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Passion, People and Principles

Down Time

post # 276 — January 5, 2007 — a Careers post

Here’s a question I received by email that I bet many of you could help with.

David – I think I’m in a mid-career crisis. I love what I do and I’ve found a great organization in which to do it. Coworkers and clients are great and I’m asked to be more creative and given more autonomy (and more money, incidentally) than ever before. My problem is that I’m having trouble motivating myself to do my best work.I don’t understand it – I’ve worked so hard to get here, and I’ve enjoyed that hard work. I don’t know if this is burnout or not. I’m early 30’s, finished a master’s while working full time, worked in high-profile roles in a couple of Fortune 200 companies and have always been labeled a high-achiever.

How do I motivate myself, so that I can motivate those around me? I’m experiencing some pretty severe cognitive dissonance over this – my behavior just doesn’t match my idea/expectations of myself, but no one else seems to notice. Thanks in advance, L.

Well, L., the main thing I want to say is: “welcome to the club!” I don’t want to minimize the distress you must be feeling, merely point out that your experience is not at all uncommon. Certainly I have been through what you describe on a number of occasions, and I would be amazed if most high achievers had not.

Sometimes, you just reach a point where you need to lie fallow and let the mental “soil” regain its nutrients. I’m not qualified to comment on the science of this, and not licensed to be a therapist, but my own experience and my observation of others is that it’s a necessary part of all creative activity.

It’s only scary if you start believing the falsehood that “you’ll never get back” to your former dynamism, and those are normal fears to have. (Again, I know.) But the truth is that the odds that you will be stuck forever in a “I don’t feel motivated to do anything” mode is very small. Unless you’ve got a clinical problem, my advice is to forget about it and just enjoy your down time.

I know that sounds easier to say than do, but like many emotional and mental things, the key is not to try too hard. To take just one analogy: it’s kind of like having jet lag after some intercontinental travel, and you’re in some hotel room wide awake at 3am. There’s no point “trying” to fall asleep if it’s not gonna happen, and there’s no point adding worry to the problem of sleep loss. You’d be better advised to call room service for a snack or some breakfast, read a book, and go with the flow.

I wrote about the elusive phenomenon of motivation in MANAGING THE PROFESSIONAL SERVICE FIRM.

Here’s what I had to say there:

“Everybody must have had the following experience: You are responsible for a piece of work about which you just cannot seem to get excited. It is not that the task is too difficult, too easy, or even inherently uninteresting: just that the spark is not there. Nevertheless, being dutiful, you sit at your desk and try to work at it, being neither productive nor doing your best work. Then the next morning, for some obscure reason, you begin to see the work in a new light. You approach the work in a new way, and begin to delve into the problem. Gradually, what had appeared as mundane now has an element of interest, which grows into curiosity, into fascination and ultimately into involvement, effort and productive, creative work. No amount of procedural work plans, tight supervision or incentive schemes could ever substitute for the inner motivation described in this anecdote as a means to achieve productivity, quality and, not coincidentally, professional satisfaction in a job well done.

This link between motivation and performance in professional work results in an interesting and important phenomenon: the motivation spiral. The elements of this spiral are as follows: high motivation leads to high productivity and quality, which leads to marketplace success. In turn, this results in economic success for the firm, allowing the firm to be generous with its rewards, including high compensation, good promotion opportunities and challenging work. This atmosphere of ample reward breeds good morale, which results in high motivation: and the cycle begins anew.

Of course, the spiral effect also works, all too effectively, in reverse. Poor marketplace success means poor economic success which means fewer rewards available to be shared. With lesser rewards, morale, and hence motivation, is low. This, inevitably and inexorably, leads to poor productivity and less than top quality, which reinforces the lack of marketplace success. In professional work environments, success breeds success, and failure sets the scene for more failure. The spiral can begin, up or down, at any point. But once launched, its forces are hard to resist. In consequence, the motivation crisis is a very serious problem for any firm that allows it to take hold.”

L., you may be in a spiral right now, but, as it says above, one morning, you’re going to wake up and you’ll see an element of interest in something, which will grow into curiosity, which will become engagement, then fascination, then true involvement. And you may never know what started the spiral upwards for you. Your main task right now is to NOT beat yourself up, and stay open to the possibility that something soon is gonna catch your interest.

