Be a Workaholic for Today

Manic Monday. Hump Day Wednesday. TGIF.

We have all these expressions that connote one statement: work sucks, and you shouldn’t want to do it.

Of course, that’s not always true. If you play your cards right, you will most likely end up in a job that you enjoy on a career track that’s fulfilling. However, because life is life, we know that there’s no way a high can stay. What goes up, must come down. And the struggle through the down days can be really, really exhausting.

In a previous post, I touched on the concept of lying to get through a grind. That got me thinking about the different ways we lie to ourselves: self-lies make us feel good about ourselves, drive us to make certain purchasing decisions, and direct other aspects of our behavior. So, why can’t we take some of those lies, tweak them, and use them to make ourselves more productive?

“I Can Quit Anytime I Want”

Do a Google search on addiction, and you’ll eventually find some resources that talk about how much addicts lie. They use these lies to support and justify their addiction. Whether it’s gambling, alcohol, drugs, or anything else, many addicts are characterized by how untruthful they are—to others as well as to themselves.

So, here’s one thing that may work for you if you’re struggling to get through the workday: do a little bit of roleplaying. Pretend that you’re a workaholic. Try to visualize yourself not as a working stiff, but as a productivity-driven madman who can’t get enough, who needs to stay busy. Imagine what it would be like, and think the thoughts that would motivate such an individual. Below are a few suggestions:

“I can quit anytime I want”: this one’s pretty common, and it’s pretty powerful. Addicts often go for one more hit, one more smoke, or one more round at the table, telling themselves it’s the last one and they can then quit. So I believe pretending to be a workaholic involves the same kind of self-negotiation. Tell yourself you’ll just finish one more report, one more job, or one more task, and then set to it. Then when it’s done, tell yourself that again. Keep making incremental progress, and you’ll pretty much make it through.

“Other people don’t know what they’re missing”: Sometimes it’s easy to get affected by others’ opinions of a job. They may say that it’s useless, or fruitless, or otherwise a waste of time. Instead of getting bogged down by other people’s negativity and low morale, try thinking about the job as a fulfilling endeavor. Maybe there’s a rush you get from getting the formulas in a spreadsheet to add up right. Maybe you get some kind of high from spotting an incorrect use of a semicolon or apostrophe in a report or a piece of creative copy. The point is, if you look hard, you’ll probably find something about your current job from which you can derive satisfaction, and you can cling to it like no one else can.

“There are other people who do more”: A lot of addicts will use this defense, saying that they are not as bad as others who do more drugs, gamble more, or otherwise indulge more in the addictive habits that they are accused of submitting themselves to. They say that they’re still okay because they haven’t hit rock bottom yet. In the context of work, we can flip this by thinking about other people who have worked harder or achieved more. Compare what you have done with what others have, and see if you can match their accomplishments. On the flip side, if you respond more to negative, cynical viewpoints, maybe you can look at how much worse other people have it; maybe they have to do more work, or their tasks are more demanding, so you should consider yourself fortunate.

When Lies Don’t Work, Go with Mantras

If you don’t want to identify with addicts and their self-lies, that’s okay: there are still some thoughts you can use to get yourself through the ennui and tedium that work sometimes brings.

“Someone’s got to do it”: I have a colleague at work who describes himself as having a “Superman” complex, and I can see why. The guy basically does a lot of different tasks covering a lot of different functions. He’s basically a jack of all trades, and not a week goes by that I don’t admire his tenacity, and his determination to help the team. So that’s one thing you can tap into. Don’t do it for abstract concepts like KPIs, or distant targets like quarterly sales goals. Do it for your team.

“Work gives life meaning”: Realistically, it’s quite possible that you’re not engaged enough in your company to care much about your team. In that case, you can just try to convince yourself to ignore everything else, and just do the work for the work’s sake. No man should rely on the world to reward him unconditionally; one must channel his talents, skills, and knowledge into a worthy endeavor that adds value to the world. No matter how small your job is, believe that it contributes to society in some way, and doing the work adds more to your character than leisure or laziness ever will.

So, when you find your motivation waning, try changing your mindset. Pretend to be a workaholic, even if you’re not. Maybe you won’t believe it all the way, but then again, you won’t believe how far it can take you, either.

