I read a book on neuro-linguistic programming recently. It’s basically a way to reprogram your brain (e.g. to strengthen motivations or weaken phobias), using techniques like visualizing the trigger in question, then changing the way you visualize the scene. (Moving the trigger object farther away from you or closer to you, adding colors, adding theme music, …)

Which I was strangely taken by, but I have to admit that it sounds more like snake oil than not. At least I hope that the psychological profession is sensible enough to pick up on techniques that can cure serious phobias in five minutes, if those techniques actually work! Then again, it’s not like I actually took the few minutes to go through any of the exercises in the book; maybe traditional psychologists took the same approach to the ideas as I did…

Having said that, there were a couple of ideas in the book that seemed worthwhile. One was the notion of the direction of motivation: you can either be motivated towards something you want or away from something you don’t want. Or, of course, a mixture of both, even in a single situation, and certainly people can be motivated towards something in one aspect of their lives and motivated away from something in other aspects of their lives. But their claim that most people, in general, lean in one direction or the other sounds plausible to me; and I think it’s worth playing around with the idea of exploring both sorts of motivations in various context. (Of course, I still think it pales in comparison to the power of the distinction between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.)

In particular, I’m starting to buy into the notion of how powerful having a strong vision of a future goal can be. This is, of course, the core of “motivation towards”, and also ties in with their approaches that I outlined in the first paragraph. Thinking back on my life, or even about my present-day life, I think it’s not too implausible to think that the areas where I’ve been successful are areas that I’ve had a strong vision pulling me forward, while areas where I’ve been less successful are ones where that hasn’t been the case.

For example, I think you could make a reasonable claim that part of the reason I left academia was that I didn’t transform my vision of somebody who knew a lot of mathematics into a vision of somebody who discovered a lot of mathematics. I was quite good at the former and mediocre at the latter; some of that is doubtless due to my innate talents, but I bet a lot of the reason why I would pull out a math book at a moment’s notice (and work through all of the exercises in it) during parts of my life without putting in the same energy towards discovering new math later in my life had to do with my lack of vision of what the latter would be like.

Though, of course, having a strong vision by itself isn’t good enough. On that note, I thought their presentation of research on what factors lead to successful rehabilitation for injured athletes was quite interesting. The list they presented was:

  1. Inner Motivation. Both towards a future vision and away from the painful present, in the case of rehabilitation.
  2. High Standards. The successful athletes wanted to get back to their former peak performance levels or better: they wanted to run like the wind, not just get to where they can walk.
  3. Chunking Down Goals. They broke goals into extremely small chunks, e.g. gaining an extra quarter-inch of range of motion in their feet.
  4. Combining Present and Future Time Frames. They concentrated on the present when moving towards those small goals, while also having a vision of the future to sustain them through the rough times.
  5. Personal Involvement. They helped design their recovery plans and carry them out themselves, not just putting themselves in others’ hands.
  6. Self-to-Self Comparisons. They’re not worried about comparing themselves (especially in their injured state!) to other athletes: they’re comparing themselves today to themselves last week, and noting how they’ve progressed.

There are several things that I like about this. For one thing, it fits well with my view of areas when I’ve been successful: in those situations, I have a vision for what I want, I break that down in small steps, I take charge of my own plans, I don’t worry particularly about comparing myself against others but instead note the progress that I’ve made on my own. Whereas in areas where I don’t satisfy those criteria (which is also frequently the case), I make much less progress.

To take a much more modest example than a world-class athlete recovering from injury, I want to become a fluent reader and speaker of Japanese. That’s my motivation, mostly towards, though there’s a bit of an away from motivation in that there are art works I can’t really access right now! I won’t claim that my standards are wonderfully high, since even if I succeed fabulously there will still be more than a hundred million people who are more fluent in the language than I am, but I’m also rejecting goals of being able to just get by: one of my goals right now is to memorize the two thousand basic kanji and all of their common readings and meanings, for example, and I have no intention of stopping when I get there. But that goal will take me years to reach; that’s okay, as long as I know 14 more kanji this week than I did last week, and can keep that up for a little over two more years, I’ll make it to that goal. (I suppose that will also serve as an example of combining time frames!) I’m certainly involved personally: I’m not depending on anybody else laying out a course of study for me, I’m doing the best I can of finding resources to help me wherever I can and combining them to make a coherent plan that I’ll actually be able to carry out. And I’m not comparing myself to anybody else while doing this; sure, the kindergartener two houses down is probably learning Japanese much more quickly than I am, but that’s her, I’m me.

And, of course, I’m always gratified to see somebody talk about the virtues of breaking large tasks into small steps. I’ve certainly spent enough time obsessing about that over the last five years, whether in the TDD cycle, in breaking up features into small, coherent stories, or in the GTD notion of “next action”. It’s a very powerful concept.

The list also sheds an interesting light on Seth Godin’s The Dip. I blogged before about my mixed feeling towards the book: I initially found it seductive, but when I thought about it more it didn’t really feel right to me. And comparing it to the above list is useful: Godin does great on the High Standards part, and okay on the Inner Motivation part. (Though even there I think the fit is a bit uneasy.) I think he’s fine on the next three factors (they’re not particularly the focus of his book, but that’s okay), but the Self-to-Self Comparisons seems to me where his presentation really doesn’t work with me. Don’t worry about being better than everybody else in your niche: follow your nose, and see if you’re getting closer to your vision every day. Maybe this will lead you to being king of your niche, maybe you’ll open up a glorious blue ocean, maybe you’ll just end up having your life quietly spiritually richer without being able to say you’re more successful than your neighbors. Any of these seems like a good outcome to me; focusing on being the best has its virtues to the extent that it encourages you to set High Standards, but is harmful to the extent that you’re excessively comparing yourself against others.

Hmm, maybe I should figure out what, if any, my vision is for this blog?

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