Oh, and while you’re not fully engaged, try and fill the time with something interesting, so that your down time has SOME benefits. Read a book, go for a walk, play at a hobby.

By the way, a book that you might enjoy is “Exuberance: A Passion for Life” by Kay Redfield Jamison.

She’s a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and her book is a (well-researched but non-scholarly) description of people in history who have or had an extra dose of passion for life. It’s a GREAT read, and you’ll see that “recharging the batteries” was part of the life of all these people. You can’t be a dynamo 24/7/365 every year of your life, and you shouldn’t try to be.

OK everybody, please help L. Join in!


Mark Gould said:

I think the key to answering L’s question (“How do I motivate myself?”) is to work out what kind of things one finds motivating. I know this sounds a bit circular, and I am not qualified to talk about any more than my own gut instinct. However, I think that someone who is driven by the need to please other people (superiors, peers, clients or friends) will be more motivated when someone takes a genuine interest in their work, whereas that interest could be interpreted as “meddling” and demotivating by someone who works towards an abstract ideal of good performance.

Another way of putting this would be to ask whether something is missing from L’s role. (It sounds like this is a new position.) Is there less pressure to succeed now that a goal has been achieved? Are the objectives of the new job more vague or diffuse than the struggle to get the job in the first place? Once L has identified what is missing, and found a way to get round that (or replace it with a new source of pressure or more focused objectives), I would hope that the motivation will return.

One practical step, which I think is essential, is to let people know that things are not going quite as you had expected. It may not be appropriate to let them know that you are demotivated, but there should be no shame in asking for assistance in making a transition to a new role. (If that is the scenario.)

posted on January 5, 2007

Carmine Coyote said:

The underlying cause of burnout, and the steps that lead up to it, is the gap between expectation and result. See my posting series called Understanding Burnout.

Many high-fliers set themselves ever more demanding expectations, until they can no longer match up to them. They are also terrified of failure — usually because it’s something they have rarely, if ever experienced. The result is a state of frustration and tiredness, combined with inner panic.

Next, such people respond to the situation in the same way they have responded to every challenge in the past: they work even harder. Of course, this usually makes the situation worse, and adds guilt to the mix of “demotivation” that was there before.

What’s the answer? To go back and re-establish sensible expectations. However great someone’s past career has been, the future may not be quite as meteoric — especially if they’ve already reached high position in an organization.

Taking some time out for a “pause” is a great idea. But I would strongly suggest using that time to look hard at expectations and gain a more realistic outlook on the future.

posted on January 5, 2007

peter vajda said:

Since I don’t know “L”, I cannot speak to his/her experience. But I can speak to coaching clients who have similar experiences, including my own experiences as well.

The spiral (for me the spiral of life), always ends on an upswing; the deal is that in every spiral there are always down cycles, which I call the “x” spot. The “x” spot represents some type of mental, emotional, physical, spirtual, financial, or social lull, stoppage, feeling of discouragement or frustration, an absence of “movement”.

In my experience, there are a number of reasons we experience the “x” spot. One is, life is saying, “Take time out to reflect. What’s working in your life and what isn’t? What are you learning about yourself, who you are and how you are in the world?” The important piece of this reflection is to reflect with curiosity, not self-judgment, self-flagellation, self-criticism. With a curiosity, with an open mind.

In our culture, where folks live life changing tires at 90 miles an hour, many folks resist the “x” spot, force thenselves to forge ahead, never take time out for themselves (even vacations are stressful and “work”….doing, doing, doing ….in some way, shape or form, or numb themselves against the “x” spot.

So, we also ask, what is work-life balance for me? How do I define fun and do I have fun/balance in my life?

Experiencing the “x” spot, we ask, “Am I driven by some self-image I have (to be a superstar, supermom, to be the best (fill in the blank)?” More times than not, striving and struggling to meet this self image is self-defeating and, like not having fun in one’s life, can lead to burnout, rustout or derailing, or addictions and unconscious self-defeating behaviors. The “x” spot allows this time for reflection.

A new client emailed me this morning saying she fell and broke her wrist over the holidays. Prior to that she had been working 24/7, 365 for some months, obsessively. The wrist thing, coincidence? Hardly. There is no such thing as coincidence. Why?