The Four Faces of “What If” as Shown in Films

For the past few weeks, I’ve taken to listening to motivational speech montages. It’s easy to find them; just go to YouTube and type “motivation”, and you’ll find any number of content creators who took audio clips from motivational speakers (usually angry black men), set them to epic music (probably by Hans Zimmer, or whoever the composer for the music in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies is), spliced them onto montages of inspiring images (mostly of people working out), and posted them for people to see. A couple of my favorite creators are MotivationGrid and Younes Marxieu, though I’m sure there are others that are as good, if not better.

Anyway, one of the speakers featured is Greg Plitt, who was apparently a fitness model, actor, former army ranger, and reality show contestant on top of being a motivational speaker (he unfortunately died earlier this year trying to outrun a train, a fact that a friend of mine finds deliciously funny). The quote of his that stuck to me was this:

“I failed” is ten times more of a man than “what if”, because “what if” never went to the arena.

The first time I heard it, it sounded so powerful, as real and rousing as a bucket of ice water in the face. But when I shared it with my friend, he dismissed it outright. “Just because you say ‘what if’ doesn’t mean you’re afraid”, he said.

Thinking about it, I realize he’s right. “What if” is a phrase that is purely speculative by itself. Depending on how you fill the blanks after that, it can mean different things.

Picture3
“What if” can show a forward-facing or an over-the-shoulder perspective, and it can be a buoying or burdensome question.

You may not believe me, that friend of mine, or the awesome table above that I took the trouble to create. Fine, don’t take my word for it… but you might consider listening to Hollywood.

Some people say “what if” in the context of fear of failure, rejection, or pessimism.

“What if” can be a preface to bleak possibilities. This is the perspective that sees the future as a minefield, a constant stream of threats to be avoided and risks to be minimized. When I think about this aspect, I think about George McFly from Back to the Future:

Some people say “what if” in the context of innovation, brainstorming, and a spirit of adventure.

This one tumbles out of the lips of inventors, scientists, artists, explorers, and imaginative children. This is basically the “what if” that pushes the envelope, a conviction with such substance and weight behind it that it has the potential to change others’ perceptions–and possibly reality itself. This is the bravest incarnation of “what if”, and it reminds me of Ellie from Up:

Some people say “what if” in the context of regret or agonizing over a missed chance.

There is a Filipino word, sayang, that doesn’t have a perfect English counterpart. People have dreams, desires that they want to fulfill, and sometimes they do not act on them because of fear. When they decide not to act, and after the time to act passes, regret sets in. Sayang.

(Note: Sayang can be used in other contexts, like a near-miss or something that didn’t work out in the end.)

This face of “what if” is reminiscent of a character from Heart and Souls, a film from the 90’s starring Robert Downey Jr. I couldn’t find a clip of it online, but basically, it’s about a man, Thomas Reilly (played by RDJ), who helps four souls correct mistakes that they made in life. One of them, Harrison, regrets not having sung onstage, and the group decides to make this right by having him sing the US National Anthem in front of a crowd. When Harrison tries to back out out of fear, RDJ confronts him:

Harrison Winslow: Who came up with this ridiculous concept anyway? Resolve your entire life in one bold stroke? What if I fail? And I will. I’ll fail. I’m telling you. I always fail. Then my whole life will be a complete failure.

Thomas Reilly: No offense, Harrison. But you died a failure because you never tried.

If you get the chance, watch this movie. If it doesn’t make you smile or cry at any point, I have to conclude that you are a robot or some kind of soulless yet animated husk.

Some people say “what if” in the context of relief, of realizing how lucky they are. 

Every decision has a cost and a benefit. For everything you gain from every choice you make, you also stand to lose something because you gave up doing something else. That’s called opportunity cost, and while Mr. Plitt saw the backward-facing “what if” as an expression of regret, it could actually be a way to appreciate your good fortune because for all you know, you might have gotten off lucky. A wonderful example can be found in 500 Days of Summer:

Depending on how you look at your life, whether you look at the past or the future, whether you lean towards hope or despair, you’ll have a different take. But remember, all those perspectives are just based on speculation. If you want to avoid all the heartache and headache associated with “what if”, perhaps the best thing to do is to just act on things, not necessarily without fear, but certainly with the acceptance that while things might go wrong, they just might go right.

