This started as a "Note to Self," so please excuse me if the frustration is all too evident and the writing is less than stellar...

Three major subjects I've had at the forefront of my mind lately:

  1. Motivation
  2. Learning (Curiosity)
  3. Doing (Making)

I've been studying motivation and incentives for months now. It seems there are an infinite number of different motivations that people might have for doing things (I realize that sounds trite but bear with me). I've been really drawn to it because I'm desperate to find out why I do the things I do and why I don't do the things that I want to do but don't do.

I'm in the midst of reading Paul Graham's excellent Hackers and Painters book. In it, he makes the case that hackers and painters are very similar because they are both "makers." Painters make paintings. Hackers make software. Painters don't necessarily need to understand the chemical composition of paint to make beautiful paintings. And hackers don't necessarily need to know 1's and 0's to make beautiful software.

Graham then draws the distinction between disparate computer science fields:

  1. some people seem to be studying mathematics
  2. some people seem to be studying the computers themselves
  3. the hackers are making software.

The difference is incredibly important. It seems the motivation for some is to make beautiful things. And the motivation for the others is to learn out of curiosity. Certain motivations seem obvious to me, but curiosity seems a bit less obvious. I would certainly consider myself as a curious person with a seemingly unquenchable thirst to learn just about everything I can. But this is exactly where the problem comes up.

The thing that scares me so much is that I desperately want to make things. I desperately want to do things. I want to write a book. I want to paint a painting. I want to compose a song. I want to do things like travel. But the strangeness is that I also want to learn things. I want to learn to play guitar. I want to learn about art history. I want to learn more about philosophy and literature.

The key seems to be the balance between learning and doing... between studying and making.

While I'm not sure how much one should learn about a given thing before doing it, I know for certain that I find myself constantly on one side rather than the other. As it stands now (and as far as I can tell I've always been this way), I am a learner and not a doer. I've read great books. I've practiced guitar for years. I've spent countless hours studying programming.

But I've written 0 books. I've composed 0 songs. I've coded 0 beautiful programs. I've painted 0 beautiful paintings. I've started 0 viable businesses.

The scary part of all this is that there are probably countless unfinished works of art in the world. Is this my misanthropic revenge against society and culture to never produce or finish any of the works of art that I start? Perhaps the worst part (aside from this being my natural inclination), is the fact that I f***ing know better. I just finished books like "Getting Things Done" and "Making Ideas Happen." I've aggregated and synthesized countless words of wisdom on how to do things and how to make things.

Imagine the horror of going through life without being able to do the things you want to do. If this is something you've struggled with (and hopefully overcome), please share. If not... perhaps some delicious pity would make me feel better.

[UPDATE: Just wanted to send a quick thanks to everyone that shared their thoughts. I deliberately left the question somewhat open-ended in hopes of encouraging discussion and having others refashion the central problem around their similar experience, and I think it worked out great... there's a lot of amazing insight here to work with and it was really helpful. Thanks again.]


10 Answers 10


Probably the best question on P.SE I've read so far.

I highly suggest you to have a look at current Seth Godin's work on the subject. He calls it the Resistance produced by the Lizard Brain.

What is the Lizard Brain? My explanation... The lizard brain is the primitive, limbic system that overrides everything else in our brain: it is fear, sex, hunger, etc. Especially fear. And for many of us, myself included, it's what prevents us from blogging more, writing a new preface, updating a book, crafting a new presentation, etc.

Source: Shut Up Lizard Brain: I Am Not Procrastinating Today

Read the chapter about it in the book Linchpin. You may be interested in The Dip too.

Please document yourself on Procrastination too.

