This past summer was one of the most relaxing summers of my life. I credit it to the environment: I spent it in one of Kiev’s historical neighborhoods in my newly-rented spacious 1-bedroom apartment. No, not the touristy part near the Independence Square where they seem to have protests every year, but a more picturesque neighborhood replete with excellent coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. My daily routine consisted of having a hearty Eastern European breakfast, drinking my favorite Chinese tea, a nice stroll around the neighborhood and the gorgeous park, followed by work in my favorite outdoor coffee shop. It was the most relaxing summer I’ve had in a while.
While I was completely rejuvenated, the problem is that I accomplished very little. Actually, that’s an understatement: it was one of the least productive periods in my life. Sure, I lugged around my laptop to the coffee shop and pretended that I was working, but as days rolled into weeks and weeks rolled into months and summer turned into fall, I had little to show for except perfectly knowing the current events in every ex-Soviet country. None of my ambitious plans materialized. I got almost nothing done.
From a strictly financial perspective, I had zero motivation to hustle and make more money. My portfolio of passive income businesses was running on auto-pilot ensuring I had money deposited into my checking account even if I didn’t get out of bed that day. Just before the start of summer, I had finished a couple of huge consulting projects, ensuring a sizable payout that’ll last quite well for my minimalist lifestyle, allowing me to continue to do the things I enjoy for the foreseeable future without stressing where my next dollar will come from.
My level of ambition has withered over the years. When I was younger, my ambition was seemingly unlimited. I self-thought myself computer programming, build a little software company, all while attending a state university. After quitting, I moved to Silicon Valley, where I worked for some of the most famous and prestigious companies in the world. I wanted to make real, lasting change, even attempting to build my own operating system (OS) and a host of other projects. Unlike many of my colleagues, I refused to be just another employee. I wanted to work harder, achieve more and be different from the masses. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve realized that a lot of these ambitious dreams were just that – dreams and nothing else. Sure, I’ve managed to break myself from the tyranny of the 9-5 lifestyle thanks to a portfolio of various businesses, but the bigger-than-life goals along with the irrational ambition of my younger years are mostly gone.
Maintenance and ambition
Life can be boiled down to prolonged periods maintenance interlaced with bursts of ambition. Maintenance is defined as the level of effort you’re willing to expend without any external motivation. It’s the bare minimum level of lifestyle that lets you feel comfortable about yourself, a lifestyle where you’re not dealing with prodding from anyone else. My lifestyle in Eastern Europe is relatively cheap, allowing me to have a very comfortable life without needing to mortgage my future.
Maintenance is the point of equilibrium where doing something is right and not doing it is wrong. Brushing your teeth in the morning is right while skipping it is wrong. For me, going to the gym is the same thing. Maybe it’s my Eastern European background where fitness was taken so seriously it was promoted on a state level, but it just doesn’t feel right if I spent days or weeks without throwing some weights around. It’s so natural that I will do it even if others didn’t know (neutralizing the vanity aspect), without taking endless of selfies and bragging about it on social media. Just the other day, I found a great gym few blocks from my apartment. It’s not one of those fancy gyms with bells and whistles but has everything I need for a good workout. I’ll be going to the gym for a foreseeable future—without my cell phone.
Judging by the number of motivation blogs, tweets, images, memes and quotes flooding the Internet, the majority of people aren’t like this. For them, going to the gym is apparently such a huge deal that they need to be infused with a heavy dose of motivation. That also explains the plethora of fitness gurus and trainers. The tons of “feel good” material where everyone from your best friend to some guy on the Internet with a million followers who calls himself a “fitness guru” is dropping knowledge how everyone must deadlift and squat.
Maintaining a minimalist lifestyle, working out and training BJJ are three things that represent the core of who I am because they’re not dependent on external factors. It doesn’t matter where in the world I’m located, whether I’m in coastal Brazil, ex-communist Eastern Europe or in Southeast Asia; it doesn’t matter whether I’m surrounded by lots of friends or don’t know a single soul; and it doesn’t matter whether I feel on top of the world or as though the world is ending tomorrow. Most importantly, I don’t need to be motivated by others nor myself to continuously drop my gear in my bag and head to a workout. In a world where people are getting lazier every day and need to motivation to get off the coach, that’s not a minor achievement.
Although I consider myself fortunate that I don’t need to watch 251 motivational videos just to get my ass to the gym, I’m concerned that I’m losing the fire in the belly. I consider myself a smart and capable guy, but the fact that I’m fine with making only as much as I need to enjoy my modest lifestyle and not a penny more is worrisome. It’s as though there’s an internal war: a part of me wants to output more and achieve more, while another part is perfectly content with simple meals and a roof over my head.
Get rich or die tryin’
I’ve always wondered what pushes people to keep working harder, trying to make more money, even after they’ve achieved a certain level of success and their bank accounts are swelling with cash. Where does the whole “get rich or die tryin’” mentality comes from? When I lived in Brooklyn, NY a decade ago, I had a circle of friends who were the quintessential hustlers (in a good sense). They were young but were already making good money thanks to several online businesses and offline ventures. Several of them had amassed a very sizable fortune, but yet they were never content, aiming to keep going and raking in more cash. One of my friends in New York City is a doctor. He has his own private practice in Manhattan. He’s a great doctor but an even better businessman, making a ton of money that would even make some junior hedge fund managers envious. Although he’s made enough to retire many times over, he feels he’s just getting started and his ambitious has no limits. He plans to open a bunch of clinics in the future.