Moral Stamina

I believe all people are innately tuned towards sin because more often than not, it’s the easy way out of things. Check out the seven deadly sins: each one of them is caused by some form of selfishness, some variation of “I’m going for the thing that will satisfy my appetites easiest, other people be damned”. Saying “human beings tend to be sinful” is like saying they have mass, and therefore have weight; it’s only natural for them to fall, to gravitate towards the depths, to stoop low and sink.

However, I also believe that all people are capable of doing good. While people have mass, they also have muscles. They can choose to stand, to rise, and to move forward.

The thing about doing good, though, is that it usually takes a toll. Doing the good thing often takes some measure of sacrifice. One is considered virtuous if one acts against his or her own self-interest.

Make no mistake; defying gravity is not purely an experience of exhiliration. Birds don’t fly by virtue of some anti-gravitational force field. It takes a constant beating of the wings, an awareness of headwinds and tailwinds, an adjustment to gales and currents. In a similar manner, I believe doing good is a draining task, and one needs to develop the right kind of moral muscle to sustain that. One needs not just moral strength, but moral stamina.

So what gives you moral stamina? What is that one core belief you hold on to to keep yourself on the right track, no matter how inconvenient it may be for you? What is that one thing you have to keep telling yourself, that one gospel truth you have to latch onto to keep upright?

When you feel start to feel the burn after being your good self for so long, how do you keep yourself from crashing and burning?

Back on the Run

Point of pride: I ran a 32-kilometer run, and posted my best time for that distance.

My dirty secret: It was my first time to run that distance, and it was still a lousy time, and I had a terrible time doing it.

Ill-prepared and Ill-equipped

Going into this, I knew it was going to be a not-so-good effort. While I had run 3 half-marathons before (that’s 21 km each), those were runs for which I had prepared as vigorously as I could. For this one… not so much. Between the summer heat and my work/life schedule lately, I was too pooped to practice.

In addition to that, I didn’t do the right carbo-loading. No matter how strong or fit you are, your body still needs fuel to perform. Taking on a long run without enough fuel is like trying to go on a long road trip with only a tenth of your tank full. I’m not a big eater to begin with, so though I didn’t feel it at the time, I’m pretty sure I was running on fumes near the end of the race.

Plus, I’m pretty sure I didn’t get enough rest and warming up done. I slept far less than I should’ve before the race, and ended up sleeping the hour before gun start instead of stretching and warming up like I should’ve. So I’m fairly sure that affected my performance.

All of these are not me trying to justify my bad time; far from it, this is a post-mortem examination. This is me trying to figure out what the hell went wrong. The alternative is to just accept that I couldn’t have done any better, and the truth is, I could have had a much better time by managing my preparation better.

Run Phase I: Delusional, “It’ll Be Fine” Phase

Of course, I didn’t admit that to myself right away. At the beginning, I still had a positive attitude about the whole affair. “I’ve run long distances before,” I thought, so mentally, I know what it takes to go the distance and will myself to the finish line. This’ll be another step in my running career, and I just have to stay positive throughout to get through.

I let these kinds of thoughts percolate through me as I negotiated the beginning phase of the run. One foot in front of the other. Alternated between running and walking (I don’t have a running watch, so I just based it on my running playlist: I ran for 2 full songs, then just walked during the intro and first verse of the third song, and went like this for the first 10 km), and stopped for Gatorade every chance I could (for hydration and calories. Fun fact: Gatorade was developed in 1965 upon request of the head coach of a football team called the Florida Gators, hence the name).

My running playlist also served me up some good songs to keep my spirits up. The very first song was the Savage Garden classic “The Animal Song” (Around 15 years old and still catchy as ever). “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen was a fun one. Then there was “No Doubling Back” by Jason Mraz (from an early concert at the Eagles Ballroom), which is actually an upbeat take on breaking up, but the operative lyric which became like a mantra for me was “no doubling back”.

Finally, there was fun.’s “Some Nights”, a catchy, upbeat bastard child of marching anthem and pop song. While it did lift my spirits, it’s one of those songs that sounds lively but hides possibly downer lyrics. Lines like “I still don’t know what I stand for” and “I sold my soul for this? Watched my hands of that for this? I missed my mom and dad for this?” make it great fare for those prone to existential brooding and questioning their life choices. This was probably foreshadowing a later phase of my run experience.

