ESPN's Bill Simmons recently exchanged a number of emails with The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point, as part of Simmons' ongoing series of interviews with public figures from beyond the world of sports. Gladwell's insights can usually be applied to a wide range of subjects, so I was curious to see what Simmons (aka "The Sports Guy") would elicit from him. The most interesting thread from Part One of their correspondence relates to motivation--here are a few excerpts:
Simmons: [H]ow did you learn to...write so well?
Gladwell: ...I'm not sure I can answer that...except to say that I really love writing, in a totally uncomplicated way. When I was in high school, I ran track and in the beginning I thought of training as a kind of necessary evil on the way to racing. But then, the more I ran, the more I realized that what I loved was running, and it didn't much matter to me whether it came in the training form or the racing form. I feel the same way about writing... They say that Wayne Gretzky, as a 2-year-old, would cry when the Saturday night hockey game on TV was over, because it seemed to him at that age unbearably sad that something he loved so much had to come to end, and I've always thought that was the simplest explanation for why Gretzky was Gretzky...(snip)
Simmons: ...I think there's a certain amount of professionalism that needs to be there, as well, because there will always be days when you don't feel like doing your job, and those are always the true tests. Halberstam has a great quote about this: "Being a professional is doing your job on the days you don't feel like doing it." I love that quote and mutter it to myself every time I don't feel like writing because my allergies are bothering me, or my back hurts, or my head hurts, or there's some random dog barking, or any of the other excuses I use when I'm procrastinating from pumping out something. So how easy is the writing process for you?...
Gladwell: This is actually a question I'm obsessed with: Why don't people work hard when it's in their best interest to do so?
...The (short) answer is that it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection... Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don't study for tests -- which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you're stupid -- and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare.
These two concepts seem inextricably intertwined: A) In addition to the many external obstacles we encounter that keep us from doing our best work, we may also have a tendency to sabotage ourselves by not even doing our best to begin with. B) To insure against this tendency, we need to love what we're doing, and we need to love it so passionately that the intrinsic rewards of the experience itself are sufficient--because the extrinsic rewards (for achieving success as well as for avoiding failure) may never be enough.
This resonates deeply with me. I'm not indifferent to extrinsic factors--I want to enjoy a high standard of living, win praise for my efforts, avoid criticism for failure--all the things we expect to come from doing good work. But if I'm not in love with the work itself, none of that is enough to keep me going indefinitely. As Simmons rightly notes, a sense of professionalism--which I see as a combination of duty and pride--is essential to get through the rough spots. I've drawn from that well plenty of times--enough to know it's not bottomless. All of these forces factor into our motivation, but at the center there has to be a passion for the work.
I've been a little harsh on Simmons over the years (and he can be bad--don't ever read him on the New England Patriots), but he deserves a lot of credit for showing us another side of Gladwell. Well done--I'm looking forward to Part Two tomorrow.