While travelling to visit my girlfriend's family in Mississippi, we listened to Amy Poehler's excellent audiobook 'Yes Please', about her career and life as a performer. One particular passage stuck out to me as useful:
“Either way, we both agree that ambivalence is a key to success. I will say it again. Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look."
Similarly, I recently listened to an episode of a Podcast, The Tim Ferriss show, in which he interviewed the Olympian Shaun White on his pre-run routine. How did he hype himself up to win all those medals? These are the words he would say to himself at the starting line:
He then went on to site the tennis player Andre Aggasi's autobiography as an influence, in which the champion stated that he got much better at tennis after starting to care less about it.
This runs contrary to the movie narrative we've been given about success. At least in America, we are taught the best way to success is to focus on your goal and go after them with 100% effort--he who cares most wins. Impose your will on the situation and make it submit to you.
So why do these three people cite as one of the keys to success being 'ambivalent' as to the outcome of their actions?
I have a theory, and it has to do with the Alexandrian concept of endgaining. As discussed in a previous blog, endgaining is going for a result without regard for the process that gets you there. When we endgain, it engages all of our previously practiced habits towards our result. If your habits are pristine and in tune with the exact demands of the moment--good for you. However, it is rare that these automatically encoded procedures serve us entirely, and even rarer that they intersect with the complex set of variables that make up any interaction with the world. These habits cut down on our adaptability and ability to respond in the moment. This strategy also tends to coincide with over-efforting--the use of too much force or tension to try to achieve our goal. This works up to a certain point, but to reach truly high levels of performance, a balance is required--just the right tension. Overefforting is also often used to compensate for a lack of preparation or process--fake it until you make it mentality.
When you instead allow yourself not to care too much about the outcome, it allows you focus on the means that will get you to your goal--the complex processes that when working together, result in your success. It should be noted that everyone cited above were not ambivalent about their preparation--on the contrary, they are almost obsessively dedicated craftspeople and creators. They are able to relax in the actual performance because they have mastered their means and have learned to trust them. To paraphrase the great A.T. teacher Pedro de Alcantara, 'Relaxation does not produce mastery; mastery produces relaxation'.
It is also important that cultivating ambivalence will help you to enjoy your achievements more--as Poehler goes on to describe, caring too much about the outcome of a project can have an emotional backlash:
"You will never climb Career Mountain and get to the top and shout, 'I made it!' You will rarely feel done or complete or even successful. Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other. Our ego is a monster that loves to sit at the head of the table, and I have learned that my ego is just as rude and loud and hungry as everyone else's. It doesn't matter how much you get; you are left wanting more. Success is filled with MSG.”
While if you keep the outcome in context, it allows you to enjoy the moment of doing the thing, being present to it, rather than hanging your self-esteem on what happens afterwards. It also helps you not crash if things don't pan out--and fuels you to get up and try again.
So ambivalence helps you to enjoy the moment, focus on your process, succeed more, and bounce back better when you fail.
Try working this practice into going after whatever your goal is today! And trust that if you concentrate on pulling back the bowstring well, the arrow you release will find its mark. And if not....meh?
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.