  • 3
    @Pierre - you are always full of interesting answers - personally appreciate your participation here
    – bigtang
    Commented Nov 18, 2010 at 17:54
  • @bigtang: oh I really appreciate your feedback! Thanks!
    – user2567
    Commented Nov 18, 2010 at 17:56
  • Sounds deceptively like what a psychologist would call the Id (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Id,_ego,_and_super-ego) Commented Nov 18, 2010 at 18:29
  • @SnOrfus: Interesting link! I don't believe in Freud theories. I like more pragmatic psychology such as CBT.
    – user2567
    Commented Nov 18, 2010 at 18:36
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    The post about Godin's Lizard Brain concept was especially helpful and inspiring. Godin says: "I stopped writing this book a dozen times. Each time, the force that got me to pick it up again was the resistance. I realized that my lizard brain was afraid of this book, which is the best reason I can think of to write it." Perhaps the struggle and difficulty of finishing is the best part. It reminds me of Kennedy saying we choose to do things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." And I don't even need to go to the moon, so maybe this won't be so bad after all.
    – Bijan
    Commented Nov 18, 2010 at 20:35

Here's a motto for you:

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

You speak of painting beautiful paintings and coding beautiful programs. I suspect you also want to write good novels and compose good songs. You don't get to do those things, by and large, without working for a long time first and making bad things.

So, go out there and do cruddy work. Write ugly programs, and try to see why they're ugly and what you could do better. Find other people to tell you what you did wrong. Try to learn about what you're doing, and remember that lots of learning materials make more sense with a little more experience under your belt Do that with everything you want to do.

If you want to be a maker, make something. Then make another thing. Don't sweat the quality. Then do it again. Be reasonably proud of having made things, good or bad. Most people don't even write bad programs or books, or paint something badly.

  • 6
    I really like that motto. I believe I'll frame it and keep it in my room. Then I could point to it after every awkward bout of lovemaking.
    – Bijan
    Commented Nov 18, 2010 at 19:49
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    +1 for G.K. Chesterton quote! Of course he was talking about housewives doing needle point, but there's not a lot of difference between that and what the 'asker' is talking about. Commented Nov 18, 2010 at 20:10
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    @Peter Turner: You can get a reputation for wisdom by reading Chesterton and remembering the good lines. Commented Nov 18, 2010 at 20:27
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    @David, mastery takes practice and time. Hence I would rephrase it like "anything worth doing is worth doing many times, each of which better than the one before". A native speaker can probably phrase that better. A poet perhaps even in much fewer words.
    – user1249
    Commented Nov 18, 2010 at 21:11
  • 1
    @David, ah, any quotemaking worth stealing is worth doing badly?
    – user1249
    Commented Nov 24, 2010 at 21:21

This is the same as my answer on stackoverflow:

"Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation" is a TED talk that discusses why we do some of the things we do. You seem to be overly focused on the mastery part of things where you learn how to do something really well and enjoy honing that skill.

Dr. Phil's Life Law captures some of this:

Life Law #3: People do what works. Strategy: Identify the payoffs that drive your behavior and that of others.

Even the most destructive behaviors have a payoff. If you did not perceive the behavior in question to generate some value to you, you would not do it. If you want to stop behaving in a certain way, you've got to stop "paying yourself off" for doing it.

Find and control the payoffs, because you can't stop a behavior until you recognize what you are gaining from it. Payoffs can be as simple as money gained by going to work to psychological payoffs of acceptance, approval, praise, love or companionship. It is possible that you are feeding off unhealthy, addictive and imprisoning payoffs, such as self-punishment or distorted self-importance.

Be alert to the possibility that your behavior is controlled by fear of rejection. It's easier not to change. Try something new or put yourself on the line. Also consider if your need for immediate gratification creates an appetite for a small payoff now rather than a large payoff later.

While overcoming perfectionistic tendencies is part of the solution, another part is understanding the payoff for inaction. Do you fear the new challenges you'd have in writing a book or composing a song? Is there the question of how useful would such a book or song be? At the same time, I'd likely argue you are doing what you like in learning about all this material.

A Strengths Finder blog notes:

My Strengthsfinder 2.0 report said, "People who are especially talented in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them."

People who know me well will confirm this one for you, particularly the part about process versus learning. That's not to say I'm someone who relishes processes themselves, but that I love being in the throes of learning itself.

