ad astra per alia porci


the power of demotivation
May 30, 2007, 8:35 am
Filed under: Lifeskills

www.despair.com

I have never really liked the whole ra-ra, you-can-do-it-even-though-it’s-highly-impossible-and-probably-very-dangerous attitude and culture of self-help and motivational books. There is a tendency to overgeneralise and ignore the rough uneven terrain of reality, hence resulting in normal people overusing extraordinarily dangerous and ineffective techniques and advice.

Consider the nauseatingly over-used phrase by Nietzsche:

What does not kill me, makes me stronger.

A whole range of no-pain, no-gain people ranging from protein powder-pumping bodybuilders to students who cram for exams probably subscribe to this saying. I have nothing against Nietzsche but doesn’t this phrase reek of fatalism, masochism and misplaced optimism? Of course the saying is about how adversity and difficulty can help make us better people (which is true at times), but it makes people push the edge a bit too much by assuming wholesale that participating in extremely challenging (and probably dangerous and time and effort-consuming) things will inevitably result in a payoff in terms of character, mental or physical development.

This is certainly not practical in reality; there is only a limited amount of time per day and one must decide how to allocate one’s efforts and time. If I am working in some monotonous administrative job that challenges me in a very perverse way by making me constantly struggle to keep awake and testing my level of tolerance for boredom, putting all my heart and effort into menial activities like punching holes in poor quality paper and stapling pieces of paper together doesn’t help me in anyway. But yet any adherer to the saying’s philosophy of working and thinking will probably soldier on, deluding themselves about the character-building virtues of stapling. It’s pain without gain but with dollops of illusory benefits.

Here’s where demotivation comes in. It provides the other side of the coin, the yin of every yang, the reins that stop the horses of misplaced optimism and rash generalisation. To be fair, motivational quotes has its uses. It, well, motivates people. In a positive, get-your-ass-off-the-chair, “eureka!” sort of way. Which is very dangerous when not taken with a pinch of salt. The salt of demotivation and “opposite” thinking.

Consider this counterpoint from despair.com:

That which does not kill me postpones the inevitable.

Doesn’t it have a nice ring to it? Like a good book, it does not look good from the surface: too pessimistic and snide. But on further rumination it makes practical sense that serves to motivate instead of demotivate. On the surface it seems to be an admission of defeat in the face of adversity and challenge, as it makes one aware of one’s mortality and the metaphor of death and getting killed can be extended to include the idea of failure and loss. However, an awareness of failure and defeat being part and parcel and an inevitability in the course of our lives reduces the fear one has of it and innoculates one from the paralysing effect of fear. This awareness also frames adversity within a larger framework of life and the overarching threat of mortality; it tells us not to go blindly into challenges and problems and to weigh the consequences.

When read in tandem, the two aphorisms serve to complement each other. It provides a much more practical and wise perspective on things, avoiding the Candide levels of excessive optimism and the abyss of despairing pessismism. I really do dig the stuff on despair.com; it’s funny, subversive and practical. Especially the mug with the half-full indicator. I might consider buying it.

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