Ambition, Inspiration, and Habits

This post was inspired by a friend who posted a quote “You are not lazy, your goals are not inspiring enough.” He thought it was “absolutely true.” For whatever reason(s) I initially interpreted it as “you wouldn’t be such lazy sack if you actually had any ambition at all.” I suppose I may need to do some introspection as to why I read it like that to start, anyway this is important context for some of my thoughts which followed.

Atomic Habits and The Power of Habit are two books I have read recently that shed some important light on this topic. One of the major claims from Atomic Habits is that habits are far more important than goals. There is so much more to laziness (aka bad habits) than lack of inspiration. Inspiring or ambitious goals are good and all, but they are hardly a solution for laziness. Okay, so, maybe nothing I am going to write here wasn’t stated more eloquently in one of those books. You’ve been warned.

Ambition: (æmˈbɪʃən) n 1. strong desire for success, achievement, or distinction

Inspiration and the way it fuels passion and will power is certainly important. I am not discounting that at all, but even inspiration, powerful as it is, in itself is still insufficient for many people. The missing piece is often strategy and tactics to pair with it. Still, inspiration can be crucial because even excellent strategy and tactics can also fail, or fail to even form, without it.

Inspiration: (ĭn′spə-rā′shən) n 1a. The excitement of the mind or emotions to a high level of feeling or activity

What I find interesting and counter-intuitive is that, when it comes to real fundamental changes inspiration isn’t so often necessary, and specific goals may even be counter productive; good habits alone can usually get you there. And smaller scale habits are stackable. A good sleeping habit, with only a slight nudge, can almost automatically lead to a better study or practice habit.

There are many implications in this thought in regards to parenting, mentoring, or coaching. For example, It is very hard to impart inspiration to my children around brushing their teeth, good hygiene, or other healthy stuff. It is a bit unrealistic to attempt to inspire them on this point and expect good behavior to flow from that inspiration. It is much less stressful and more practical to merely help them form good habits. Setting specific goals along the way feels like a good idea until you watch motivation to continue fall off a cliff once they succeed. or once they fail for that matter.

Habit: (hăb′ĭt) n.1a. A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition:

Again, not that inspiration is irrelevant, it is still a long term aim, and often crucial for the habit to really stick over the long haul, but it can come later after stacking multiple good habits together. In my experience it can sometime arise naturally out of the positive results of good habits. Practicing an instrument turns from merely a habit into fun, all of a sudden making music is inspirational and you feel driven to compose or perform, or do it just for the pure joy of it.

I think one problem with the quote “You are not lazy, your goals are not inspiring enough.” is that it is open to being interpreted in a way that is blaming and shaming, especially here in the US where we have certain attitudes in general towards laziness and ambition. The way it is structured paired with the fact that laziness is so frequently seen as a moral failure, my mind just goes to “your failure isn’t this, it’s really this”, and it can’t help that lack of ambition is another frequent failure category here – could be those puritanical roots mixing with capitalism, who knows. Anyway, blame and shame often aren’t deserved or even if they are it’s not ultimately helpful to point that out if what you’re aiming for is self-improvement.

Many people get into some bad spot with their physical or mental health, and while a lack of inspiration might be a problem, it isn’t so much what got them into the mess. Bad habits are more frequently the culprit.

Plenty of uninspired people stay fit; historically anyway, it’s less likely in modern society. Obesity isn’t an primarily an inspiration issue. Yet in our American culture it often gets portrayed as such.

Assuming most depression is not merely caused by a chemical imbalance, but can be a product of behavior and environment ( a topic for another time ) plenty of people are not depressed sort of by accident. Good sleep, regular exercise, healthy diets, meaningful relationships – all largely maintainable via habits – plausibly contribute to this. At least most people have a sense of the absurdity of inspiring yourself out of depression. Depression can look a lot like laziness in fact, but it would not be compassionate to advise a person suffering in this way to try setting ambitious goals – a main thing they are failing to be able to do is have ambition! May as well ask them if they have tried not being depressed.

Making laziness connect to inspiration puts it at the level of something intrinsic to who a person is. However, if laziness is a mostly a product of habit which emerges from a more unconscious level and is, therefore, less about who we are deep down, but more about how we have been trained to behave, then it becomes less about shame. If lazy is something we do not something we are, well, this is clearly fixable! Behavior modification is something rather well understood. There are concrete steps. Changing things at the level of personality – getting inspired – This is harder. Where does one even start? It will be different for everybody, of course. Plus, how do you know if it ‘worked’?

Now, it makes sense that bad habits have a depressing effect – a tendency to siphon off motivation and inspiration. So I suppose there can be sort of a vicious cycle, a tail spin that induces a sort of hopelessness. If that is where a person is, then building habits may not be the first step. Maybe they need to hear they are not worthless. Maybe they need an emotional boost to get going. In that case a little inspiration may go a long way. My friend, who had been in a place like that in the past, seemed to hear the quote as saying something more like “your root problem isn’t laziness, you have intrinsic value and ought to be inspired instead of demotivated.” And amen to that! But when I encounter quotes like this isolated on a wall in a gym somewhere I think I am still going to have trouble interpreting it that way. Maybe it is just me.

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