Motivation is a Luxury

If you do a Google search on the word “motivation,” you’ll get about 127 million hits.

I’ve often thought that if we had a deep understanding of just two concepts—motivation and success—we’d be free to skim or skip most of the books on any self-help shelf.

Unfortunately, our understanding of both concepts could benefit from some determined crap detecting.

For now, let’s focus on motivation.

It’s way fuzzy

Much of our cultural conversation about motivation circles around three points:

  1. Motivation is a state of being that we can clearly define.
  2. Some people are motivated, while others are not.
  3. If you are low on motivation, you must go through a definite process to develop it.

In the spirit of contrarian fun, I propose that those three statements are meaningless:

  1. Outside of academic psychology, there is no clear and widely accepted definition of motivation.
  2. Because the term “motivation” makes no clear distinction, we cannot use this term to describe people in any useful way.
  3. For both of the above reasons, there is no way to measure motivation or develop it.

It adds nothing 

When I hear people described as “motivated,” what I see is that they’re taking consistent action to achieve a goal. In this case, we can simply describe their behavior. We don’t gain anything by tossing the fuzzy concept of “motivation” into the mix.

At other times, I hear people say that they “feel motivated.” Again, there’s no need to invoke this concept. We can just talk about their basic emotional states. They feel sad, angry, afraid, or glad. And, they behave in ways that align with those states.

Let’s just lose it

The most meaningful thing we can say about motivation is that we don’t need it. In any given moment, we experience a basic emotion and move into action. Or, we don’t.

End of story.

A case in point

When I tell people that I work at home as a freelance writer and editor, they often say, “Wow, that’s amazing. If I tried that, I’d never get any work done. How do you stay motivated?”

Well, I got “motivated” 25 years ago, shortly after I started working from home.

It took about one month.

During that month, I procrastinated like crazy. I did just about everything other than work or contact potential clients.

I ran errands. I took walks. I washed dishes, did laundry, and dusted the blinds.

At the end of that month, my gross income was zero.

Then the heavens parted and I was blessed with a transcendent insight—no workey, no money.

At that point, I got straight to work. Why? Because I needed cash. Badly.

Motivation was a luxury—and has been ever since.

Photo by SweetOnVeg, Flickr Creative Commons

What to Look For in a Self-Help Book (Part Two)

In part one of this post, I suggest ways to evaluate self-help books. Look for:

  • Author credibility
  • Good instructions
  • Therapeutic tone
  • Tested ideas

That last item is important.

When our goal is behavior change, the ideal is to find a book that is grounded in solid theory and tested by scientific research. This is tricky, however.

Two problems

First, many self-help books are based only on a handful of anecdotes or purely personal experiences. That kind of evidence doesn’t count as scientific research. (For more about this, see The Plural of “Anecdote” is not  “Data” and Who is an Expert, Anyway?)

Second, all research is not created equal. The best research is published in peer-reviewed journals. It’s based on studies of large numbers of people who are observed under controlled conditions. The results of these studies are also consistent when repeated by a number of researchers over a long period of time.

That kind of research is expensive. It takes a lot of time. And, even the best of these studies might not relate to the specific problem you want to solve, or to the behavior you want to change.

Two possible solutions

Faced with these problems, you still have reasonable solutions.

One is to look for self-help books based on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all connected. Changing one of these factors will affect the others.

For example, you can reduce feelings of anger by changing thoughts associated with that emotion. (Many of these thoughts are variations on the statement, “People should behave the way I want them to at all times.”)

CBT has been around for decades. The theory behind it is highly refined, and a lot of studies support its effectiveness.

In addition, CBT is still in active development. It’s the source of several new, evidence-based therapies. Among them are dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

The second is to run your own tests. This means changing a specific behavior and collecting numeric data on the results. In effect, you become a scientist who studies your own life.

Once you know how to do this, you can take any self-help strategy and see if it actually works for you.

This sounds geeky, but it can be done simply and effectively. For more details, do a little reading about personal informatics. Also see The Quantified Self: Self-Knowledge Through Numbers and and Gary Wolf’s article about The Data-Driven Life.

There’s more, but those sources will get you started.

Photo by Bethan, Flickr Creative Commons

What to Look For in a Self-Help Book (Part One)

When it comes to the arts of reading and writing, we live in the best of times and worst of times. Thanks to the Internet and sites like WordPress, anyone can publish a blog.

In addition, almost anyone can become a published author. Self-publishing is easier than ever before, thanks to print-on-demand technology, ebooks, and services such as Kindle Direct Publishing.

