The Five-Year Training Montage
Six Laws I've Discovered in Mastering Motivation
We're a month into the New Year, and I'm fortunate enough to be riding the most significant wave of personal motivation I've experienced in over ten years.
I find myself in a very blessed space right now. Motivation can be a very fickle beast. It can be here today and gone tomorrow, which is why most self-help gurus correctly advise against placing your goals in the hands of motivation, where they can be whisked away at a whim and instead focus on gradually building self-discipline.
I can't argue with this advice. Self-discipline is always the safer, more sustainable bet.
However, when motivation graces your daily life, it has the potential to create magical, life-altering changes in your psyche. It can turbocharge your willpower and cement your discipline. When you are locked into a serious spell of motivation, it's like a drug. It knocks down whatever self-limiting walls you've built around yourself and becomes something close to pure sorcery.
Motivation may not be a reliable force, but I wholeheartedly encourage you to embrace it when it does appear in your life. Over the years, I've discovered my own methods of wielding and taming motivation.
Although most periods of motivation are short-lived, I managed to sustain a period of intense motivation for over five years, where I was able to redeem myself by reversing one of my greatest regrets in life, failing to earn my Bachelor's degree after graduating high school.
I finally accomplished this feat 15 years later in my mid-30s, graduating Summa Cum Laude, winning a scholarship, and earning eight IT industry certifications in the process. All of this while going through a divorce, being a dad, losing my mom to cancer, and working a full-time job.
It was a grueling process, and the fact that I had to hold down a full-time job during the day meant that I was basically working at all times, whenever I was awake. After my day job ended at 4, my classes would start. I was getting home at 11 pm on weekdays, studying from sunrise to sunset on weekends, and shunning all opportunities for a break, taking summer and winter intersession classes whenever I could to avoid stretching out the process any longer than it needed to be.
The discipline was there, but there was no way I could have seen it to the end without the intense motivation that I felt at the time. There were a few core ingredients that were involved in this recipe for sustainable, long-term motivation that worked for me:
1. You have to really want it to the point of sacrifice
The first requirement in drumming up motivation is that you have to really want The Thing. However, wanting alone is obviously not gonna be enough. We all want things. You have to want The Thing to the point of willingly committing yourself to some substantial life-altering changes in your daily life. You have to be willing to sacrifice time, your most valuable resource, to execute your plan day after day. You have to be willing to give up a significant amount of entertainment, enjoyment, leisure, comfort, and socializing. You have to be willing to subject yourself to many things you don't want to do for extended periods each day. You will suffer. You will be tired. However, the number of sacrifices that you are willing to make inversely affects the speed and probability of you reaching your goal.
If you really want to get clever in engineering motivation. You can find creative ways to make the hard work enjoyable, effectively diverting the enjoyment you would otherwise be giving up into the tasks making up the action plan itself.
2. Embrace and transform your pain into power
This one may ruffle some feathers, but I've found that I've been my most determined and resolved to achieve success when I was experiencing periods of emotional pain.
I'm not saying to create pain in your life intentionally. If there are events or elements of your life that are causing you pain, don't let them break you. Instead, leverage those emotions into solid determination. The pain is already there. You can't snap your fingers and make it go away. You're already hurting. Make it work for you.
When I was pursuing my degree, my divorce and the toll it was taking on my son was painful to witness. I'll never forget his tears when he discovered his dad was moving out. A year later, I had to watch my mom, who was so proud of my progress in school, slowly fade away and die of uterine cancer. I was hurting so unbelievably much, and all of that pain only steeled my resolve to work even harder to achieve that calmer, peaceful, and more stable life on the other side of it all. It had to all mean something, and I knew that I could actualize that meaning by channeling all of that emotion into the process.
One of the most powerful tools I've learned to wield in life is the power of perspective. The ability to take an otherwise horrible situation and flip it on its head to your advantage felt like a literal superpower when I first discovered it. You can draw some of your greatest sources of motivation from pain, disgust, adversity, and suffering.
3. Cultivate faith in your abilities and trust the process
Once your goals have been defined and your plan to get there has been decided, it's just a matter of showing up and doing the work, and then repeating it every day. The more ambitious your goal, the slower your progress will likely be. Somewhere in the process, you will grow frustrated at the lack of visible progress. Maybe it's more difficult than you imagined, or you're not making the gains that you thought you should have by now. You may feel like you're wasting your time... like you're not cut out for [insert goal here] after all.
This is a crucial make-or-break point in goal-chasing, and if you can manage to muster up the mental fortitude and perseverance that it takes to make it past this zone of self-doubt and frustration, believe me when I say that real results await you on the other side.
Above all, trust yourself and trust the process. You have to have real faith that you can achieve this goal. If you let that single sliver of self-doubt creep in and take hold, you risk jeopardizing the whole damn thing. Practicing visualization exercises has really worked for me. It's not just some bullshit gimmick peddled by self-help gurus. You have to paint a detailed mental picture of the life you're working towards and get intimately familiar with that vision and what it looks and feels like. It makes actualizing it through action so much more urgent and inevitable.
4. Create a self-perpetuating motivation cycle
Having more than one goal that you're working towards at the same time does far more good than harm. There's a misconception that you're dividing your focus and energy, but my experiences have always shown me that the motivation I derive from progress and hard work on one goal gets directly funneled into the next one.