Run Phase 2: Starting to Feel the Heat

This happened around the tenth kilometer, when I literally started feeling the heat. It’s always been my problem: I get too hot and stifled because my body heats up too quick. As I got to the top of the first overpass, I decided I couldn’t take the heat anymore (it was too stuffy despite the fact that we were running in the early morning), so I proceeded to remove my singlet. Effectively, I was half-naked for two-thirds of the race distance (there will probably be pictures of that online, as many photographers cover running events. But I don’t want to take the effort to scour the Internet for those, plus I don’t want to inflict that intentionally on anybody, so I won’t post them here.

I considered just leaving it behind somewhere, but I don’t like littering or leaving clutter in public places, and it would be too embarrassing to walk up to some random stranger and say “I don’t need this anymore; you can keep it” as I hand them this sweaty and hot small size racing singlet. (Seriously, it was gross. If a T-800 had come back from the future naked right then and there, saying “I need your clothes” to me, it probably would have refused to wear that singlet, adding “No, that’s okay. I’ll accost some other person.”) So I ended up doing different things like stuffing it down my shorts or tying it around my running belt before deciding that using it as a bandana, soaking it in cold water every so often, was the best course of action under the circumstances.

As the race went on, my body felt worse: my calves started seizing up, and at some point as I was pushing against a lamppost to stretch them, a jeepney driver yelled out “Come on, run already!” (perhaps it was his idea of encouragement). The heat got more unbearable as the sun rose, forcing me to stuff ice down my shorts. Every time I passed by an ambulance, I was praying that the volunteers would have Omega liniment to spray on my legs.

All this happened between 5 AM and 5:30 AM. Basically, I was still trying to keep the dream of finishing before 7 AM alive, and was doing everything to address my body’s very, very legitimate complaints. And the complaints were getting louder, to the point where even my mind started joining the strike.

(I’ll finish the story next week; for now, I have to rest and start to properly recover.)

Tips for the Aspiring Master

I talked before about the path to getting things right, and how masters got to where they are. It’s not an easy path, and it can take a lot of grueling, repetitive work, involving a lot of mistakes, to get from wrong to right. It’s relatively easy to grasp this principle, but actually accepting and applying it can be very challenging. As human beings, we’re not purely creatures of principle: we have egos that need to be stroked, and a need for fulfillment that must be satisfied. What can we do to make the error-laden path to perfection sting a little less and pay off a little more?

Here are a few things that I think will make the leap from understanding to application a little bit easier.

Pick an Activity that You’re Motivated to Do

Whether it’s via intrinsic motivation or extrinsic motivation, drive is something that makes you more willing to practice, because practice requires immersion. It’s easier to immerse yourself in waters where you can swim rather than drown. So you have to go for an activity that you have motivation to work at.

As a student, I was very motivated to study because of a blend of intrinsic motivators (I enjoyed learning and relished the achievement of understanding difficult concepts) and extrinsic motivators (because a scholar, I was entitled to a stipend, provided that I maintained a certain grade). Think of intrinsic motivation as a gill-based respiratory system, and extrinsic motivation as SCUBA gear; both let you breathe underwater, but extrinsic motivation tends to be more limited. That’s why a lot of the time, it’s important to rely on intrinsic motivation and find the waters where you can thrive. And it’s not a simple matter of finding free swimming space.

Not every company adopts the Blue Ocean Strategy with success.
Because I’m a realist, I’m fairly sure that not every business that adopts the Blue Ocean Strategy succeeds.

Choose an Endeavor that You Can Probably Be Good At

Picking up from a metaphor I used before, a skill is a blade that you sharpen, and different types of blades are sharpened in different ways. If you try to hone a knife so that it has the same cutting properties and functions as an axe, chances are you won’t have much success. So beyond the criterion of passion or interest, you’ve got to find a place where you can positively kick butt. If you have a bigger probability of succeeding at your chosen endeavor, you’ll have a better shot at a payoff at the end of the pain, so you should go for something that betters your chances.

