I am about share with you a powerful discovery I made about myself. I write about it with the desire that this self-discovery will be as valuable to you as it was to me.
I think there is something strange about the way I learn. I just began to figure this out in the last three years. I learn subjects in detail through long focused obsessive immersion. I find something captivating, and I immerse myself in it obsessively until I either burnout or reach a level of knowledge and ability that satisfies my desire. And I get angry or depressed when I am forced out of this hyper focused state.
They use the term hyperfocused in ADHD circles. I’m not saying I am ADHD – I don’t know, and I don’t really believe it’s a “disorder” anyway. – See footnote
My learning style doesn’t allow me to learn something I am uninterested in. I know, I know, I’ve heard it before, “don’t give me that crap you narcissistic ass. Just put the pencil on the paper, do the work like everyone else, and quit thinking you are so effing special.” But for me this is real – I can’t just snap out of it – I would have if I could have.
After failing at school (and other things) during my ninth grade year, my parents sent me to the mountains to bust my butt on a trail crew. They meant to teach me the meaning of hard work, so I would understand that school was a better choice.
They meant well, and their plan worked. I was dead set to make it in school. This time was going to be different. I was going to focus on the work and do it whether I liked it or not. I was determined. The work wasn’t difficult. It was easy and I knew it.
My determination lasted less than six weeks. I barely passed the first quarter.
I’ve discussed this at length with my wife and she had similar experiences. She’d promise herself she would pay attention to her studies and succeed. 30 minutes later, she’d fall asleep in class.
My brain turns off when I am not self-directed. It‘s that simple.
I could read entire sections of the dictionary, the world almanac, or The Longest Day, but if you told me to read something and the idea wasn’t mine, it was over.
I told this story to a co-worker who has a nephew flunking out of ninth grade. She asked me, “how do you get anything done in corporate America if you have to be interested to learn?”
I put that puzzle together this week.
Most of my adult life I have been a negative thinker. In meetings if someone asked, “what’s the worst case scenario”, everyone would look at me. My boss frequently said, “I didn’t ask you what could possibly go wrong. I asked what is likely to go wrong.”
My negativity helped me succeed, because seeing hidden problems and vulnerabilities that others overlooked is a precious IT skill.
In 2004, I was tasked with leading the technical portion of a multi-million dollar ERP implementation. I was overwhelmed with worry and fear. There were too many points of failure. All I thought was – Hershey. I thought we’d fail, I’d be mopping floors somewhere, and my kids would be on food stamps. I imagined a picture of myself on the front of Computerworld with a title that read – “Don’t Do What This Dumbass Did.”
I can’t describe how insane it felt.
So I decided I had to stop worrying.
Over 18 months, through several methods, which I will describe in future posts, I was able to reduce my fear and worry and that got me through the ERP implementation. The ERP implementation was a resounding success.
Now my worry and fear were gone, which felt wonderful, but I found a terrible side-affect, I was completely unmotivated. I was bored. People would tell me about some urgent need and I was completely uninterested. In fact, I couldn’t even concentrate on what they were saying. It felt like I was back in Jr. High. So I began to journal about it… daily.
One day the answer popped into my head…
I HAVE BEEN MOTIVATING MYSELF WITH FEAR! AND I’VE BEEN DOING IT FOR YEARS! WHEN I LOSE MY FEAR – I LOSE MY MOTIVATION.
The only way I’ve been able to motivate myself, is to convince myself – if I don’t do it, and do it perfectly, something catastrophic will happen. This method worked great. I was running around trying to fix everything so the universe didn’t fall apart. Little did I know, the universe was doing fine without me.
When I worried, I was motivated; when I stopped, I was bored. I was addicted to fear.
The realization that I was using fear to motivate myself occurred to me a little less than a year ago. I didn’t know what to do (I still don’t have a perfect answer to this dilemma). I was caught in a catch 22. I hate being afraid, but I hate being bored and unmotivated.
I recently wrote “How the Public School System Crushes Souls.” So I’ve been thinking a lot about my education.
And that’s when this realization popped into my head:
MY FEAR AND WORRY WAS A DYSFUNCTIONAL COPING MECHANISM TO FORCE MYSELF AWAY FROM MY PASSIONS AND TOWARD SOMEONE ELSE’S IDEA OF WHAT IS RIGHT FOR ME.
I told myself that if I didn’t do it, and do it perfectly, some awful thing was going to happen. Kinda like “old time religion” – if you don’t do what they want, God will burn you in hell forever.
It was the only way I could “put the pencil on the paper and get it done.”
But the problem is… as an adult, I never followed my passions either. I believed success was impossible unless I followed the correct plan. You know the plan… go to school, get good grades, get into a good college, get a good job. What other path is there? If you followed some other formula and succeeded, it was obviously a fluke and you didn’t deserve it anyway.
So I am back where I was in school. You see, when I was kid I wasn’t afraid, so I wasn’t motivated to do ‘their’ work. I didn’t fear the consequences and I didn’t do the work because there were so many other things I was more passionate about.
So now, I have a decision…
Do I do the things I am wired to do through my hyperfocused obsessive learning, or do I return to frightening myself into doing what other people expect me to do?
I think you know my decision.
Do you have a similar decision to make?
Footnote on ADHD
The word “disorder” suggests that there is something wrong with you that someone must fix before you can be “normal.” I believe some people learn one way and others learn another way and kids with classic ADHD symptoms make life a pain in the ass for everyone around them, so we all think we need to change them, when maybe we should be looking at ourselves instead. Maybe we need to change they way we think about ADHD.