The Universe will consistently tug on our sleeve when we need to learn a lesson and when we refuse (we’re too busy) to listen, there is usally a stronger tug (e.g., death, illness, divorce, firing, accident, downturn, etc. to get our attention) Often, the Universal mesage with sickness, accidents lilke this one, and illness is “You’re not taking time to reflect, to think about where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going…in all aspects of your life, so I’ll make time for you.” The “x” spot is just such an opportunity.

We ask, when we have a specific lull, “Is this particular experience at work, or in my relationship, a one-time experience or is there a pattern here? Do I experience this type of de-motivation, for exaample, consistently or not so often? The response will point to different approaches to work with the de-motiavtion.

We ask, “Is something going on with me physically? Has there been a recent major change in my diet…an inordinate intake of toxins….e.g., sugar, alcohol, chemical and non-chemical medications?

We ask, “Has there been a negative or unpleasant change in my relationship?”… a change which will manifest, like it or not, at work.

Finally, the “x” spot represents a challenge in how much we trust ourselves and have faith in ourselves, in our our inner ressources and in our development on our life’s jorney. In other words, we ask, “Is it OK to be in this place, to feeling what I’m feeling, to not be as productive as I was yesterday, last week, last month?” Those who are secure in their own skins, who trust their inner selves and inner resources, who belies that the sun will rise in the east and set in the west, who understands that the “x” spot is natural and part of life often say “yes” and stay with the experience knowing they will have clarity as they need it…just by allwoing and being patient.

Those who are driven by their Inner Judge and Critic, that inner voice who is always fearful, worrying, anxious, and driven by an indidious self-image that “I have to be perfect” in some way, will often say “no.” This is “bad” or “I am bad or wrong or deficient in some way.” They find it hard to cope with the “x” spot. So, an opportunity to see what’s underneath the fear, the discomfort…

No spiral ends on a downward cycle. Every cycle ends on an upward swing. We are always moving “forward” even when we feel we are backsliding. The “x” spot, not to be denied or resisted (what we resist, persists) is an opportunity to take time to consciously and objectively reflect on our purpose in life, our vision we have for our self, who we take our self to be, to consciously explore and examine our personal journey to see how, personally, professionally, emotionally and spiritually we are unfolding…what is supporting us and what is limiting us (beliefs, self images, assumptions, expectations, habits, patterns, etc)….if we choose to.

Perhaps a good opportunity to talk with folks you trust and with whom you feel safe, folks who will listen to you without needing to tell you, teach you, or “fix” you. Perhaps in the telling/sharing itself, and some reflection, you will discover some AHAs or insights about your self that will support you right where you are.

L, I wish you success on this part of your journey.

posted on January 5, 2007

Stephen Downes said:

the motivation spiral. The elements of this spiral are as follows: high motivation leads to high productivity and quality, which leads to marketplace success. In turn, this results in economic success for the firm, allowing the firm to be generous with its rewards, including high compensation, good promotion opportunities and challenging work. This atmosphere of ample reward breeds good morale, which results in high motivation:

Hm. This doesn’t sound like motivation to me.

What we have is a cycle. OK. But for any cycle there needs to be a driver, something that makes it go. Otherwise you don’t go around the cycle, you just sit there. What is the driver here?

It is this: “high compensation, good promotion opportunities and challenging work”. But what if you don’t find these particularly rewarding? What if they are not particularly motivating?

Every person needs a reason to perform. But this reason needs to be something over and above things that help you perform, otherwise they don’t drive the cycle. But compensation, promotion and even challenging work are just things that help you do other things. But what other things?

It’s as though you had a car, and everything you did with the car gave you rewards that had to do with the car – more gas, more chrome, a bigger engine. But eventually you realize, it’s just a car, and for it to be of any real value, you might want to actually do somewhere and do something for some other purpose.

Eventually, if you are a high performer, you reach this point in the cycle, the point where you realize that simply working to get ahead isn’t enough any more, that what you want is not merely to go faster but to actually go somewhere. And that’s what this letter sounds like. And your response sounds like, “Buck it up, soldier.” You’re asking him to have faith in the spiral. But that’s not good advice; it’s not even kind advice.

