Ego as a source of motivation is analogous to glycogen as a source of metabolic energy in the muscles. Glycogen fuels powerful, explosive physical movement. It satisfies an essential role in energy production but can only be sustained for short periods of time. Other forms of energy production are required for prolonged physical activity like running long distances. Similarly, motivation derived from the ego alone is short-lived and will only take you so far. Thus, traveling “great distances” in life requires other sources of motivation.
Ninety year olds have the least amount of ego out of anyone. Indeed, ego and age are inversely correlated. This is the emotional stability and calmness that I recognize in my elders. They consistently return to their work and sustain their output over decades. Also, they don’t get overly excited about anything. I’m beginning to see the wisdom in this stoicism and I too have become less excitable. This transition has something to do with replacing childish naivety, credulity and excitability with discernment and healthy skepticism. It’s an unreactivity to short-term success – a conservation of emotional energy for reinvestment and compounding over the decades.
It’s not all bad that the outside world loses some of its glimmer. As Peter Drucker mentions in the “Effective Executive”, white-collar work is emotional labor. So I say, only labor and fall into the grip of emotion for the things that matter. Where 6-figure salaries and prestigious-sounding job titles once roused me, now they no longer do. Now I understand that fancy corporate jobs bestow material freedom but impose temporal slavery.
Maybe sustained motivation also requires more intelligent goal-setting. My entire life I’ve wanted to create works of intellectual or creative genius, and I’ve actually fantasized about sacrificing all else in pursuit of this. Now, I still want this, but only if I’m meant to have it. What I mean is, my goal now is to live optimally, to live a good life, to live correctly and in accordance with my nature. Whatever I achieve, so be it – but it will not be at the expense of what is most important. I think that’s a modern use of religion and spirituality – to help set higher level goals, the most important goals. Who can argue with wanting to live “correctly”, however it’s defined for the individual. Spiritual practice is useful because it cuts through the contemporary and fixates one’s mind on the “bottom-line” in life.
Another part of it seems to be letting go. When I have goals that I obsess over, I feel tense, like I have a tight grip on my life. Things are more regimented and my thinking is rigid. During these times it feels like my psyche is being wrenched and torqued in the service of some pursuit. I’m less considerate and more unhappy. I’m not as good as I could to be to the others in my life. During these periods, every interaction and activity of mine can feel like it has to serve a purpose and this somehow strips life of any purpose at all. Life cannot be a utilitarian march toward self-interested achievement, especially if it deteriorates community in the process.
But recently, I’ve been practicing letting go of my personal ambitions. In a way it’s accepting death. For me, it’s been about accepting the scenario where I vanish without accomplishing anything, without leaving any legacy. This thought exercise is about letting go and it’s freedom from desire. It’s related to what Ernest Becker talks about in the “Denial of Death” – the hero should individuate as much as possible in life (eros), but then fully renounce himself, and his creative works, in service of the universal (agape). In other words, build massive castles of sand with adult-like resolve, then tear it all down in child-like irreverence and abandon.
And I think that’s the secret, and irony, in getting what you want in life. You have to obsess over something and make it a life goal, love it and devote all your effort to it, then hate it. Totally forget your desire to conquer and achieve it, let it go. Completely dissociate from the identity that sought so hard for it and reassociate with an identity that transcends any single desire.
Then, once this has been done, return back to your pursuit dispossessed of your ego and, as the Bhagivad Gita says, perform your duty without regard for outcome. This attitude, and a dedicated effort compounded over decades, makes for works of genius, mastery and excellence. And this sustained effort seems like a worthy life’s pursuit, unlike a series of local victories as proof of self-worth.