The upside: Anybody can publish. We get a true democracy of ideas.

The downside: Anybody can publish. In any democracy, there are demagogues, con artists, and people who are simply unqualified to publish on certain topics.

Traditional book publishing means getting past a series of gate-keepers. These include literary agents, editors, proofreaders, and fact checkers.

True, these people restrict access to publishing. They also screen content and provide quality control.

If the role of these gatekeepers decreases, it’s more likely that factual errors, fuzzy thinking, and untested theories will make their way to your bookshelf and digital devices.

This is a special concern to anyone who reads self-help books. After all, we’re seeking to change our thinking and behavior. The quality of our lives is at stake. We deserve accurate information and sound ideas.

The trick is to be open-minded and skeptical every time that you pick up a book. To keep those two attitudes in balance, look for:

  • Author credibility
  • Good instructions
  • Tone
  • Tested ideas

There’s nothing new or profound about these suggestions. They are simply refined common sense. Yet you will find authors who fail to meet to meet all or most of these criteria.

Author credibility

After checking out a book’s covers and table of contents, turn to to the “about the author” page or its equivalent. Look for evidence of this person’s qualifications, such as:

  • Relevant education and training
  • Work experience with students, patients, or clients
  • Membership in professional societies
  • Articles published in reputable magazines and journals
  • Previous books from reputable publishers

You can also check the testimonials included on the covers or front pages of a book. Take these with a grain of salt, however. Sometimes they are actually written by the author and simply OK’d by the person supposedly giving the testimonial.

Good instructions

People who are qualified to write about behavior change know how to teach. They write clearly. They introduce concepts and skills in a logical sequence. They answer the questions that people are likely to ask.

If you turn to a book for help with changing your behavior, then look for a specific sequence of elements:

  1. Procedure
  2. Example
  3. Practice
  4. Feedback

Suppose that you’re reading a chapter about ways to deal with fear of public speaking. Look for:

  1. A specific procedure for dealing with that fear, such as “get thoroughly prepared.”
  2. Examples of people who prepared thoroughly for a presentation.
  3. Clear suggestions for getting prepared that you can start practicing right away.
  4. Ways to get feedback on your practice—that is, to know that you’re prepared—such as a checklist to follow or series of questions to ask yourself.

Many self-help books are about a complex skill that links several procedures. Expect at least one extended example that ties all the instructions together.

Here’s the main question: Could you actually carry out the suggestions based only on what’s in the book? If not, then the author might be making unfounded assumptions about what you know and what you can do. That’s a sign that the material is untested, or that the author is unqualified to write about the topic.

Therapeutic Tone

A good self-help book is written with the voice of a good therapist—supportive and respectful. There’s no condescension. Instead, you are addressed as an intelligent person who has something new to learn.

Some self-help books are veiled memoirs. They focus on the author’s experiences. They are written mostly in the first person (“I”) rather than the second person (“you”) or third person (“we”). Beware. You might be dealing with an egomaniac.

Tested ideas

There’s a lot to say here. Look for it in my next post.

Photo by stella_v ❤, Flickr Creative Commons

The Awful Truth About Writing Books

Writing a book is a way of transformation.

That sounds cool, hip, and New-Age-y—until you experience it firsthand.

At one level, writing—the act of filling the void of a blank page or screen with words—is a purging flame. Anything that is not fire-proof gets consumed and crumbles and then turns to ash.

Suppose that I write a sentence that’s unclear, illogical, or unsupported by evidence. Writing will make this fact immediately obvious. That sentence stands in front of me — there, etched into the page or screen, naked, without pretense, with true colors showing.

To the trained eye, any defect of syntax, diction, grammar, or reasoning in that string of words becomes immediately obvious. It’s like walking barefoot in a public place and suddenly seeing one of your feet turn purple.

So, I sit at the keyboard with the aim to turn something that I absolutely know into words. Before I take a break, I want to state one thing that is true.

Then I look back at what I’ve written and discover that it is unclear. It is incoherent. I can’t muster one piece of evidence for the main point of the passage. I’m not even sure what it means, really.

I discover, in fact, that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe everything I thought I knew about this topic is pure smoke. Vapor. Ashes.

This is the point at which editing begins. This is transformation, but it is not always fun. In fact, it is a constant lesson in humility.

While drafting, anything is permitted — sloppy thinking, errors, lack of proof. But editing is different. Editing is the sustained attempt to say one true thing, one sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time. This is the hardest and most rewarding work I know.