As people become increasingly self-sufficient, this is becoming increasingly true: people do not work for the pay, they work for the work. That is, they do what they do because they believe doing what they do is inherently valuable. The wage is nice, and if they get good pay, that’s a bonus.

This is completely absent from many companies today, especially Fortune 500 companies. These entities exist solely for the purpose of earning money for their shareholders. Now there’s something to get you going in the morning! “Let’s go! I have to go out and earn those shareholders another penny a share today!” Where’s the value in that?

And if that’s all you have (and if that’s what you’ve been working 24/7 to do) then you’re in pretty bad shape once you’ve realized what’s going on.

First of all, you have to find something you actually do value (and making profits for shareholders ain’t gonna cut it, not never). This could be something close to home like supporting your family, something more social like promoting literacy or housing or peace, or something spiritual like religion or enlightenment.

This is a hard call. You have to accept some sort of world view to find anything to be of value, and even then, it may be necessary to take what Kierkegaard called a “leap of faith” – you have start valuing something in the belief that this act will eventually lead to your actually valuing something.

Sometimes people have to go off on spiritual quests or into the wilderness or just on vacation to find this. Your writer should take a month off and go to Africa.

Whether or not you have some Big Thing to believe in or whether you have some simple everyday values, you can now look at your work in a new light.

Either your work supports the value or it doesn’t. If it supports the value, there’s your motivation (and you’ll find that if you work with other people who support the value you’ll even have a cheering section).

If it doesn’t support the value, then it may at the very least be viewed as a resource pump. Your job gives you the money (and network, etc) you need to support your value in your own time. In this case, you need only be motivated enough to keep the pump going; save your real passion for your off-hours work (this is a pretty common approach for people who find their values in their family or their church – most companies care about neither, and never will, so people place their passion outside their work).

You may not like this advice – but I am honestly not going to tell someone to get all passionate about increasing shareholder value.

posted on January 5, 2007

Lisa Guinn said:

Well, my advice seems a bit simplistic compared to some of the other posters, who have shared some thoughtful advice.

After going through a life-threatening illness, my motivation at work tanked. My previous work experience had been like yours. After 6 months in which things got progressively more horrible, a doctor diagnosed a chemical problem. A minimum amount of daily drugs turned the situation around for me, mostly.

I also found the following resources helpful, as I made additional changes in my life:

The Now Habit, Neil Fiore

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns


Maybe one of these will resonate with you, and give you some practical tools. And never underestimate the value of a good therapist to help you examine what’s going on – chemical or otherwise.

Good luck to you.

posted on January 5, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Some intriguing comments. And, I hope, helpful. (If I hear back, I’ll let you all know.)

Here are some of my reactions.

Steve, I hope I’m not being overly defenssive, but I wasn’t in any way arguing that people should “do it for shareholder value.” We agree way more than we disagree. I’m with you completely that people need an inherent purpose.

I was at pains to point out that for most of us, our commitment comes from finding inherent engegement with our work (which waxes and wanes, inevitably). But I don’t think it unfair to add to this point the two aditional comments that (a) when that commitment is there among people in an organization, the organization does well and (b) if the organization shares its greater success with people, then a “high reward” work place will lubricate engagement.

I also don’t think I was saying “Buck up, soldier.” In fact, I was trying to say the opposite. I was trying to say “Don’t force it, it happens to all of us, it will almost certainly sort itself out in time.” That’s different, I think.

We need to avoid demonizing organizations, I think. Just as it is important to make your point (“Do it for the shareholders” cannot be the only appeal) so, the opposite opinion, (“The company doesn’t matter”) would be an equally fatal mistake, as I think you would agree.

The important task for all of us is to find real-world ways to deliver meaning for the workforce AND a return for shareholders. And that, as I have argued frequently, is what managers are for.

Lisa, I don’t think your advice is simplistic. Therapy and drugs are needed in some cases. The question is, how quickly would you advise someone to seek these forms of assistance? Maybe earlier, maybe later – I’m not really qualified to offer a scientific opinion. It caan’t hurt to go see someone to explore those options.

But I think I’ll stand by the main thrust of my opinion – which is that “lulls of energy’ even ones that last weeks or months are not uncommon, and whatever you do, the first rule should be “Don’t panic! Give the process time.”

