Note To Self: The Morals of Motivation

After I dropped out of computer science in Seattle, I moved to Florida to study International Relations, an amorphous degree program that allowed me to take classes ranging from Chinese fiction to African economic statistics. I came to the humanities from the highly organized and digitized field of computer science, and I didn’t let go of the ways that this kind of student organizes themselves. As a potential designer of software, I can also be a picky consumer: I always searched for the best writing program, the best file management program, the best to-do program. There’s a whole community dedicated to the discussion of the best programs.

These programs in total, the great utopian promise, amount to the Personal Knowledge Management system, or PKM. The hope is that all of one’s knowledge and resources can be stored in one place, where it will be indexed and accessible on a whim. I should be able to know who I spoke with, and what I spoke about, on May 23rd, 2013. I should be able to have every single receipt I’ve ever received from Valvoline. This was a system that was supposed to serve me. But each time that I would start this journey, I would spend hours or weeks using a new system for my promised PKM, only to restart the journey somewhere else. I became so desperate for a system that worked for me, that I would force myself to work for it.

Getting lost in your knowledge management system is a fantastic way to avoid creating things. (Sasha Chapin, “Notes Against Note-Taking Systems”)

I spent several years as a “productivity coach”, where I would try to figure out the needs of my clients and provide different digital tools that would help them achieve the tasks they wanted to do, but were too disorganized or overwhelmed to accomplish. I discovered that the tools were not the key to productivity. It was my presence and minor, cool-headed motivations that made the difference for my clients. The tools just helped them connect with me. It was hard to wean them off myself back to the tool, and I don’t blame them: The tool simply indexes. It doesn’t motivate and keep you accountable.

But this thought brings me to something larger: What of the web and digital applications motivate and keep us accountable to ourselves and others? True motivation requires morality: There must be bad to move away from and good to move toward. The life coaches, in their many forms, provide the service of simple morality so that the clients may improve themselves. The client recognizes that stagnation is bad, but nothing in their lives stops them from stagnating. Their computers aren’t worried any which way. Their job is fine if they kept doing the same work over and over again. Their car doesn’t need a better person to be driving it. The only sources of motivation are thus the humans in their lives, but apparently friends and family have been underperforming their moral abilities. So a chunk of people spend money for a specialist in morality, focused on getting you to move towards something. Be more productive, get stronger, lose weight, feel more confident. Something!

Some people feel vindicated when stating that the internet is inherently an amoral object; a tool for anyone to use. But the internet is inherently moral: Don’t you see the millions of people advocating for its takeover of so many aspects of our lives? The problem is that once the internet does take over an aspect of life, it leaves a hole that needs to be refilled by the morality of people. When the internet took over communications by scaling discussions to the tens of thousands or millions, it took away the faces of inherently moral people, so they are reduced to statistics or strawmen. They become overgeneralized and categorized away. For the internet citizens too clever for their own good, morality has become pathology. There is such a strong cynicism for those that believe in anything beyond corporate products and entertainment.

The great curse of the supposed amorality of the internet is that it can only motivate one to better reform themselves as better citizens for the internet. When you find your niche, your comfortable cubicle on the internet, you are treated to a satisfying feed of products, entertainment, and discussions. You won’t feel alone. You spend your time trying to fit better into these niches, which are highly monetized and time-consuming. I think again about the personal knowledge management system: You begin to work for the system, rather than it for you.

When the content dries up, and when the coaches leave, what is left of your motivation? How does one build their motivation from the inside, which drives itself instead of being pulled along by faceless others or expensive services? I believe that a strong moral drive is key, and its not something that can be found on the internet, the self-professed engine of amorality. I think that a morally driven character is built from real-world experiences; digitized experiences can and do build character, but much more plastic and flexible ones that blow with the winds of arbitrary change, like a programmer hungering for yet another coding language.

On the most practical side: Do things first, then document later. And that documentation should be notes of how to do something even better. Not the useless metadata for archival. Motivation is built on itself, not on the systems of others. Doing is built on doing. Reflection should be conducted for doing, not for reflection itself.

Think of what’s good and bad about yourself and strive toward the good and the even better, and you will be doing. Limit planning to the basics. Anything complex is a waste and will discourage you when things don’t go according to plan.

A note to self.