in search of enthusiasm

March 6th, 2006

Today I started thinking about a rather more significant issue than the everyday blog ramblings. Why is it that I do what I do, why is it that I fail to do what I set out to do? I can trace a lot of action back to enthusiasm, it's a very powerful force.

I don't know about you, but I think that I have good ideas. Not good ideas about how to achieve affordable nuclear fusion for the household, I mean good ideas about things I can do, things perhaps I should do. But it's mostly about things I can do, because once the question of conscience and guilt comes into it, it's hard to summon any enthusiasm for what needs to be done. These ideas don't come to me on an everyday basis, they appear more on a monthly span of time. Quite often I will think of something that I could be doing, other than what I'm currently doing, at a time where I'm unable to do what I just thought of doing. Sometimes, in fact often, these ideas become little projects. And I like projects, so it's a good way of thinking about the issue at hand.

Inevitably, I produce more ideas for projects than I could realistically undertake, so there has to be a screening process. Since I'm both lazy and rigorous about what I want to spend time on, I never select ideas that are completely pointless and would lead me to think it was a total waste of time once the project is done. In fact, those never make it into a project at all. So I know that I'm left with a few meaningful projects, and it's a question of choosing among them. This is where enthusiasm comes in. I don't select the project which seems to give the biggest pay off, long term benefit or is the most important, I choose the one that I'm most enthusiastic about. And this is a creative process, so enthusiasm is helping me to accomplish something that I conceived on my own, which gives me a sense of accomplishment. Among recent projects I listed on a piece of paper, there was:

  • swimming at the pool (to get in shape),
  • making another Juventus video compilation (I made one before),
  • starting a software project (and finishing),
  • learning Italian.

There were others, but I don't remember them now. From the top; I did swim, but not as much as I set out to do and I didn't do it enough to feel that my shape had improved. I decided against doing another compilation, simply because I knew my expectations to it would be too high to ever be happy with anything I could make. I did start a coding project and I finished it, I consider that idea quite successful. I did make a bit of an effort to learn Italian, without really getting into any kind of productive routine, but my motivation was thwarted and now I don't consider it much of a goal anymore (there were external factors at play here).

And that doesn't illustrate an especially successful nor unsuccessful outcome, it's pretty much an average result. Except for the fact that I had about 8-10 projects in all and it was too much at once. From that little example, one can see that a project has promise if it has a clearly defined beginning and end. Swimming and learning a language have no precise goals, one can do it forever. Launching a project that has a definite end is different, however, there I know where I am in the project, how far I am from the beginning and from the end. The two other examples are like this, one was successful, the other was never undertaken. Similarly, there are lots more other projects I have not verbalized and written down anywhere, which I've completed and lots more projects I've abandoned. A project also has a lot of promise if it can sustain my enthusiasm all the way through.

Enthusiasm, there it is again. The point of taking this long route is to underline how useful enthusiasm is in small accomplishments. But ultimately, we are still left with the major issues in life; education, career, health etc. And enthusiasm is much tougher to spot there, because these things have no effect of being novel, of being exciting. They also have no trace of being something you can complete fairly quickly, like a project. So it's not new and the pay off, the moment of accomplishment, is very far away.

How then to mobilize enthusiasm for the big issues? I had an idea today. I remembered that a few years ago I made a policy decision to be nice to people. I'm not really nice by nature and it opened my eyes to see some people being really nice and I realized that my life would be both easier and more pleasant if I could do the same. And being nice doesn't mean being nice when you want to anyway, it means being nice when you don't want to. I somehow told myself that from now I would make this my goal, I would strive for it. Lo and behold, people started being nicer to me, my relations with a lot of people improved from neutral/resentful to good. And I did that because I believed in the idea, being nice is a good thing, it makes sense. I must say that I have neglected that principle recently, because I also need to strive for confidence and confidence requires confrontation sometimes, so striking a balance between the two has proven a challenge.

So if I could go from indifferent to nice, why not enthusiastic? Well, it's not straightforward. False enthusiasm is good for 5 minutes and doesn't solve anything. To be enthusiastic, I really have to believe in what I'm doing, it can't be based on a total spur of the moment notion. Inducing enthusiasm doesn't work either, when someone is trying to make me enthusiastic based on their values, which I don't happen to share. But, just as being nice is a state of mind, a starting point from where to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, perhaps enthusiasm could be as well? I don't know if this is going to work, but this is my idea today, to think of enthusiasm as a starting point. I've already been doing this for a while with happiness, sometimes when I'm not terribly cheery, I can rationalize the reasons I have for being down and conclude that I really should be happy. And from there on, a feeling of happiness grows in me, it may take 30m or an hour before I get there, but it works.

