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Marie Curie’s Losses and Triumphs

Self-motivation examples

Today is the 144th anniversary of the birthday of Marie Skłodowska-Curie, a woman who won two Nobel prizes in different disciplines: Physics (in 1903, with her husband Pierre and a third scientist) and Chemistry (in 1911, by herself). In and among many other accomplishments–for her family and for her native Poland, for example–she managed to simultaneously drive the dawning of a greater level of respect for women in general and to make paradigm-changing discoveries in science.

I would like to be able to comment on what drove Skłodowska-Curie, but without a lot more research, my comments would be too little observation and too much speculation. What I do know is that she seemed driven to better her understanding of science and to accomplish much else of value from an early age. Based on research on both intelligence and temperament, it seems likely she maximized some benefits she was born with in both areas: a sharp mind and emotional resilience.

I mention resilience because Skłodowska-Curie didn’t have an easy time of it in childhood. She did benefit from a highly educated and supportive family, but it was a family that suffered a series of painful losses as Marie was growing up: her eldest sister, Zofia, died of typhus when Marie was ten, and her mother died of tuberculosis when Marie was twelve.

Both sides of her family had been wealthy, but both had worked for Polish independence from the Russian empire and had been stripped of their wealth, so getting a decent university education was a significant struggle for Marie. While as a young woman, she worked as a governess to earn money to be able to attend university and to support her sister doing so in Paris. At this point she fell in love with a young and brilliant mathematician, but his family rejected her because of her poverty.

We all react differently to loss and adversity, whether it is our country being dominated by a tyrannical neighboring empire, the death of friends and families, being kept from the ones we love, or being frustrated in our attempts to accomplish our goals in life. It’s easy sometimes to retreat into self-pity, complaining, giving up, becoming hard and cynical, compromising our visions of what our lives could be, taking the next easy situation that comes along even if it’s wrong for us … but Marie did none of these, which makes her birthday more than a historical note: it can, if we like, become a day on which we’re inspired to let our setbacks, disappointments, and losses fuel our commitment to doing great things in the world.

If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in reading “Do You Have Enough Talent to Become Great At It?” and “Randall Munroe and Zombie Marie Curie on Greatness.”

 

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Black Belt Mom

Self-motivation examples

Kristen Gagnon, a fellow student at the Blue Wave Taekwondo school in Burlington, Vermont, made this video chronicling her Taekwondo career up through black belt testing this past weekend. She does a beautiful job of showing what it’s like to enrich your life by finding a kind of physical activity you love.

How did she do? I’ll save a thousand words and just post this:

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Finding Peace in Crazy-Making Situations

Self-motivation examples

I recently moved out of a house I was renting and am currently wrangling with my former landlord over getting my security deposit back. I’m certainly tempted to denounce him here, to list what I see as his misconduct and wrongdoings in an attempt to show you what a terrible person he is and how justified I am in being upset at him for causing me trouble over this issue. This way, however, lies madness (or at the least, unproductive angryness).

All the ingredients for crazy-making
Honestly, the issue of getting back the money I gave him in good faith is the kind of thing that can easily drive me nuts. It’s a combination of money matters plus uncertainty plus a feeling of being wronged, each of which has its own specialized cohort of broken ideas, things like “I need that money” and “He should stop trying to steal from me!” and “What if I can’t get him to play fair? Will we have to go to court? How long will that take? What kind of evidence will I have to prepare? Will the judge see it in the same light I do, or will I get screwed?” And on and on: fortune-telling, mind reading, “should” statements, magnification, and more broken ideas (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“). It’s an ideal formula for driving me up the wall, in recent history running a close second to similar problems with the same landlord while we were still living in the house he owned. (It’s bad enough having someone you feel is untrustworthy is holding onto your money; it’s that much worse to have such a person holding onto your money and in charge of the building in which you and your family live.)

However, this issue is not driving me crazy. While I certainly haven’t quashed every last bit of anxiety about it, it isn’t keeping me awake at night and preventing me from focusing during the day or making me unhappy–nor should it bother me, except to the extent that I may need that to do the things I need to do with the situation. What tactics have I learned that are helping keep me sane?