One way to understand motivation is to determine whether it’s backed up by specific goals or is just part of your lifestyle. When I go to the gym, I don’t have any goals whatsoever. Although I can easily bench press twice my own weight, I don’t aim to increase my maximum bench press or increase the amount of weight I can squat ten times. Moving weight around is simply part of my lifestyle, nothing less, nothing more. Other people are goal driven. For instance, a guy who has $2 million in the bank may have a goal of amassing $10 million; a guy who has $500 million may want to join the $1+ billion club. Perhaps the goal is about buying something specific, like a super expensive chateau in France or an expensive yacht.
Studies show that focusing on systems is more effective than having specific goals. When it comes to weightlifting, an example of a goal is increasing your bench press by 10%; a system is showing up to the gym and lifting for 45 minutes. When it comes to a martial art like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a goal would be to win a championship while a system is just showing up and rolling (sparring) with others. In both cases, the fact that I’m focusing exclusively on the systematic aspects and not on specific goals probably explains why I continue to train day in and day out without needing an injection of motivation like a drug addict.
Come to think of it, if I had a couple of million dollars, I’d probably retire and do the things I enjoy. The other day I realized that even if you had a “measly $2 million,” you can live on $10k/month for 15 years without making an additional cent (not to mention the interest earned on the rest of the money). That’s plenty of money that’ll afford you a very comfortable lifestyle in 99% of the world. Even with a “modest” budget of $5k/month, you can live on those $2 million for 30 years without doing anything. If I had that kind of money, you’d find me chilling somewhere in Ukraine, Bali or Thailand, and not in some boardroom in New York City, looking to make even more cash.
The myth of motivation
The more I think about it, the more I’m coming to the conclusion that motivation itself is a myth. The fact that someone else is making you do something is an obvious red flag. If that person dies tomorrow, who’ll tell you to go to the gym? Who’ll tell you to start a business? For something to motivate you, it must be a part of you, it must be part of your life and your values. it must be something that you want to do. When I dedicate few hours to working out, I know I’m getting tangible benefits: I feel better and look better. On the other hand, if I work harder and turn $5k/month into $10k/month, how would my lifestyle change? I honestly don’t have a clue. Maybe I’ll be able to stuff myself with the absolute best filet mignon every day (instead of every other day)? Or live in an even bigger apartment in the absolute best part of the city? Or fly to a new country every week instead of every two weeks? In most of the world, you can already live like a king on a $5k/mo budget, never mind with a lower budget of $3k/mo, so making more won’t radically change your lifestyle. The main reason is that not doing versus doing something gives you instant benefits, but the benefits are less quantifiable when you move from great to awesome.
There were periods in my life when I was very productive. One such time was about a few years ago when I was living with my girlfriend in Lithuania. We were living in a modest apartment just outside the center of the historic capital. We had plans to rent a much nicer apartment, right in the center of the old town. Perhaps one of those brand new gorgeous loft-style apartments with huge windows and tall ceilings that were sprouting up like mushrooms. The fact that we were seeking a better life gave me specific goals and objections. Although both of our living conditions would improve, I was mostly driven to do something for her and improve her life. As a result, everything else duly followed. I formed new businesses and launched new projects, leading to a substantial increase in overall income.
Vanity is another huge motivator. The fact that I can push myself to make more money, buy nice things (e.g., expensive cars) with that money and then post them for the whole world to see on Facebook or Instagram is very tempting, but I don’t care about all that. Many years ago, I owned a couple of nice cars that would surely collect tons of likes, but now you probably couldn’t convince to buy a honking piece of plastic and metal if you put a gun to my head (especially with Uber being so cheap in Eastern Europe). I don’t care about that social media crap and won’t sell my soul for cheap “likes.”
What these two examples have in common is that they’re both driven by some external factor beyond my own needs and desires. In the first example, I was driven because I wanted a better life for both of us; in the second example, I would be driven by competition with others. Absence the external factor, and I would return to my comfortable state of equilibrium.
No matter how you slice it, there’s always an equilibrium at play. There’s a predefined limit as to what you’re willing to do once you’ve covered the basics such as a bread on the table and a roof over your head in a beautiful neighborhood in a vibrant city. On top of that, you can layer the things that make you feel better and healthier such as sports or lifting weights. Everything else is the cherry on the proverbial cake. The marginal returns of the effort beyond that point are very hard to justify. The benefits are too muddy and not easily quantifiable.
I’ve seemed to hit this limit and going beyond it is a futile venture riddled with diminishing returns. Thus, the dilemma becomes how to integrate the bursts of ambition beyond the monotony of everyday life. In other words, how to motivate yourself to reach the next level without having a solid reason to do so. That’s an age-old question that doesn’t have an easy answer.