that I regularly offer is called “Tapping”. It can help you move through emotional impulses and regulate your system to function more efficiently in this modern world (which can be far more useful than simply trying to get more motivated). You can find out how to use it by clicking here.

You can also tune in to the intelligence of your heart. You can read a blog post on that here.

Finally, just being aware of this, especially as a team leader, can help you be more compassionate and understanding, rather than being frustrated and irritable without knowing why. This in and of itself can be a potent antidote to the frenzied reality of the modern world. It can reframe how you try to achieve things and what emotional states you value.


You are the placebo: making your mind matter by Dr Joe Dispenza

For past civilisation info you can look at the work of Graham Hancock

Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

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