1. Dig out the broken ideas, and keeping digging
Broken ideas are thoughts that force us deeper and deeper into negative emotions.  To clear my mind, I have to witness what I’m thinking, catch the problem thoughts in the act, and then replace them with more useful thoughts.

For instance,

“He’s going to steal my money!”

turns into

“He may or may not take money that I don’t think he should have.” (That’s a twofer: not trying to predict the future and not labeling the situation in a way that makes it sound as bad as possible.)

For me, that rephrasing gives an immediate–though partial–relief. The problem then is that the broken ideas keep cropping up and continue to need to be repaired. The good news is that the more I do this, the sparser and sparser those thoughts become.

2. Stop making my happiness conditional on outside situations
I don’t know if there’s anyone in the world who always gets everything they want, but somehow I suspect even a person like that wouldn’t always be happy. Since sometimes things are going to go my way and sometimes they aren’t, and since making my happiness dependent on something that might or might not happen in the future postpones that happiness indefinitely, it would be smart for me to be happy with whatever I have at the moment–even if discomfort, deprivation, or injustice are involved. It worked for me last night at Taekwondo practice when I was holding a stance and beginning to ache and feel tired from it; it also worked for me this morning when I reminded myself that my happiness doesn’t need to be a hostage to whether or not I get my full security deposit back.

3. Relax, stretch, meditate, move, breathe
Anxiety and stress can accumulate physically in the form of tense muscles, aches, cramped posture, and the like. When I remember to let go physically and mentally, take short walks (see “The Benefits of Quick, Easy, Pleasant Exercise“), breathe deeply, meditate (see “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation“), and consciously relax my muscles, I begin to feel better both physically and emotionally.

Photo by notsogoodphotography

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Toward a More Motivating Working Space (Sylvia Spruck Wrigley)

Self-motivation examples

My writer friend Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (I know, I have a lot of writer friends. It’s kind of cool for me, actually) who maintains the cool handwritten blog Can’t Backspace was recently reading my free eBook (or 99 cent eBook, if you buy it for the Kindle) The Writing Engine and let me know about one of her experiences with it:

I started reading The Writing Engine and got to “Your writing environment” and stopped. The bullet list really made me stop and look around.

So I wrote my thoughts on each point and then went through reorganising. I now have a big bag of rubbish, a clear cabinet in the TV room, an empty file drawer where my camera and peripherals now live instead of on my desk and a clean desk! I have a little mushroom corner with poppets and a bookshelf place of honour for James T. Kirk and a stack of notebooks and a bunch of new pens.

It’s all little things but I feel really good about it!

In case you’re interested, here’s the bulleted section she mentions. It’s followed by specific points to consider.

What could you do to the space where you work that would

  • make you happier or remind you of things that make you happy?
  • make it easier to concentrate?
  • put things more easily to hand or more conveniently out of the way?
  • attract you to your work?
  • remind you of why you do the work you do? or
  • put you in a good mood or a frame of mind to focus?

 

I was curious to see the details, so asked for a photo, which she obligingly supplied:

She added:

For the full effect, you need to know that the bookshelf was full of books that I rarely refer to and I had to clear the right side of my desk in order to write in a notebook there (in truth, I often got up and moved to the dining room table). I should have taken a before photograph but I didn’t realise how much junk I had!

I filed all my stationary/envelopes in the filing cabinet instead of in the desk drawers and I’ve taken the “desk stuff” that I generally need and put it in the drawers for fast access. I moved almost all of the books into the main bookshelf (which is not very far away) and then just spread around happy things that make me smile.

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Steve Bein on Handling Multiple Projects

Self-motivation examples

Steve in Antarctica in 2008

Here’s a response my friend and collaborator Dr. Steve Bein, a professor of philosophy, black belt, martial arts teacher, Writers of the Future winner, and adventurer whose first novel comes out (I believe) next year gave to a question about handling multiple projects at once.  The context was writing specifically, but the advice seems to apply much more broadly than that.