Peter, I find your action advice helpful and inspiring, but there are some assertions of yours that I don’t see the evidence for. For example: “The spiral always ends in an upswing” Where does that conclusion come from? Or “There is no such thing as coincidence.” It seems to me you’re offering that as an assumption, an underlying belief, rather than a reasoned conclusion.

Finally, Carmine, I think your pieces on burnout are superb! Important reading!

posted on January 5, 2007

James Cherkoff said:

Great advice. As an independent consultant I find the downtime periods offer some of the greatest challenges. “Not trying too hard”, is exactly the right but is, ironically, very hard to do! The key is to be aware of when your efforts are being productive and when they are not – do something else!

posted on January 6, 2007

breakingranks said:

I’d like to see some sort of cultural and social acknowledgement of the downward spiral – and an honest attempt to alleviate it since when people hit the bottom of the spiral they become drains on public resources (welfare, massive health problems, etcs.)

Part of the problem is that individuals can’t give voice to their own downward spiral: the social response is to blame the individual for having a bad attitude (not being optimistic, needing rewards…) and exhort them to “take responsibility” for motivating themselves to prove their good character. However, the closer a person gets to the bottom of the spiral, the more such exhortations diverge from experience/proof – making the social world and the workplace seem increasingly fake, teeming with people intent to deceive you. Feeling surrounded by untruth and unreality just makes the problem worse.

All the focus on mindfulness and internal states seems to me to be a great shellgame that allows people to avoid thinking about tough economic aspects of the problem. Everyone needs work or some way of livelihood: you can’t have a society with 10% or more unemployment (notice I’m not using the fake government figures) and hope that those 10% who are “out of luck” or “not trying hard enough” will transcend physical reality and leave the people who are plugged into the system alone. The people without health care get sick. The people who are continually thrown against rejection by frequent job turnover get depressed. People who are filtered out or downgraded by physical attributes they can’t control or can’t afford to “fix” to meet the expectations of power (race, gender, weight, facial beauty, etc.) get increasingly fewer resources to address their “problems”.

I can’t count the times over the past year when people have tried to “help” me by advising me to do something that costs money – sometimes a lot of money. For instance, I should go to a manicurist to get my nails painted for every job interview. Yes, it might increase my chances – and I need a job. However, the people who insist that the poor keep investing to meet the standards of the rich just deplete their resources and make things worse by condemning the person they’ve judged to be too stubborn to “help” themselves.

This denial of economic reality means that no policy will be formulated to address the problems. It’s an ongoing fraud against the people who have had enough knocks in life already.

posted on January 6, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Hey, “breaking”, how did we get from providing counsel to an individual high achiever with a mid-career crisis to bemoaning the lack of a social safety net? Your post ends with a plea for a “policy” to be formulated.

By whom? For whom? About what?

posted on January 6, 2007

breakingranks said:

Hi, David –

As I see it, the bottom of the spiral is why we need the social safety-net. Why should we assume that a high achiever at “mid-career” will bottom out at a high level and bounce back? Doesn’t your own spiral theory imply they keep falling further.

I also know people who have been unemployed for years because they lost a high level job and subsequently seem over-qualified for most jobs available to external hires.

In terms of policy – yes, I believe there has to be some government involvement in creating safety nets. Such policy can and should come from all levels from local to federal (in the U.S.).

posted on January 6, 2007

Allen said:

EVERYTHING IN THE UNIVERSE BREATHS, like our lungs, but our lives don’t allow for this, so you hit the wall. Read this site’s report for a mind opening.

How To Be In Synch With Your Daily Yin and Yang Rhythms…

A fascinating new way to move into synchronicity can be found at http://www.timegnosis.com/google/google-gadget.php.

For individuals, in the aligning of oneself with their higher knowing and cyclical rhythms, there is another time-line, a soul time. For creating the magic of synchronicity in your life – this project’s free Google gadget utilizes all the computational genius of the TimeGnosis system, and reads your “field” in real time to pick, inside of that day’s number archetype, a particular phrase that is your ideal focus for that day.

posted on January 7, 2007

Wally Bock said:

Let me suggest a couple of simple things that I don’t think have been mentioned yet. Both grow out of my coaching work.

