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Coaching Conversation: Motivation

Guy: Hey Coach. I’ve been thinking a lot since our last conversation.

Coach: That’s good. What about?

Guy: I think there’s a problem with your plan. I’m a pretty accomplished guy, but a lot of my accomplishment stems from using negative language to get myself motivated. I’m worried about what would happen if I stopped. I don’t want to lose my edge. If I do things “your way,” will I still be able to compete?

Coach: This is an excellent, logical question. You’re reminding me of Andre Agassi and his wonderful autobiography Open. Some of its opening lines are: “I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.” Does that sound familiar?

Guy: Well, yes. It sounds a lot like the relationship I have with parts of my work.

Coach: Right. One way to motivate yourself to jog–even though you hate jogging–is to get a lion to chase you. If you stop jogging, the lion will eat you. What would happen if Andre Agassi stopped playing tennis? What would happen if you stopped working? Will a lion eat you?

Guy: Well, no, obviously not. But Andre Agassi was a champion. One of the all-time greats. You can’t argue with that, can you?

Coach: No, and I wouldn’t try. Many high-performing athletes and professionals play as though a lion were chasing them. But it comes with a downside. Agassi was addicted to crystal meth while he was winning championships. And there could–possibly–be a link between forcing himself to perform in a field that he hated, and his self-destruction. What do you think?

Guy: I guess there might be a correlation there.

Coach: There’s the carrot and there’s the stick. And you’ve been using the stick for a long time. Are you open to trying some carrots?

Imagine you’re coaching a youth baseball team, for instance. One of your players, little Bobby, goes up to the plate, takes three enormous swings, and strikes out. At that moment, as coach, you have a choice. You can validate him or you can disparage him. In the latter case, Bobby will leave the game with resentment for you, himself, baseball, or something else. He might quit the team and find something else to do.

Alternatively, you can say something like: “Bobby! That was one hell of a swing! Sure, you missed. But if you keep swinging like that, then when you do make contact, that ball is going for a ride! You just keep doing what you’re doing.” How do you suppose Bobby would react in that latter case? Do you think he’d stick with baseball?

Guy: Well, yeah, that sounds like a team I’d like to be on.

Coach: I’ve got good news for you, then: In your life, you are both little Bobby, but also Bobby’s coach. And you can play for that team all the time.

Guy: I’m still concerned that my performance might take a hit if I try this…

Coach: I have yet to work with a client who said to himself, “Now that I am practicing love, I have decided my next move is to let my wife and children starve.” It doesn’t really work that way. You will not lose motivation if you “feed yourself carrots.” You may, however, begin to feel motivation in new directions. You may get to do some exploring.

Guy: Exploring?

Coach: Guys tend to find a lane early in our lives. Consider the guy who wins the blue ribbon at the middle school science fair, and from then on becomes “the chemistry guy.” A career can snowball from that kind of success. Think of the external validation from friends, family, teachers, coworkers…

Guy: What’s the problem with that?

Coach: There’s no problem at all. Until there is.

Guy: What do you mean?

Coach: Well what might happen when Joe Chemistry loses his job?

Guy: I see. Midlife crisis?

Coach: Sometimes, yes. How much is Joe Chemistry dependent on the external validation that he has historically received from his performance in his field? How much of his self-worth and his identity built on the faulty foundation that is external validation and the role he plays at work? Being stripped of those things can be very painful.

Guy: I’ve gone through that before.

Coach: Yes. It seems to be an essential part of our cultural experience.

Guy: Is there an antidote? A prophylactic?

Coach: As far as I know, what you’re asking for is a better understanding of who you are and what you are capable of.

Guy: What do you mean?

Coach: We are approaching deep water. Let me ask you a question. You have mentioned to me before that you do not consider yourself an “artistic” individual. Why is that?

Guy: Well, I can’t draw. I’ve always hated it and I’ve never been good at it. Some people have that “thing” and others don’t.

Coach: Some years ago I was introduced to the lovely book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In its opening chapters, the author includes a series of self-portraits done by beginner adult art students. Although the portraits are drawn by adults, they look as though they could have been produced by children or teenagers.

If you took 30 minutes to draw yourself in a mirror, an experienced art educator could guess the age at which you stopped drawing with remarkable precision. Adults who stopped drawing at age seven draw like seven-year-olds. Those who stopped in their teens draw like teenagers. And those who have never stopped are those who you identify as “artistic” and “talented.”

Your drawing skill has nothing to do with your “artistic” potential and everything to do with the age at which you stopped drawing.

Guy: I guess I buy that.

Coach: Moreover, it may be the case that you stopped drawing at precisely the same moment at which self-judgment and criticism slipped into your relationship with art. Perhaps you also won the science fair and became Joe Chemistry at around the same time. And being Joe Chemistry, with all of the praise, pomp, and external validation that goes with it, is a whole lot more seductive than working quietly on some drawings that no one but you and God will ever see. Pays better, too.

Guy: I see.

Coach: What might have happened had you skipped that day at the science fair. What might that have meant for your life? Who would you be today?

If you accept that “You are not artistic,” is a lie that you are telling yourself… If you really accept that… Then what other lies are you telling yourself?

Guy: I think I would like to sit with that question for a while.

Coach: That sounds like a good idea.


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