I’ll give the advice I followed when writing my dissertation: write whatever’s easiest that day. Writing a dissertation is a huge pain in the ass, but if you write whatever’s easiest on any given day, sooner or later you will get the hardest part written too. (Sooner or later today’s hardest part becomes easier than some future, harder part.)

The primary problem this solves is that of motivation. You always get to feel like you’re getting away with something, and you always get to feel like you’re making forward progress.

The above is actually the second-most important piece of advice I could give you, and it only works if you follow the most important advice, which is this: WRITE EVERY DAY. No exceptions, not even your birthday.

As Steve has successfully completed projects like short stories, novels, philosophy papers, and a PhD dissertation, I feel he knows whereof he speaks.

Steve in the desert in Namibia, 2010

Photos courtesy of Steve Bein

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Help Amy Become Less Wishy-Washy

Self-motivation examples

Fellow Codexian Amy Sundberg is taking to heart Codexian Ferret Steinmetz’s advice in his post on winning at blogging (referenced in my own recent post “Hurrah for the Comment King!“) to go more to the center with your blogging personality: if you’re always conciliatory, be less nice; if you’re always angry, get a grip (my paraphrase).

Says Amy,

I don’t even know who you all are, but that doesn’t matter; I just de facto want you to like me. Which I hope you can see can be a bit crazy-making. I enjoy smoothing things over, keeping things calm, following the rules, being reasonable and fair-minded, and not stirring up the pot.

In her post “The Backbone Project: Help Me Become Less Wishy-Washy“, she lays out her plan for tackling the task of learning to be more obnoxious, and she invites others to help her, participate, and try the same thing, saying

If you are also a people pleaser and a blogger, you can make your own commitment of writing x number of non-conciliatory posts. I will cheer you on, and we can provide moral support for each other!

Anyone want to give her a hand? Or maybe want to put a little fire into your own posts? If you join in, be sure to link your post(s) in comments, below.

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Experimenting With a $100 Bet

Self-motivation examples

My son, who’s 14, has been wanting to get in better shape for quite some time. We’ve talked about good methods and about how to change diet and exercise to lose weight and build muscle, but he’s found it difficult to get moving. Often he’d begin to do something–say go walking every day or track everything he eats–but give up soon afterward. I suspect that part of the problem was not being sure that what he was doing would even work.

Motivating other people
My study and writing hasn’t generally been about motivating other people: it’s been about motivating ourselves. The big difference between those two tasks, if you ask me, is that when we’re motivating ourselves, we have direct access to the brain in question, and when motivating others, we don’t. Since the means I talk about have to do with our own thinking and attitudes, they’re not as useful to try to use on other people.

Still, I had been supporting my son as much as I could, offering information when he asked for it, volunteering techniques for making better progress, and talking through obstacles. But I wasn’t going to try to make him get more fit through imposing rules. If he was going to learn a healthy lifestyle, he’d have to decide to adopt healthy habits on his own. While I buy healthy food and make sure he has access to exercise activities, I’m pretty sure going beyond that and trying to force him to get fit would backfire in the long run (and maybe in the short run, too).

The bet
So what did I do? I decided to try an experiment, and I bet him a hundred dollars he couldn’t lose 10 pounds in 8 weeks.

10 pounds in 8 weeks isn’t a record-breaking goal, but it’s pretty solid weight loss, enough to know for sure that better fitness is possible and to see visible improvement. As to the hundred dollars, I reasoned that if he wanted to participate in some kind of exercise program for 8 weeks that cost $100, I’d scrape that money together in that situation. I’d be willing to do the same in this special case if he were going to exercise on his own.

He took the bet. He didn’t have anything like $100, so we established in the beginning that if he lost, he’d be paying it off in trade: I have plenty of little things he can do to help me with my own projects.

Yet I made it clear from the beginning that I wasn’t rooting for him to lose: instead, I’d do anything I could think of to help him win. I didn’t know what the long-term effects of winning the bet might be, but I figured if he won (I was pretty sure that was possible), he’d at least gain confidence that he could lose weight whenever he really made up his mind to, and there’s good research to support the idea that belief in one’s ability to accomplish something is a crucial building block for motivation.