We all have different sets of talents, skills, and knowledge, so nobody can be good at everything. Not everyone can achieve mastery at all things; pick the target you can realistically hit. Assess your skill sets and talents, see what field you can apply them to, try to figure out the types of practice you can use to improve them effectively, and then you can begin.

Make Sure It’s Not Too Easy, but Not Too Hard

People tend to want to avoid stress. However, there are actually two different kinds of stress: eustress and distress. What you want is to have just enough stress to be challenged and but not push yourself too hard. Don’t exercise to the point of injury; don’t study to the point that you get burnt out. Keep everything in moderation, and push just enough so you can grow. If you feel that you’re not performing at your peak, then chances are you need a push. Sometimes, the judgment is hard to make, as is beautifully illustrated in the movie “Whiplash”:

Realize that Mastery doesn’t Always Involve Rivalry

Okay, at this point, I have to apologize. In my previous blog post, I talked about our competitive world, and how it’s important to win. However, I have to admit that not all games are zero-sum in nature. There is such a thing as a win-win situation, and anyone who’s played team sports or co-op games knows that success can come from working with others just as much as it can from competing with them. Teammanship, cooperative and friendly play can drive adaptation and evolution just as much as competition can, so consider finding a coach or mentor and peers you can share your path to perfection with.

Kids have been known to make adults better, too.
Kids have been known to make adults better, too.

So, what is one thing that you’d like to master? What skills, talents, and knowledge do you have to get on the road to mastery? What motivates you to want to master it? Is it career-related or just something personal? Are there any people who are helping you with that? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, and let’s try to get a conversation going.

The Road to Right

I used to be a big CSI fan. Say what you will about how unrealistic some parts of it are and how it has affected expectations in the real-life justice system, but the characters were just too damn awesome. Gil Grissom, the lead protagonist of the flagship series who described himself in high school as a “ghost”, was my hero. He was smart, he was stoic, and he was wise. There’s probably a collection of his best quotes from the series out there, and I’m willing to bet more than half of those would be great nuggets that philosophers, scientists, managers, and practically anyone can learn from.

Hat tip to Pinterest user Maddie Marsh: https://www.pinterest.com/maddiemarsh14/csicriminal-minds/

But the one quote of his that sticks out for me, from the minute I heard it until now, is this: “I’m wrong all the time. That’s how I get to right”.

One-Strike Perfection Doesn’t Exist

Businesses talk about how it’s important to get things right the first time. It all has to do with cost minimization, of course; the fewer times something has to be done, the less time and energy and fewer resources have to be invested in that thing, so less money spent. The thing is, in the real world, we know that hardly happens. It’s not like Tiger Woods picked up a golf club and hit a hole-in-one his first time out on the green, and I’m sure Bruce Lee didn’t get the one-inch punch down perfect overnight.

And it’s the same for me. In anything I do, I never could get it right the first time. For example, people might have thought me smart during my school days, and to some degree they were right. But I wasn’t smart… at least, not in the way they thought I was.

Everyone’s Aiming for the Bullseye

We live in a highly competitive world. Each person added to the population is a drain on the planet. Resources are limited, wealth is rationed, and every person has to prove their worth every day. So it’s hardly surprising why businesses don’t like the idea of mistakes being made. It makes sense; each time you miss a point in the first quarter makes it easier for your opponent to win the game, and the game is made so one side can win. And everyone understandably wants to win. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this justifies being a jerk. DO NOT BE A JERK, OR AT LEAST TRY NOT TO BE ONE.)

However, perfection isn’t a target you hit the first time. It takes practice; you aim for it, and it takes hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of attempts before you get it right. Anyone who’s ever tried to coach or teach anyone else knows that it’s unreasonable to expect much from a newbie.

Frigging Perfect

So what’s the answer? How do you reconcile the reality and necessity of mistakes with the need to get things right?

It’s simple. There’s no secret to it.

Don’t Be Wrong for Long

Art. Sketches. Boxing. Sparring. Singing. Rehearsal. Marathons. Training.

For every field of endeavor that requires perfection, there is a mechanism that allows for mistakes… and those mechanisms allow people to make mistakes before they count.

