On Determination

I was watching a TED talk last night by the head of DARPA, best known as the people who created the Internet. She said that, in reality, in actual fact, her mission is to empower people to do what they would do if they knew they could not fail.

And it again became clear to me. If I knew I could not fail, I would without question be the greatest street performer that ever lived. The most skilled. The most entertaining. The most life-changing. The most engaged. The most loved. The most desired. I would shine my light into the world in a way where they say “they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.”

So before we go on, think about that question. What would you do if you knew you could not fail? If your success was assured. Sit with that for a minute.

…cue sitting with that music…

…one minute later…

In Which We Are Reminded That Shit is Fuckin Hard, Bro

I have been determined before. Not like this, but similarly. And I’ve failed and given up. I was determined to go to MIT and be a great mathematician. I was determined to win the biggest popping contest in the world. Neither of those came to pass.

In making my attempts, I came upon significant hurdles. More importantly, I came upon the limits of my desire. It turned out I didn’t want it bad enough. I didn’t actually like math once I hit Real Analysis and the numbers were replaced by proofs. I didn’t actually enjoy going to popping events and hanging out with other poppers after a while. I found the scene stultifying and pretty lame.

When push came to shove, I wasn’t willing to do what it takes to be a champion. Which is OK.

It often seems that our dreams keep leading us to more and more refined versions of the same dream. We realize that in the actual doing of the dream, there are aspects we didn’t really like. For me with math, it turned out I liked numbers but as the actual reality of being a mathematician set in–sitting alone by myself proving theorems–I bailed.

With dancing, once the novelty wore off, I realized that being the best dancer involved going to competitions all over the world, meeting dancers and spending lots of time with them, training and hanging out. I also realized that what I actually liked was to talk about spirituality and consciousness transformation. Many of these dancers were stupid or caught up in the politics of the scene or had ghetto attitudes about women and just liked getting fucked up and practicing. And I realized I didn’t want to hang out with these people in this scene and the dream naturally started dying.

I then thought maybe my dream was to do one-man shows in theaters around the world, going on world tours with my name in lights and being wined and dined by the intelligentsia and leading lights of the world’s art communities. As I followed this trail, I kept meeting artists who were caught up in the grind of that life–applying for grants, submitting to artist residencies, handling travel logistics of being here and there for a few days at a time. Not very appealing to me. At all.

And I started looking at myself. I started looking at how I was living already. What my natural patterns were. And a few things became very obvious very quickly.

  • I like to sleep when and for as long as I feel like
  • I like to travel for long periods of time at a slow, wandering pace
  • I like to have time to develop relationships with people and places. I like to be able to stay somewhere longer than I anticipated if it strikes my fancy
  • I like to wake up and not have any idea what the day will bring
  • I like to have the freedom to decide whether I feel like performing or not, on the spur of the moment
  • I like to have long periods of rest, where I can just sit and stare at the wall all day, until that gets boring and I need more excitement
  • I like to always be in a warm climate–North in June/July/August, South in January/February/March
  • I like to perform for people who were not planning on seeing me because if they stop and watch, it means I’m actually good. It’s like a built-in skill mirror
  • I like subleasing, couchsurfing, hosteling, and hotelling around the world
  • I like the feeling of ultimate freedom–and am willing to live a simple and disciplined life in order to have it
  • I like being open to unexpected opportunities, chance encounters, and synchronistic adventures, not to mention the occasional whirlwind affair

As I look at this list and look at what I’m already doing with my life, street performing makes more and more sense. You travel around the world, make your own schedule, are forced to have an internal sense of discipline and drive, and are always ready for some lucky break or chance encounter that leads you in a new direction.

It’s as though it was made for me. Who I actually am, not who I wish I was.

And Even If the Sky Starts to Fall

That all sounds great and very exciting. But. What if in the act of doing it, the reality of just being some random guy on the street, getting hassled by shop owners, police officers, being treated like a glorified bum, and having to deal with permits and fire codes starts to get me down.

Well, for that, we have the lean startup concept of the pivot. In the pivot, we start with an idea or a premise about what we want to do and how we will go about doing it. Then, that excruciatingly painful thing happens where your idea meets reality. Where the glamour of writing ABOUT your dream fades into the mundanity of LIVING your dream, including all the unexpected challenges, downsides, and potential chasms that come with it.

At some point, you may even find that (like I did with math and popping) you’ve hit an obstacle that you no longer have the determination to blast through. In which case you pivot. You take your existing dream and modify it, based on what reality has shown you.

This is how you SHOULD live. This is the key. All paths lead to Rome and the best way to get there is to follow your natural way, your natural excitement, and pivot as the path dictates. Being neither too loose nor too firm, in a truly Taoist approach to life. Finding the middle path as it twists and turns.

We Spend So Much Time on Excitement Because It Is the Key

Thus far, we have taken a surprisingly long time to get to the meat of the idea, focusing on our dream and our excitement more than the qualities of grit that are so correlated with successful determination.

The reason for this is that unless your pursuit is one of your dreams, the determination necessary to succeed will never fully materialize.

As I write this, the Olympic games have just finished. The Olympics provide a wonderful example of this principle as success in athletic endeavors is quantifiable. The amount of training required to be an Olympic athlete is so intense, so punishing, that without an almost masochistic level of determination, achieving world-class results is completely unattainable.