How he did
The first two or three weeks were not promising. He lost a pound or two early on, but he stopped there. He didn’t seem strongly motivated, even though mentally he had already spent the $100.

Somewhere around the fourth week, though, his attitude changed. We had been talking about how his chances of winning the bet were weakening every day. At the rate he was going, he’d lose the bet.

Spurred on by thoughts of not getting the things he wanted to buy with the money and by worry about how long it would take to work off his debt if he lost, he got in gear. Instead of generally intending to exercise every once in a while, he exercised every day that he could, mostly cardio with some strength training. He stopped asking for and eating junk food and fast food: where they had been uncommon treats before, now he cut them entirely out of his diet. He chose salads without dressing for lunches at school and stuck with lean, healthy options at home. When he didn’t know whether or not a food was good for weight loss, he asked me, and I did my best to give him good guidelines. He avoided most carbs and focused on fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and a few whole grains. He stopped drinking juice and lemonade and stuck with spring water. And he started losing weight.

In fact, he lost weight very quickly: several pounds a week. He still had two weeks to spare when his weight loss hit ten pounds. He repeated the winning weigh-in with me as a witness, and was ceremoniously awarded his prize. It was spent on the wished-for items within hours.

The aftermath
I was hoping that he might develop some good habits in the course of his weight loss experiment, but that was based on the idea that he would adopt a healthy regimen over the whole eight weeks, not on the idea that he would lose almost all the weight in a self-disciplined rush in the middle. He had gotten down three weeks of good habits, but for complex behaviors, three weeks is rarely long enough for a habit to form (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“).

So it wasn’t surprising, though it was disappointing, to see my son go back pretty much to his old habits of eating (although he’s a little more restrained about things like juice and desserts these days). It’s encouraging, though, that he is still doing fairly regular exercise. It appears that his short flirtation with weight loss may have gotten him over some reservations about exercise, which matches my experience: once you start doing it regularly, especially if you can find a mode that’s pleasurable for you, you no longer work so hard to avoid it.

So, was it a good idea?
In the end, I’m going to call this one a limited success. It certainly isn’t an ideal approach, since it didn’t do much of anything to change his internal attitudes or supply him with a long-burning passion for fitness (something that’s very difficult to even do for ourselves, let alone other people). It also didn’t turn out to get him doing healthy things long enough for them to become habits.

However, there’s no denying that the bet enabled him to lose 10 pounds on his own, and it certainly taught him some things about his ability to motivate himself when there are stakes that matter to him, about exercise, and about healthy living. If sooner or later he comes to feel that he really wants to commit to a healthier lifestyle, he’ll know how, and he’ll have confidence he can do it again on his own.

Photo by Todd Kravos

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Andrew’s Results: One Month of the Slow Carb Diet

Self-motivation examples

Here’s Andrew’s final update for his 31 day attempt to lose 20 pounds:

Well team,

Start weight on Feb 28th was 200.8 lbs.  Today’s weight: 193 flat.

I aimed for a 20 lb loss in 31 days.  Was the book even 50% correct?  No.  Was the book even 40% correct?  Just about right. I lost 7.8 lbs out of the desired 20 lbs.

Did I adhere to the regimen perfectly?  Yes.
Did I employ a cheat day each week per the book?  Yes.
Did I use the recommended dosage of vitamins and supplements?  Yes.
Did I employ ice baths and ice packs?  I used ice packs occasionally and only used one hellish ice bath as the book only called for those techniques to lose that grueling last 10 lbs
Did I do exercises before and after meals i.e. air squats and push-ups?  98% of the time.

What went wrong?  I suppose my body needed some time during the 1st week to even get into the swing of things.  I did experience a lot of weight swing throughout the process.  However, and despite the rather large jerks up and down, the end result was very good.

I feel great.  I added a bunch of muscle.  My energy is through the roof.  My heart rate is better than when I started.  I sleep better.  Allergy season barely affected me.  I do not tank during the day or yawn after meals.  When I do eat, the food is piled high, I leave the table stuffed and I am hungry by the next meal.