This learner theme is one of my trifecta of themes that seem to be all parts of one - Input, Intellection and Learner. The seem to all be about information - gathering it, thinking about it, learning more.

This is just to give more perspective here as I have been here many times before and likely will again.

  • @JB King: Thanks for the response. As you mentioned, I think part of it is just becoming mindful of the things that are holding us back.
    – Bijan
    Commented Nov 18, 2010 at 20:55
  • That reminds of another Dr. Phil law, which is that you can't change what you don't acknowledge. If you don't see the problem, how can you do anything about it?
    – JB King
    Commented Nov 18, 2010 at 21:18

I know the problem so well, and in my case it's partly due to a short attention span. One of the things that seperates the doers from me, is a number of things :


I want everything I do to be perfect. So I can sit literally countless hours overhearing the same 8 bars in a song I composed. I keep on trying until it is perfect, but I forget one thing: Sometimes getting it perfect requires to throw everything away and start anew. A too great desire for perfection just leaves a work unfinished as you can't get it perfect. So in fact, it will never be finished as there's always something else that has to be changed. Which brings me to


That's what it is: You work on something, and it doesn't want to work out like you do. At a certain point I become so tired of it that the inspiration is gone. Not only do I have no clue how to get things more perfect, I don't have the will anymore to keep on looking for it as well. Basically, I enter the stage of


Indeed, work too long on any project and it starts boring you. There's something new on the horizon you want to try. A new challenge that has to be faced, a new problem that has to be solved. And that starts drifting your attention away from the things you were trying to finish. These things get abondoned, and another unfinished piece of art will quickly depart in oblivion.

This sounds a bit contradictory to the perfection I want, but essentially they're three sons of the same father: no real sense of direction and goal. Starting is difficult because the ultimate goal is so broadly formulated you can't just do it in a day. So you have to divide the work in smaller tasks. Keeping on it is difficult as there is a lot of repetitive stuff where you quickly get bored.. Editing is such a thing, code review, testing, writing manuals,... Difficult to keep the end result in mind when you get tired of something. And in the end of the day finishing it is impossible because even when you get through the first two stages, your call for perfection doesn't allow you to decide when the goal is met.

Funny thing is, once I realized that, I managed to get more things done by:

  • being picky on what I start. One can't do everything in life, and some things are just not meant for me. Painting is one for example
  • force myself to finish things at least a week before I want it to be finished. Leaves me some time for extra perfection, although I have to guard myself that I don't start rethinking the design in the last week.
  • give up on things that go nowhere, and do so quickly enough to not get frustrated about it.
  • learn -yeah, learn- a bit by practicing very small bits, so I can get the hang of how to avoid too much boring work and how to get it done more efficiently.

It's not a foolproof way, as I have a short attention span anyway. But it helps, and it's more "me" than all that "getting things done" stuff. I had 6 notebooks and agendas this year, I lost all of them. So I fumble on in the good ol' chaotic way. Yet, realizing how it works for me actually makes me more productive. Or at least, avoids I dive into the same pitfall once too often...


I also have the drive to make things as well as learn. I found that in order to become better at making something is to make things. For instance, I would like to compose music as well, but have never created a piece that I thought was good. However, they've gotten better as I've studied and practiced my instrument. On the other hand, I have programmed for nearly 10 years now, and I've created some pretty neat stuff. I also have learned a ton about how computers work and don't plan on stopping anytime soon. So, don't give up! If you want to create, start creating! The first tries won't be good, so what? They'll get better. If in yuor life you only are able to create one thing that you feel is really good, than that's still better than being frustrated over not doing anything. Keep on truckin'.


why I do the things I do and why I don't do the things that I want to do but don't do.
That is the definition of "you".

the brain
For an oversimplified view1, imagine: a lizard core, crying for food, reproduction and torpidity. Around: a shell of mammal brain - barely aware of itself, able to manipulate its environment to get high on the lizard's kicks. Riding on to of it, a giant programmable gate array, finally finding purpose in itself, for which the rest of the body is just a vessel. That's what we call "human" - but it's the youngest and weakest part; when it lets slip control, the mammal, the lizard take over. Control works like a muscle: it can be tired, and it can be trained.