Case in point: while I was working towards completing my degree, I was determined to graduate with high honors. I had something to prove to myself after taking the easy way out after high school and dropping out of college. At the same time, I was training for my first half-marathon. Now, I'm not some uber-elite runner, and I wasn't out to do anything other than run the whole thing at a halfway decent clip without pausing. Still, the elation and sense of achievement that I felt with every aced class carried over to training for my run, and every time I managed to outdo my previous best pace or distance during my training runs, well, I took that energy back into the classroom.
This ping-pong of achievements between these two goals created a kind of self-perpetuating motivation cycle. Furthermore, each of these goals served as a break from the other.
Your mileage may vary on this. But speaking from personal experience, I never chase down a single goal at a time anymore. Once in a while, I'll have three big things that I'm chasing down at once, but I've found that holding two big goals at any given moment is the magic number... for me.
5. Get yourself hype
I cannot understate how much I lean on music and movies to keep my willpower sharp and my mind focused. I go hard on hustler / baller-ass hip-hop playlists on Spotify. Stuff in the vein of Jay-Z, Nipsey Hussle, Eminem, Rick Ross, Jeezy, and Lil Wayne. My Spotify is completely littered with these types of get-hype playlists.
The other genre that I dive deep into during long runs and study sessions is one that's more reflective of my age as a late-bloom Gen X'er, and that's 80's Rocky-style training montage music. Stan Bush, John Farnham, and the sonic masterpiece that is the Bloodsport soundtrack are my mainstays here. Honestly, the cornier, the better. I come from an era where movies like No Retreat, No Surrender, The Best of the Best, and Kickboxer would have you spending your entire Saturday practicing jump kicks in the garage, running all kinds of ninja ambush scenarios through your head. You may look at these films as 80s cheese, but I view them with the same fondness that I did when I was 10, and they still make me feel undefeatable.
But you do you. The point here is to keep yourself locked in. Stay motivated. Allow yourself to embrace the high drama of your own story and be the star of your own narrative. It will only serve to hone your purpose and resolve. Use whatever music or imagery conjures up mental images of triumph over adversity, slaying your own personal demons, or leaving your own limitations in the dust.
6. Do a little bit more than you're comfortable with
Growth comes with pushing personal boundaries. Your goals will require going past the limits that once stopped you. In every session, set your time, your distance, or your words to what you can realistically handle, and then add just a few more minutes, a few more steps, or a few more sentences beyond that. Just a bit extra is all we need. Too much, and you'll wear yourself out, and we want to maintain that motivation and keep ourselves engaged with the process.
What we're doing with that little bit of extra effort is training the mind to go beyond personal expectations repeatedly. It's the same concept as building muscle. The muscle gets torn down so that it can grow, acclimate to the new load, and go just a touch harder on the next session.
Rinse. Repeat. Put in the reps. Those micro gains accumulate over time. This is one of the many reasons why I'm so vocal about journaling and documenting the process. You might not notice the progress from one day to the next, but look back a few months, and it will be very apparent that you're operating on a different plane.
Like Meek Mill said, "There's levels to this shit."
I was originally a little hesitant to publish this piece on MidThoughts. The theme of motivation is not specific to the middle-aged, and I don't want to come off as some Jocko Willink rise-and-grind motivational speaker, which I’m most definitely not.
The truth is that I've been locked into these serious "grind-zone" periods of my life about as often as I've found myself in those lazy, Jimmy Buffet-ass beach bum phases. At the end of the day, both are important. Mr. Miyagi always taught Daniel-San the importance of balance.
But I can't deny that I've experienced some very special phases of life where the conditions were just right to spark a chemical reaction of motivation that honed my focus and drove me beyond what I thought I was capable of. I'm extremely grateful to have reached a point where I'm able to nurture, wield, and prolong these forces of motivation when I'm able to call on them. I'm sharing these observations from my own experiences in hopes that they can be applied to your own.
Finally, there's no better time to be motivated than in middle age. For a long time after finishing my degree, I was tired. I had put in a lot of hard work. With a decent salary, I felt as if I'd finally earned the right to relax. But with that came the steady grind of the 9-5, and that combination numbed my passion and creativity. I was coasting with no real purpose outside of making sure bills were paid, and my son was being taken care of.
Something was missing. There was just a big, gaping hole where all of that enthusiasm and drive once stood. I had nothing to chase after. I had no dreams that could reignite my soul and send me flying head-first into the process of actualizing them.
But now, staring down the barrel of a boring career spent behind a trio of computer monitors, I realize that I need something more. This can't be the rest of my life. I won't let it be. I'm not going to get swallowed up into the jaws of 9-5 complacency. I'm entering midlife on my own terms, keeping my curiosity fresh and my soul plugged into a creative outlet that allows me to remain wired into the rhythm of the universe.
I'm gonna have fun, dammit.
That's why I started the MidThoughts newsletter. And that's why finding motivation in midlife is so vital. At this point in our lives, we're walking a very narrow precipice, and on both sides are bottomless chasms of endless empty days ready to swallow up your years as you plug away in a thick blur of email and Zoom meetings all the way to retirement.
It's very easy to lose your footing if you're not focused.