As Socrates pointed out, the realization that you don’t know is the beginning of knowledge — that most rare and precious commodity, even in the age of “information.” When you see that you do not know, you are in an ideal state to learn.

Before you attempt to publish something that you write, please submit it to a few reviewers. Send your manuscript to people who will honestly say what they think. If they’re compassionate and balanced and skilled at giving feedback—wonderful. But even if they are not, they are doing you a favor.

This is especially important if you are putting your deepest beliefs into words. Hold these up to the fire as well. Just know that some of the ideas to which you are most attached might fall away. In fact, your whole identity might come into question.

Consider these words from a stark and beautiful book titled The Way of Transformation by Karlfried Graf Dürckheim. It was written about Zen meditation practice but it also applies to the fire of editing:

The man who, being really on the Way, falls upon hard times in the world will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers him refuge and encourages his old self to survive.

Rather, he will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help him to risk himself, so that he may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it, thus making of it a “raft that leads to the far shore.”

Only to that extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him.

In this lies the dignity of daring.


Photo by josef.stuefer, Flickr Creative Commons

The 4-Hour Work Week and the Pitfalls of Advice

The 4-Hour Workweek, a book by Timothy Ferriss, has been perched on the best-seller lists for months. The subtitle: “Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich.”

I read the first edition last year, with mixed feelings.

Ferriss does offer some useful ideas: Check email only twice per day. Choose your most important task of the day and complete it before 11 am. Focus on the 20 percent of your clients, customers, or projects that generate the most revenue. (See an overview of the book here.)

Yet I was saddened to find several common shortcomings of self-help books in Ferris’s text: A preachy tone. A dash of arrogance. An overall focus on the author rather than the reader. A reliance on anecdotes rather than research.

There’s also the “random sample of 1” syndrome. It consists of these unstated assumptions: “I made a major change in my life. I used certain techniques to make that change. If you use the same techniques, you can make the same change.”

Ah, if only life were that simple.

Advice givers blithely assume that what works for them will automatically work for everyone else. This is much easier than running some informal tests of an idea and reviewing the relevant research.

In reality, each of us constitutes a psychic whole. Our behaviors emerge from a larger context that includes our attitudes, personal history, and current circumstances. The variables are many, varied, dynamic, and staggeringly complex.

Yes, you can toss an isolated behavior change into the mix. But it’s hard to predict the results.

My favorite instructional books acknowledge our psychic complexity. Rather than offering a smorgasbord of “techniques” and “tips,” they offer a process for making a modest change in our behavior and observing the results in an objective way.

The moral of this story for writers: Don’t preach to me from on high. And don’t assume that what works for you will work for me.

Above all, test your material. Before you publish a body of instructions, find a way to see if it actually works for people.

Following this advice will be time-consuming and inconvenient.

The reward is a book that’s worth reading.

P. S.—A wonderful example of what I’m recommending is How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey.

Jerry Seinfeld on Behavior Change: Don’t Break the Chain

A post on about Jerry Seinfeld’s advice to an aspiring comic created a buzz on the blogosphere in 2007. The anecdote actually demonstrates some sound psychology, including a useful strategy for writers.

The story in brief: Brad Isaac, a software developer, was interested in doing stand-up comedy. One night he introduced himself to Jerry Seinfeld at a comedy club and asked for advice.

Seinfeld said that the key to success as a comedian is better jokes. And the way to get better jokes is to write jokes every day.

Seinfeld also revealed a method for developing a daily writing habit:

  • Get a wall calendar that displays an entire year on one page.
  • Get a red magic marker.
  • Write a big X on the wall calendar for every day that you actually write jokes.

If you actually write every day, you’ll produce a chain of bold, red X’s across that calendar. And if you miss a day, you’ll break the chain.

“Don’t break the chain,” Seinfeld said.

At first I was tempted to brush off this idea. Returning to it, however, I see some juicy benefits:

  • Simplicity—The required tools are easy to acquire and use.
  • Focus—You concentrate on changing one behavior at a time.
  • Feedback—Data about your behavior over time is available at a glance.
  • Closure—Creating a solid chain of X’s offers potent reinforcement.

You can even skip the wall calendar and create your chain online. For an example, see this.

Seinfeld’s method applies to any behavior change. There’s a clear overlap between “don’t break the chain” and this wonderful question from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey:

What one thing could you do (you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?

You can also reverse this idea for an equally useful question about dropping self-defeating behaviors:

What one thing could you stop doing on a regular basis would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?