Part of the issue may be that L hasn’t developed the necessary behaviors to deal with the current environment. It sounds like his time so far has involved dealing with recalcitrant workers and unsupportive bosses and organizational structures. His skills for overcoming those obstacles are well developed.

But his skills for dealing with a supportive environment and willing workers may not be well-honed. A coach or good friend might help him work through this one.

The other issue I’ve seen in similar situations is that suddently L has had excuses removed. Before he could say, “if I had a better boss, I could really produce great stuff.” Now he has the better boss and he’s excpected to produce great stuff. That can be very scary if you’re not used to it.

posted on January 7, 2007

Erek Ostrowski said:

L., There are many different ways of describing or explaining the experience you’re having, but I agree with David that it’s not at all uncommon, particularly among those who strive for success and then achieve it.

From my point of view, you’re not actually having a ”mid-career crisis”, so it may help to put that notion aside for a while. I also don’t believe that motivation, or regaining your motivation, is the real issue at hand here.

The real issue is understanding exactly what it is that you’ve accomplished, and identifying new ways of being, thinking, and acting that are consistent with where you are now, having accomplished what you’ve accomplished.

If you step back and separate yourself from your career, you can start to see your career as its own entity. You can also see that this entity has evolved over the years in terms of its power, productivity, and influence in the world. Your career affects more people, produces more results, and does so with less effort from you then ever before.

There’s a relationship between effort and results. When your career started, that relationship was skewed toward the effort side of the equation. If you contributed 10 or 20 units of effort toward achieving a goal, you would produce 1 unit of results. Given that equation, you adapted yourself. You learned how to be, think, and act in order to achieve your goals at the ratio of 20e:1r. You learned how to motivate yourself in that state of effectiveness to produce the results you needed to. When the relationship between effort and results is skewed toward the effort side of the equation, motivation is usually connected to survival. Survival requires putting out fires and pushing things forward with all of your might, all of the time.

Over the years, the work you did slowly shifted the relationship between effort and results such that the same 20 units of effort would produce 2, 3, 7, 10, and then 20 or more units of results. Now, the relationship between effort and results is skewed toward the results side of the equation. Landmark Education defines this as the operating state of high momentum, although the phenomenon itself has been experienced and described by countless multitudes.

You’ve achieved a degree of momentum with regard to your work and the results you produce. The key to understanding momentum is realizing that your entire career thus far has been organized around an equation that was skewed toward effort. Now that the equation has changed, the things that used to motivate you occur differently. Survival as motivation has become mundane. Putting out fires and pushing things forward with all of your might has become boring. You love what you do, but how you used to do what you do is no longer consistent with what you’ve achieved. Where you are now in relation to your career as an entity, requires you to start being, thinking, and acting differently.

Assuming you’re still with me and I haven’t completely alienated you with my convoluted rambling, the million dollar question is something like, what now?

Here’s what:

Everything you did that allowed for your current level of success is important. Despite being bored or unmotivated, you have to continue doing the work that got you to this point in order to continue moving forward through your current experience. Now is not the time to start making big changes. Not yet, at least. What you seek is further down the path you’re already on. Stay on THIS path.

Next, work on expanding your focus to include motivating those around you from the perspective of advancing their own goals, ideals, or objectives. The twist here is that you have to be able to see motivating others as distinct from and unrelated to motivating yourself. You don’t have to be motivated (at least not in the way you’ve viewed motivation in the past), in order to motivate others. It’s not sequential. In fact, if you succeed in motivating others to move forward in relation to their own goals, ideals, and objectives, you may start to experience a new level of motivation for yourself as a result.

Motivating others has to do with allowing them ownership. Your job is to begin to express your goals, ideals, and objectives through those around you, so that they experience themselves as owners of their work.

Lastly, remember that you get to choose how you relate to your experience. When you label your experience with a name like “mid-career crisis”, it evokes a certain response, based on a set of thoughts and feelings that you use to react to a crisis. Who says you’re having a crisis? You do. Try saying something different. For example, I would say that you’re in the process of evolving your career, having acheived a state of high momentum.

Best of luck to you, and I hope this helps!

-Doctor Dot-Connector

posted on January 8, 2007