"You" is the fight between the three (or - if you prefer a more poetic wording - their dance.)

A reason for the dissonance
The rider yearns for the late gratification of having written a novel, the mammal for the kick it gets out of another round of Starcraft.

On Trying, and Doing
Ray Bradbury2 once said: when he was twenty, he decided to write the amount of a short story every week. He forced himseld to sit down, and do that - no matter what comes out. Because when he does that much, at least some of it must be great.

Hearing that shook me, because I highly adore a lot of his works, and - probably like you - whatever I do I want to do it right.

But in my opinion, he succeeded.

Do Do Do Do Do
Jonah Lehrer (unfortunately, can't find the post nor any link anymore) cited a comparative study that showed that world-class excellence in music doesn't correlate with social or political background or education, but with one thing: the endurance to practice 5 or more hours nearly every day for years. Now you might claim that they were just lucky: their brain was wired to get addicted to practice.

But hey, monkey brain can be trained.

1 with apologies to William Gibson and Jonah Lehrer
2 Yes, that one (NRSFW)


Interesting question for sure. Like a lot of things in life, I believe balance is very important - you seem to think your "doing" is out of balance with your "learning" so do more ! Correct the balance. Remember, you are the only person that can make you happy.


I can't say why you do that. But I can tell you how I deal with that.

Think of it like training a dog. Dogs do things that they have been rewarded to do, and avoid things they associate with discomfort. To teach a dog something complex, you have to break it down into little steps and reward each step until it's a habit.

I am inspired by big projects. But because they are big, they scare me. So I break down the big thing into a lot of little things, pick the very first little thing, ignore all the rest, and do it. That success pleases me, so I pick the next little thing and do it. I set aside my fears and my false pride and just do one little thing at a time.

I intentionally do not compare my little thing with the grand vision. E.g., when I, a lazy blob, took up running, it was with the goal of doing a local 12k race. But the first day, I did not try to run 12k. I did something pretty small: 15 30-second bursts of jogging mixed in a 30-minute walk. (That's from Hal Higdon's 30/30 plan.) That was plenty of challenge for me the first day, because the hard part was actually getting out there and doing it.

In the spring I'll run that 12k race for the fifth time. I now feel that going out and running a few miles in the morning is fun and rewarding, something unthinkable when I started. I got there through a thousand tiny increments, each one of which was rewarding enough to make up for the discomfort of the work and the pain of the occasional failure. You can do this too; you just have to do it relentlessly, with patience and humility.


I agree with what @bigtang was saying. But more specifically, put some time aside to think instead of learn. Try to produce an idea that excites you. A program or a lyric or a topic. Once you have an idea and are excited, you'll want to start making. You won't be able to resist making.

Of course, then you will run problems while making and learn from them. And hopefully that will be more fun than just reading.


be careful with @Pierre 303's suggestion. don't run out and spend hours reading those books. a chapter, sure, but you need to focus on making, and try to not put it off by learning about how to not put it off.


I'd suggest you get a book called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron.

It is about how to break those blocks.

One thing to remember is none of us start out as experts at making anything. Not art not software, not music, not writing. The way people learn best is to try and fail and try it differntly and fail and try it differnently again until you succeed (watch a child learn to walk). If you don't do the try and fail steps, you won't get to the succeed part. Every piece of software doesn't have to be a work of art, every painting doen't have to be good, etc. as long as you learn something from them. I create fractal art and I make some every day - some of it works and some doesn't but I wouldn't get to the pieces that work if I didn't keep plugging away creating and finding out what doesn't work. Professional photographers take thousands of photos but only a very small percentage of them are good enough to publish or sell. Look at the stuff that didn't work and try to figure out something to do differntly next time to make it work better. You sound like an analytic person, so this step should be easy for you. Just don't keep making the same mistakes repeately without trying to change something.

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