In either case, the “Seinfeld chain” offers a powerful way to track your response.

Photo by John-Morgan, Flickr Creative Commons

Eat, Pray, Love, Scratch Your Head

For years I’ve wondered if there are basic differences between the ways that men and women read. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love—a blockbuster best-seller and movie—rekindled this question. After reading the book, in fact, I’m amazed that men and women get along at all.

First, a caveat. I’m not speaking in absolutes here. Of course, some men will go ga-ga for Eat, Pray, Love (EPL). And some women will ricochet the book against a wall and then into a trash can.

And yet I suspect that Gilbert’s readership consists mainly of women. After all, women appear to buy and read more books than men. This was a major finding from an Associated Press/Ipsos Poll (published August 21, 2007). It is supported by results from the Women and Books 2007 survey done by Content Connections.

In addition, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for differences in male and female reading preferences. Check this out for yourself: How many of your male friends and relatives regularly attend a book group? How about your female friends and relatives? In my experience, female book group members easily outnumber their male counterparts.

On the basis of this modest evidence, I’m going to risk a prediction: Women are far more likely to connect with EPL than men. Countless men will be left scratching their head and wondering the heck all the fuss is about.

Some specific points of disconnection:

Why is she crying like that?

Early in EPL comes an account of Gilbert hiding in her bathroom and sobbing “a great lake of tears and snot” all over the tiles. Gilbert makes it clear that she’s in despair about the state of her marriage. Yet she reveals few specifics about the nature of her conflict with her husband.

I respect Gilbert’s right to confidentiality. At the same time, this section falls flat for me. Millions of women might empathize with the mere display of emotion. But many men are going to ask what words or events precipitated all those tears.

You gained 30 pounds, and then you did what?

The first part of EPL is subtitled “36 Tales About the Pursuit of Pleasure.” It chronicles Gilbert’s stay in Italy, where she drank a lot of wine, ate a lot pasta, and developed an intense attraction to a younger man. The theme: Once in a while, a girl’s just gotta have fun.

Fine. But the next part of the book takes us to India, where Gilbert moves in to an ashram and practices yoga and meditation for hours each day. The sudden and seemingly effortless switch from self-indulgence to ascetic spiritual practice left my head reeling. This just doesn’t ring true. (Ditto for the men portrayed in this book, who have all the depth of characters from a Nicholas Sparks novel.)

You did all that in one year?

Gilbert ends her book with an account of her stay in Bali. There she continues to meditate but takes breaks to find a lover named Felipe and rediscover sex.

Again, I wouldn’t deny her any of this. But I finished the book with the impression that pasta, wine, enlightenment, sex, and love all exist on an equal plane. All are yours for the taking, with a minimum of effort, and in short order. (The events in EPL take place over just 12 months.)

Or, put more crudely: You can have anything you want. Everything you want. Now.

Alas, this is the message behind so much of what’s being published for the self-help and spirituality markets these days. (The works of Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, and Tony Robbins come to mind, along with the slew of titles about the “Law of Attraction.”)

A close reading of the Christian Gospels, the Buddhist sutras, the Upanishads, and the Tao te Ching immediately reveals that the great spiritual teachers of humanity had a different agenda. They extol the virtues of simplicity, restraint, and detachment from desire. But much of that is lost as these primordial teachings get imported to America and sacrificed to the Western gods of lust, power, money, and fame.

In short, many men will read EPL and then dismiss it as:

  • A New Age fairy tale
  • A tiresome account of one affluent woman’s first-world dilemmas
  • Something to read because talking about it might impress a woman

I sympathize with those assessments, but I can’t stop there.

After all, it’s women who are buying most of the books and starting most of the book groups. Male writers who want to sell books must come to terms with an acutely different sensibility.

It won’t be easy.

How Publishers Can Prosper When Books Go Digital: Seth Godin’s Vision

Seth Godin gave a mind-blowing talk to independent book publishers in May 2010. Following is a summary for you.

Five traditional functions

Traditionally, says Godin, book publishers have done 5 things:

  • Curate by picking books to publish.
  • Produce by editing manuscripts and manufacturing physical books.
  • Take financial risks by acting as venture capitalists for ideas and hoping that the books with those ideas will catch on.
  • Distribute books and compete for scarce shelf space.
  • Promote by publicizing, advertising, blogging, spamming, and otherwise getting the world to notice their books.

How not to respond

The presence of ebooks and digital distribution upends that business model. How can book publishers respond?

For a path to avoid, Godin says, look at the record industry. It is essentially dead.