7.8 lbs in a month is successful if you ask me.

April’s goal is to lose 12 and then May’s goal is to lose an additional 5 so I end up at 175, down from the original 200.8.

Total inches lost (used a neck, waist at naval, waist at widest part, both upper arms, both forearms, both calves, both thighs and my shoulder width):

Total inches: 249, 248.5, 248.5 ,246.25 ,246.25 ,247.75

Why the fluctuation in inches?  1) measuring yourself with a tailor’s tape is a pain in the ass. 2) I dropped fat but I added muscle in my thighs, gluts, calves and biceps.

Good luck everyone and I will post my results at the end of April.

Congratulations to Andrew! His effort has been amazing, and his results, while not a miracle, seem very strong to me. Even the most concerted weight loss efforts normally can’t (and shouldn’t!) cause a loss of more than two pounds of fat per week, although The Four Hour Body asserts that it can accelerate healthy weight loss well beyond that mark.

Andrew’s success rate so far is about 1.76 pounds net body weight per week, and it seems likely that he gained more than enough muscle to put him over 2 pounds of fat loss per week. Especially sustained over a month, these are great results, despite the limitations of scales for measuring fitness (see “Why Weighing In Is a Poor Way to Measure Progress“. After all, the other available options aren’t much better in most respects, unless you can manage and afford professional bodyfat measurements on a regular basis).

What I don’t think we saw over this past month was a validation of any mind-blowing results of the Slow Carb Diet as laid out in Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Body. This isn’t to say I think it’s a bad plan: on the contrary, I’m following it myself at the moment (though in more limited ways than Andrew), and generally speaking, the people I know on it have experienced increased energy and strength, though only sometimes actual weight loss. Better yet, people using the diet seem (in my limited experience so far) to be largely free from hunger and to enjoy their “off-day” or “cheat day” enormously.

The biggest drawback I know of so far is the “carb hangover” that can last for up to two days after cheat day (so three days in all–nearly half the week), resulting in low energy and less buoyant mood. Also, people I know who are following this plan, as I mentioned, are not all losing weight. However, if one follows it as carefully and energetically as Andrew, speedy weight loss (speaking in relative, healthy terms) does seem to be possible. How much of it is simply limiting calories through eating very healthy meals of protein, vegetables and legumes, and how much is exploiting human body chemistry through Ferriss’ many special tactics? I don’t know, and I’ll be interested to eventually find out.

And especially of interest here, how did Andrew manage to adhere so effectively to his diet plan? That’s a subject I hope to discuss with him soon, but his clear goal, his comfort with the idea that the goal was an ideal and not a restriction, and his constant sharing of his progress probably helped. I hope to talk to him more about the subject; stay tuned.

Photo by Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway

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Andrew, Week 3: Adjusting for a Moving Target

Self-motivation examples

Here are some recent updates from Andrew, who we’ve been following for several weeks as he tries Tim Ferriss’s Four Hour Body approach in an attempt to lose 20 pounds in 31 days (see “Andrew’s Challenge: 20 Pounds in 31 Days“). By last week, it seemed clear that while he was making good progress, 20 pounds was going to be too high a target; he’s now estimating 8.5 pounds lost by the end of his month of effort, which even when we don’t take into account any muscle he may have gained is an impressive amount.

Day 21 of 31: Weigh in: 195.6.  That’s 5.2 lost since Day 1 of 31.  I predicted a loss of 8.5 lbs last week using some very sketchy math …

That was surprisingly low for a post cheat day weigh in, especially considering I ate like a pig. [For anyone not familiar with Ferriss’s approach, it requires a weekly “off day” or “cheat day” of high calorie consumption, with the intention of keeping metabolism high. Because we’re checking in with Andrew soon after his weekly cheat day, the effects of that day, which last up to about 48 hours, are skewing his weight a little higher than it would be if we checked in with him, say, mid-week. — Luc]

Tomorrow begins the last full week for my self-experiment. I will continue beyond day 31 of course but the goal remains: How close can I get to my 20 lb goal?

