Hindsight is 2020

The first time I used Medium, I was amazed by the creative potential that it offered. I remember thinking “this is it, this is the perfect platform to share my ideas!”. And I wrote quite a few articles… but most of them had been sitting in Drafts until they became irrelevant or the creative impulse behind them wore off.

As I look back at this year and the whole past decade, it seems that most of my regrets can be attributed to one flaw: indecisiveness. Whenever I get a chance to do something important, I get paralyzed by doubt. It happens in so many forms: the impostor syndrome, perfectionism, analysis paralysis, fear of failure/success, anxiety, ultimately spiraling into a depression.

Back to the Medium example: I would start writing an article about an important principle that just changed the way I think, and then I’d think “wait, shouldn’t I first prove that it has the potential to transform my whole life?”. And when it doesn’t magically transform my life (as very few things can, really), I’m left with the choice of either writing about the not-so-glorious experiment or moving on to another idea that will turn into yet another draft.

Sometimes I would break through these creative doubts with the help of others: the people who would put their trust into me (the more explicitly and publicly they do it, the better it works); or the people who would bet against me (giving me the stimulus to prove them wrong). So it seemed like there always had to be someone else for me to accomplish anything important. But even though there’s no shortage of supportive people in my life, I look back at lots of unfinished projects and think: Why didn’t I dare to do it back then? What stopped me? Why do I always need someone else to push me to my limits? Shouldn’t I be able to do it myself?

Diving into these questions helped me find tons of psychological tricks and hacks that worked here and there, but none of them were able to create a lasting impact. Reaching a true and deep understanding of the inner workings of my brain seemed to be restricted to only very rare states of mind, and preserving this level of mindfulness on a daily basis didn’t seem possible.

Most of my attempts to motivate myself went something like this:
1. Get hyped about the opportunities that lie ahead and fall in love with my transformed self that would emerge in the process of pursuing them
2. Build out unrealistic plans based on a grand vision
3. Fall behind the plan and watch the vision break into pieces, feeling devastated
4. Struggle to find motivation to do anything (a feeling that spills over to all other areas of life)
5. Wait for someone else to motivate me and settle on the idea that that’s the way it is, I need other people to stay motivated.

I obviously need to start by changing Step 1 because although that unrealistic vision helps me get going, it ultimately leads to the fall. But the problem is that if I don’t start at #1, I usually start at #4, feeling unmotivated and depressed, failing to focus on anything because of extreme anxiety.

The Mindset Shift

I’m figuring out a new way of motivating myself — one that’s not based on delusional self-perception—and there’s a few ideas that help me to not fall into the traps above.

Depression happens. But instead of surrendering to it, waiting to naturally emerge on the other side, I’m taking a lesson from Duncan Trussell (whose “Midnight Gospel” is the best thing I’ve seen in 2020) and sabotaging the depression in any way I can. Luckily, I’m very good at sabotage.

Instead of running away from anxiety with delusional plans or external motivation, I’m now embracing anxiety as inevitable (inspired by the way Hubert Dreyfus interprets Heidegger’s “Being and Time”), coming to terms with the fact that there’s no objective higher purpose in life. I am grateful to be alive and try to remind myself how cool it is to be present and have the freedom to be authentic.

Instead of being crippled by the impostor syndrome, I’m consciously contributing to my self-efficacy. This article explains self-efficacy in more detail but my key takeaways are that:

  • my past achievements are meaningful, they prove that I’m not worthless
  • I can learn from others’ mastery (but I might not instantly be as good!)
  • my friends’ support has a role in my self-worth but it’s not defining it
  • the way I feel when doing something challenging is natural (Andrew Huberman explains the brain chemistry after the 35-minute mark in this interview)

Next Steps

I sometimes feel like managing my mind is like a game where I can’t save my progress and whenever I lose, I have to start at the beginning. I have to fight with the same bosses—depression, anxiety, impostor syndrome—only this time, the difficulty level is higher.

I have no doubt that I will go through these levels again and again, but hopefully I won’t get stuck on them for too long. After all, there are so many more exciting levels ahead with the challenges of procrastination, avoiding distractions, prioritization, resourcefulness, making time for things I love and god knows what else! Thinking about these challenges as a game might actually help me avoid putting too much meaning into overcoming them. Mark Rober’s TED talk got me excited about this idea and Better Than Yesterday shared 5 gamification concepts that can be applied in everyday life.

So here’s to the new adventure where the main character just is what he is, instead of switching between being all-mighty and completely useless, and the quest is just interesting enough to give it a shot, instead of being the search for the Holy Grail.

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Marko Nykoliuk

Marko Nykoliuk

A father, startup founder and musician, working as a product marketing manager in music tech.