Record companies used to have a perfect business. Radio stations and MTV promoted their products for free. Record stores existed on only to sell their products. Vinyl albums wore out and needed to be replaced. If I lent you an LP and never got it back, I bought a replacement.

Then CDs and iTunes changed the rules of the game. And how did the record companies respond? By suing their biggest fans.

Right now, the big book publishers are preparing to respond in a similar way.

How the traditional publishing model changes

Consider what happens when book publishing goes digital:

Production and distribution of physical products is no longer needed. Books exist as bits and bytes that you download.

Publishers reduce their financial risk. They don’t have to buy paper, print books, put them in trucks, ship them to stores, and accept returns.

Shelf space is no issue. Amazon has infinite room for ebooks.

Promotion via traditional publicity and advertising fails. There’s already too much competition for consumers’ attention across too many channels.

So, of the 5 traditional functions of book publishers, only 1 remains. That is curation—picking manuscripts to publish.

Lead a tribe

In addition to curating, smart book publishers will also:

  • Create a tribe.
  • Lead that tribe.
  • Connect the members of the tribe.

For example, suppose that your specialty is publishing books about the American Civil War. Think of your readers as a tribe of people who share a passionate interest in that topic.

These people read your blog. They download free content from your website. They come to your conferences to meet each other. They give you their contact information through your website, and they subscribe to your email newsletter. You have permission to market to them.

As the leader of this tribe, you can call up the leading historians of the Civil War and tell them that you want to publish their next books. And they would fools to say no.

In addition, you don’t have to hunt so hard for new authors. They emerge spontaneously from the ranks of your tribe.

The new model in action

The above is a hypothetical example. Yet there are real people putting these ideas into action.

One is Scott Adams, cartoonist and creator of Dilbert. Early on, Adams published his email address on his cartoons. He built a list of readers and started sending them a newsletter.

Now, whenever Adams publishes a new book, he lets his tribe know. And he hits the best-seller lists.

Curvebender Publishing also leads a tribe. It publishes a $100 deluxe edition of Recording the Beatles: The Studio Equipment and Techniques Used to Create Their Classic Albums. The first printing of 3000 copies sold out after one week.

Turning it all around

In summary, as a book publisher you are no longer in the business of finding readers for your writers. Instead, you find writers for your readers.

The bottom line: Treat readers as an asset. Find out who they are. Work for them.

So, what do you think? Is Godin’s vision on target?

Who is an Expert, Anyway?

Just got done reading The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential, in Business and in Life by Leo Babauta.

Babauta writes well. And thousands of people visit his Zen Habits blog. He’s talented and smart.

But after turning the last page of his book, I’m wondering:

Who is this author? And why is he qualified to give me advice?

In his book, Babauta states that he transformed his life. By strategically changing habits—one at a time—he lost weight, stopped smoking, earned more money, and created many other new outcomes.

Well, OK. But he’s asking me to take this on faith. I have no objective evidence that it actually happened.

You might argue that I’m too doubtful or pessimistic. Again, OK. So let’s assume that Babauta did actually change his habits and transform his life.

There’s still another problem—the underlying assumption that “it worked for me and therefore it will work for you.”

Babauta’s book is full of strategies for behavior change. But have these been tested? If so, by whom? And under what conditions? In the end, how do I know that Babauta’s strategies work for anyone other than him?

Please don’t get me wrong. Many of Babauta’s ideas sound interesting and useful. I’m intrigued by his suggestions to focus on achieving one major goal at a time, and to begin habit change with simple new behaviors.

However, the only evidence to support those suggestions comes from an uncontrolled experiment conducted with a nonrandom sample of one person—the author himself.

Actually, no experiment was conducted. What we get from the book is a series of personal anecdotes—that is to say, no evidence at all.

Any competent scientist will tell you that anecdotes are interesting and important. And for many reasons, they don’t count as evidence. (That’s a subject for a separate post.)

Ultimately I’m arguing for a delicate balance of creative and critical thinking. The trick is to remain open-minded and skeptical at the same time: Stay open to new ideas. Then ask for evidence.

No matter what they write about, authors of nonfiction books are selling their expertise. They offer ideas, facts, instructions, and examples.

And as readers, we have the right to ask: How do you know it works?

Image by HikingArtist, Flickr Creative Commons and

The Power of Words

Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world. But they are shapes. They bring the world into focus. They corral ideas. They hone thoughts. They paint watercolors of perception.

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Image: Isaiah Wieland, courtesy Jason and Crystal Wieland