This is important, because enthusiasm is a catalyst for what gets done and what doesn't. Whether it be a "small idea" or a "big issue", the ultimate reason why I do or don't decide on something is based on how enthusiastic I am about it at the time. So if I could be more enthusiastic by definition, maybe I could get more done? Well, if it were easy I wouldn't have to think about it in such complicated terms. There is something about the nature of enthusiasm that demands reciprocity. If I'm really excited about something and I try to get you excited about it and you're indifferent no matter how hard I try, my enthusiasm wanes. And so to sustain it, it has to be reciprocal in some sense. When it comes to things I do on my own, there has to be positive feedback to fuel further enthusiasm. If my goal was to dig a hole and I could see that with every shovel it got deeper, it would make me happy to see that I'm getting somewhere. In practice, this positive feedback is not always there. Some things require enough determination to keep at it for weeks only to learn of the result at the end. But this is now the joining of two issues, one is "by default" enthusiasm to get started, the other is positive feedback (which must be truthful) to sustain enthusiasm. What I'm shooting for is the first one.

:: random entries in this category ::

4 Responses to "in search of enthusiasm"

  1. Diana says:

    Allora, se capisci un pochino d'Italiano ti scrivo un commento in Italiano :)

    Sai, hai proprio ragione, senza l'entusiamo non combiniamo niente, o almeno...poco. Per me funziona anche proprio così; quando sono entusiasmata per un progetto, poi spesso ci metto molto lavoro e sforzo e poi spesso il progetto diventa un successo. Comunque, ti volgio incoraggiare di continuare d'imparare l'italiano. Secondo me sia una bella cosa di poter parlare diverse lingue. In bocca al lupo con tutti i tuoi progetti! :)

    PS: spero che tu abbia capito ciò quello che ho scritto qui... :rolleyes: :)

  2. ash says:

    At the moment my enthusiasm for things goes through peaks and troughs fairly often. I just try to do as mch as I can when my enthusiasm is high.

    About the big things like education, health and so on, I don't think there ever is one big pay off. I think it was Jon Stewart Mill's (or Bentham's, on of the two) version of Utilitarianism that said that Education and Health and certain other things were virtues/goals in themselves. That we should aim for them for their own sake, and not because they're a means to Happiness (although they are).
    The big things are mostly made up of many small achievements, and occasional milestones - but we have to keep working at them. Partly through a general desire to be knowledgable and healthy (one kind of enthusiasm) and partly through interest in the smaller steps and achievements that make up the big ones - like the projects you mentioned.

  3. erik says:

    I'm blessed that way: I get excited very easy about things I come up with myself and with most other things I'll be able to psyche myself up for it if I really have no other choice. However, if there's even the smallest window of opportunity that will allow me to quit doing whatever it was that I was doing that I didn't like; I *will* quit. I've been working on that but it's not coming along very nicely...

  4. numerodix says:

    [1] I've been reading stuff like, match reports, stuff related to calcio. It takes a lot of effort, and reading your post does as well. I never actually got the point of trying to formulate myself, didn't get into the grammar. I had some tapes for that but I was too lazy to make a real effort, then I sorta lost interest in it. Learning a language is a lot of effort, and without powerful drive it's impossible to get anywhere. My 'problem' is that my first language-I-want-to-learn-but-too-lazy-to-do-it was and is French. Nowadays I live here and I'm taking a Dutch course..

    Yes, I got your post and thanks :)

    [2] In terms of education, I wasn't thinking so much in terms of 'enlightenment' or shall we say learning things on my own, that's a reward in itself to me. But when it comes to formal, structured, organized education, that doesn't come as easy. And there I was thinking in terms of graduating, having formal accomplishments. Which is a concrete goal at the end of the road.

    On health, though, I would agree with you, it's one long journey with no real 'reward'.

    [3] I guess that's what I would call a lack of 'positive feedback' then, you easily get excited about things, but you can't maintain that enthusiasm.