As a student, I didn’t pick lessons up in the class the first time I heard them; I started picking them up the day or the week before, when I studied them in the textbooks, and went over them repeatedly until I got them through my thick skull and imprinted into the grey matter of my brain. (Personally, I think few students appreciate the value of a course outline or syllabus anymore; the real world is not kind enough to provide a heads up, so the young ones should enjoy the privilege.)

Each perfect swing Tiger Woods makes is not purely a product of raw talent. Bruce Lee didn’t get his martial arts mastery handed to him on a silver plate. And everyone remembers that commercial where His Airness recognizes the value of his mistakes.

The skills these masters are associated with took honing and polishing. These were not divine, supernaturally sharp blades handed down from on high; they were honed on whetstones or grindstones, forged in furnaces, created from iron and carbon extracted from the earth. They were products of a long, long process.

What is one thing that you’ve done that you really worked hard at to achieve or get right? What were the drills, exercises, and routines you had to do to achieve it? Did anyone help you with it, or did you do it all on your own? I’d like to see your input in the comments below. 🙂

P.S: It took me ten drafts to get this blog post to a point where I’m satisfied with it. Sometimes I added something, sometimes I removed something else. It’s a messy, unsystematic method, and it’s a process I spend a lot of time immersed in. But it’s my way, so it’s well worth it.

Respiration Isn’t an Either/Or Thing

Right foot forward, shift weight, push off, land on the left foot, shift weight, push off again. Keep balance by moving hips, swinging arms, and keeping your core stable. Sustain motion through continued inhalation and exhalation.

That, essentially, is running. Continue it for kilometers on end, hours at a time, and that’s marathon running. What lets people chug along, fight step by step, work for each measure of distance, until they get to the finish line? That’s respiration.

Aerobic Respiration: Getting You Pumped Up

A lot of people consider marathon running as a totally aerobic exercise. The implication is that it requires only aerobic respiration, which is essentially an energy-producing process that requires oxygen. Aerobic respiration is a low energy-producing process that can be sustained over a long time, which is why it is useful for exercises that involve light but repetitive motions like jogging, biking, and swimming. What sustains this activity? The intake of oxygen; you breathe a little, you take in some oxygen, and that oxygen is invested into generation of your cells’ energy currency, ATP (the idea of “generating energy” may offend fans of the first law of thermodynamics, to whom I say “I recognize your paradigm, but no one’s trying to formulate a theory of everything here, so let’s dispense with technicalities for now”).

But what happens when you can’t breathe fast enough? Maybe you’re spending the energy currency faster than you can get the oxygen to make it. In that case, an alternative energy-producing mechanism has to kick in, which is anaerobic respiration. Anaerobic respiration is useful in high-intensity workouts, like weight lifting or sprinting, but it comes at a cost; since it doesn’t use oxygen, it sets off an entirely separate chain of molecular events that makes lactic acid, which is associated with fatigue.

For a geeky but entertainingly informative update on respiration, check out this video from CrashCourse on YouTube, which will take about 15 minutes of your time:

A Few Caveats

Take note, though, that the idea of lactic acid buildup leading to fatigue is being questioned. Research is being done now that suggests that even though blood pH is a pretty good indicator of how tired someone’s muscles should be, changes in it doesn’t necessarily stem from lactic acid production; it might be caused by hydrogen ions produced from entirely different biochemical products. In fact, lactate, the molecule that scientists initially thought came from lactic acid formation and subsequent breakdown in the tissues, might actually serve as extra fuel to make more energy.

Yes Virginia; science does change over time.

 

Also, take note that while we commonly think of aerobic respiration as the only thing that keeps runners running, marathon running can require anaerobic respiration too. Think about the uphill climbs that one has to take occasionally, or the kick that one does during the last few hundred meters to the finish line. Those are clearly high-intensity activities, and they require anaerobic respiration to happen. So, marathon runners go the distance with a mix of anaerobic and aerobic respiration.

So What Does That Mean?

Well, the takeaway here is that it’s not just low-intensity exercise that you have to do in order to do well in marathons. You’ve got different drills to do. You’ve got to train yourself so that you can use oxygen efficiently, and you’ve got to train yourself to produce bursts of speed and intensity that are enough to get you through those really tough parts of the run. Don’t rely on just one type of training; throw every training tool you can at the problem. When you really want to set that PR, you have to be smart about it, and not put all your eggs in one basket.