Next post will be my measurement for TI [total inches].

End of 3rd week measurement for TI:

246.25 total inches.  This is down from the start measurement of 249.  Not thrilling results of course but here are the main changes in measurement, despite overall loss of inches:

Waist around navel: smaller
Waist around largest part (a**): smaller
Both thighs: larger
Calves: same or slightly smaller
Upper arms: exact same
Shoulders: potentially .5 inch smaller or the exact same
Forearms: smaller
Neck: smaller

The revised goal or expectation (20 pounds down to 8.5 pounds) seems perfectly fine to me from a self-motivation point of view. True, 20 pounds is more inspiring than 8.5 pounds, but the 5.2 pounds Andrew has actually lost is likely to be better motivation than any merely hoped-for results, as long as it’s thought of as an improvement over the start weight instead of as falling short of the desired weight at this stage in the game. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with setting a high goal as long as it keeps you on the right track and you aren’t discouraged if you fall short of it.

One of the advantages of Ferriss’s approach is that it involves four substantial meals each day (breakfast, lunch, a smaller second lunch, and dinner). The meals are not necessarily exciting or varied, but they’re fairly tasty, very healthy, and they’re filling, so that after an initial adjustment period, physical hunger isn’t a serious issue. In this respect, at the least, Ferriss’s system has a major advantage.

Keep on keeping on, Andrew, and thanks for the updates!

Photo by Arthur van Dam

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Andrew, Week 2: Movement in the Right Direction

Self-motivation examples

Here’s Andrew’s week 2 check-in (see “Andrew’s Challenge: 20 Pounds in 31 Days“).

My total inches is the same as last week but the measurements are changing a bit for each body part.

As of 3 days ago [before his weekly “cheat day” on which people who use this system need to eat a lot of high-calorie foods that temporarily make weight spike–LR], I had lost 3 lbs, 2.5 of which came off that 2nd week.  I only lost .5 the first week.

I am expecting great results this week and I am going to step up running and hit the pool (cool water draw heat out which burns cals!).

I am very far from 20 lbs my man but the pursuit is still hot!

Andrew isn’t currently on target to reach his goal of losing 20 pounds in 31 days, but having lost 2.5 pounds this past week, he’s much closer now than he was, and 2.5 pounds lost healthily is a big weight loss success by practically any measure.

His first week may have been affected by some eating habits he changed for week two, specifically cutting out significant amounts of of corn (which is often thought of as a vegetable, but which is actually a sweet grain) and drinking grapefruit juice on cheat days only. Tim Ferriss, the author of the Slow Carb Diet that Andrew’s following, recommends grapefruit juice on cheat days to help process carbohydrates more effectively–but on non-cheat days it’s not an allowed food, as it contains a lot of fructose, which interferes with the physiological processes the 6 days a week of proteins (including legumes at each meal) and vegetables are supposed to create.

In terms of motivation, Andrew’s clearly still pushing for a major success, and the results of his second week  suggest that he was right to persist but look for things he could improve after a disappointing first week.

Here’s a further update from Andrew, the following day:

Day 15 of 31:  Weigh in??  198.8.  That’s 1 lb less than yesterday and seems normal that it is still 1 lb elevated above my low weight recorded.  When I checked the weight on the day of my last cheat day, the day after cheat day and two days after, I had an elevated weight and then it tumbled off again quickly starting day 2 of the new week i.e. Tuesday.  Let’s see what week 3 brings now.

I swam 500 meters today and I’ll run a few miles tonight before dinner or before bed.  I will swim 1000 on Wednesday and 1500 on Friday.  I will keep my running miles at 3 miles or less and work some sprints into the routine on Saturday morning before my cheat day begins anew.

I notice that my stomach does not tell me I am hungry until almost 2 full days after cheat day has ended.  I think it takes my body that long to work out the garbage food and to coordinate itself again with the vitamins on day 1 of the new week and after the vitamin rest day after binge day.

For those who have chimed in to help me, I should begin to see a good amount of weight loss for the rest of this week 3 and then for week 4.

Cheers.

Photo by maxintosh

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