You have to want it so bad that you are basically willing to die for it, to send your body so far beyond its limits that you at times wonder if what you are doing will cause irreparable damage. Any sane person will quit. There is no point to working that hard. There are far easier paths which lead to quite enjoyable lives, filled with creature comforts, family and friends, and 4 weeks of paid vacation. The only way to push this far is to be in some ways insane, where it’s no longer about being better than others but instead on pushing yourself past self-imposed limits, further and further each day. Reveling in your progress, learning to love the pain of training as it burns away your weakness.

How to Become Determined

If it isn’t clear already, all of this begins with clearing away all the bullshit and getting clear on what you would do if you could not fail.

From that point forward, it seems that the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) holds some very useful keys in the process of moving forward through thick and thin.

CBT introduced the concept of systematic desensitization, where one’s fears/limits/comfort zones are slowly expanded through progressively more intense challenges. The technique is based on the idea that in order to get from point A (you now) to point B (you where you want to be), you must continually be expanding your comfort zone at a pace you can handle.

A good personal example of this is that I have recently begun learning to do backflips on a trampoline. I have always been terrified of being upside down or of spinning or flipping and have avoided it all my life. Finally deciding that enough was enough, I began a process of learning. I began by jumping up in the air and falling onto my back. The first few times, I literally felt as though I was going to die. This feeling quickly diminished until after only a few minutes it actually felt exhilarating to jump up high, fall onto my back, and bounce back on to my feet. Once that became a new comfort zone, I began falling onto my back and then attempting to roll backwards. Again, at first this was agonizing but it quickly subsided. And on and on until you land your first backflip and you wonder what all the fuss was about.

This technique turns out to work much better for facing fears because you are building on small successes. If you dream of being an Olympic athlete or the greatest street performer that ever lived, this is going to be a long journey filled with near-misses and unexpectedly ginormous mountains to climb. To keep up the motivation and not succumb to the impossibility of the task, a continual, progressive, slow and steady approach is required.

The Final Imploring

There is a greatness in you waiting to be revealed. This is as true for the biggest moron as it is for the greatest king. Many people never find this greatness. Most people never even start the search, allowing cultural conditioning to cover their natural instincts and desires, finding themselves fitting into some pre-existing mold and doing their best to excel just enough to succeed, not so much as to get too much attention.

What is the purpose of life? Why were you born? Why did you come here? What will you think of your own life as you lay dying?

There is no right answer to this question. I have met people who feel they have found their life purpose in becoming a mother. Others who simply want to serve others, through being a tour guide or a hospice worker. Some who really just want some inner peace or to create a simple lifestyle that works for them.

I have always skewed toward greatness. To doing things in a way that is beyond how they have ever been done before. This drive makes me feel alive. Makes me feel I am living a life worth living. It is possible that it’s all delusion. That is OK with me. I like my delusion. I like the person it turns me into, more and more each day. I like watching very tiny progress add up. I like seeing old friends and displaying new talents and aptitudes and qualities that they don’t remember me having. I like the feeling of letting that which is extraneous fall away. I even like the way that I do it. Chillin’ in the cut. No big hurry. Making sure to progress at least a little each day.

And I like the slow burn, the blue flame of determination that burns within. I am not on the path of greatness, I am the path of greatness. I will do this. I am doing this.This is what I came here to do. To show the world that it is possible. To go through the agony that burns away my own delusions. To press on when all seems lost, when the goal seems so meaningless as to wonder what’s the point at all. To grin and bear it, knowing that this too shall pass.

And thus I am on my street performing trip around the world. I am determined to be the best street performer in the world. In fact, I am determined to be the best street performer that has ever lived. And I’m not even a good street performer. Yet.

I am determination. I am success. It’s all happening. May your life be that which you dream it to be. May all your dreams come true.

Comments (3)

  1. Great post as I am on the other side of the world living on the edge or reality. I agree 1000% with determination and breaking live up into small successes that build character. This was a great reminder to allow myself to feel what’s happening and understand that it needs to happen for to be successful. I am in training to reveal my purpose. It’s hard and it does not feel good sometimes but it needs to happen. Thanks for the reminder. Thirdmeyer

  2. Rousing prose! Inspiring spirit! Smart ideas! Grand reality creation! I’m proud of your journey! Rivals Steve P and much more warm hearted. I wanna see your backflip! Bravo!

  3. I kind of have mixed feelings about DARPA, on the one hand its seems like a bunch of cool libertarian engineering type dudes making all this cool stuff, but They mostly make things that kill people!!!????

    Anyway, speaking of violence, ever watch MMA fighting? I think Fedor Emelienenko had a mindset that he couldn’t fail. Or more specifically he had a mindset of “whatever happens is in God’s hands” Devout Russian Orthodox .The guy was a beast. Completely fearless and with absolutely no resistance, just all offense. He was a true martial artist. He was at one. I think he’s retiring now. Anyway, I’m training to run a four minute mile. I’m 41 and about 5 people over 40 have done it in the world and as far as I know, all of them had already broken the barrier in their twenties, when they were competing in the Olympics etc. and then got back in shape years later or stayed in shape and ran sub four miles in their 40’s They weren’t their personal bests just the best they could do after age 40. Their PR’s were like 3:42 and things like that, then they did like 3:58 at age 41.

    I ran a five minute mile in college, so i am not in that category. So it will be a unique feat that will hopefully lead to me being able to help others as a personal trainer. I noticed today that I put the breaks on when I run. I realized this from studying the Alexander Technique. Its like people (myself included) have this big long drawn out startle reflex to life in general. So I focused on letting go. You don’t need to employ a continual breaking reflex in order to run you can put all your energy into moving forward. Humans have natural reflexes that keep them graceful, everyone has them but we block them.

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