After dropping the kids off at school the other morning, driving down the busiest street in our (admittedly not-very-traffic-congested) town, I saw something unusual: three large wild turkeys, who’d apparently just stumbled up out of the ravine that segments our little city.
The trio stood in confusion on the sidewalk, one cautiously approaching the street, then retreating, while the other two ruffled their feathers and craned their long necks from side to side.
I slowed my car to a crawl as I passed. There was no place to pull over, and I worried that if I approached the birds they’d run out in traffic; but it didn’t seem to matter since all the cars around me were also slowing way down.
So for a brief, wonderful period of time, my fellow drivers and I gawked at this unexpected, out-of-place little nature scene, and then we went back to our everyday lives. But for me, at least, the “high” of seeing something so delightfully unusual lasted several hours and the resulting rush of energy carried me through a few tasks that I’d been putting off.
Why did a small, short-lived experience have such an effect on me, even so far as to make me more productive in my work? Because it was a novelty…which, it turns out, is something my brain craves any way it can get it.
Back in November, I read a fascinating article theorizing that attention-deficit disorders are not necessarily a disorder at all, but an alternate way of interacting with the world that can be harnessed and used as an advantage.
Until then I’d never thought of myself – a madly bouncing ping-pong ball of mental energy some days; sluggish and easily-discouraged on others – as being a person whose brain chemistry makes me crave and seek novelty, but the more I read, the more the article resonated with me and validated my tendencies:
Recent neuroscience research shows that people with A.D.H.D. are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking — a trait that had, until relatively recently, a distinct evolutionary advantage. Compared with the rest of us, they have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits, so much of everyday life feels routine and understimulating…
Rewards like sex, money, drugs and novel situations all cause the release of dopamine in the reward circuit of the brain, a region buried deep beneath the cortex. Aside from generating a sense of pleasure, this dopamine signal tells your brain something like, “Pay attention, this is an important experience that is worth remembering.”
The more novel and unpredictable the experience, the greater the activity in your reward center.
I’m not sure I’d be diagnosed with ADD or ADHD if I were a kid these days, but I certainly had a difficult time staying focused, interested, and engaged both in school and the “typical” office jobs I long-ago held.
And while I’ve long recognized that I’m drawn to taking risks and large, bold actions – both professionally and relationally – I never considered that what I’m really seeking is novelty, both via the experience of taking the risk and its potential reward. It’s fascinating to think of myself as a member of a “club” of other novelty-seekers, many of whom, I’m guessing, are entrepreneurs, freelancers, writers, and creators.
That’s not to say novelty-seekers are a monolithic bunch: our reward centers all respond to different things, which can affect us both negatively and positively.
For example, while some people are physical thrill-seekers, potentially putting themselves at risk of bodily harm, I get nervous approaching the rail on a third-story balcony.
On the other hand, I’m drawn to – and evidently, mentally rewarded by – heightened emotional and intellectual experiences, which might be why I tend to over-share, over-analyze, and occasionally, over-trust…all things I’ve learned the hard way over time.
When it comes to career and money, the “rewards” also look a little different for different novelty-seekers, but my guess is that there’s an element of risk involved for all of us, whether that risk plays out through a financial gamble, the “gamble” of creating a piece of art or designing a building and watching how it comes together…or doesn’t; or as in my case, the thrill of the chase (pitch or proposal) and the hope for a conquest (the contract or sale.)
Since a freelancer writer’s job is made up mainly of small “conquests” that add up over time to create a (hopefully somewhat-coherent) whole, the “wins” tend to be on the smaller side, too. I think of them as “pings.” An email from a colleague offering to introduce me to an editor? Ping! A comment on my blog? Ping! A note that my story idea got accepted? Ping-ping!
For me, an inspiring, engaging day is usually made up of a series of pings strung together, which is why it’s so hard for me to tear myself away from my inbox and why low-ping days (curse you, bank holidays!) can feel unproductive and pointless: I’ve become addicted to the reward of the ping, even as each “ping” begins to have less of an impact.
Because over time, no matter how exciting a specific type of ping once was, it eventually becomes…not-so-novel. A decade ago, an accepted pitch sent my heart racing with excitement; hundreds of acceptances later, it feels more like a necessary but not-very-exciting step in maintaining my career.
If you’re nodding along in commiseration, chances are good you’re a writer (or artist, freelancer, or entrepreneur) at a certain point in your career: far enough along that you’ve become accustomed to a series of small “pings” projecting you through your day, and far enough along that the things that once gave those reward centers in your brain a big, resounding rush of dopamine now feel…well, like just another day on the job.
So, the question becomes, how do you stay inspired when what was once novel becomes routine?
Here are some strategies I use that really help me shake off the “so-ordinary” blues:
Silence – or at least, suppress – the less-meaningful “pings.”
Our lives are now full of opportunities to be “pinged” multiple times per hour, even per minute. With my phone offering the tantalizing opportunity to notify me via text, a graphic, or a literal PING! every time someone interacts with me in any way on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, SMS, Hangouts, email, Spotify, and God knows how many other platforms, it’s easy to become desensitized to interactions in general. And the more desensitized I get to each ping, the quicker those little novelties start to feel less novel…and the less motivated I can start feel to open that email, get started on that assignment…or even get out of bed in the morning.
Recently I removed almost all notifications from my phone’s lock screen, and my phone no longer makes any noises at all. I have to actually pick it up and look at the apps to see if anyone’s trying to get in touch with me – and as a result, those little “pings” feel that much more rewarding.
Seek out new kinds of rewards.
“Pings” don’t have to be career-related to inspire your work, so look for opportunities to stimulate your brain in all areas of your life. Sometimes they just happen, as in the case of my story of the turkeys on the sidewalk – in that case, all you can do is be ready to pay attention and appreciate it. But more often, you need to actively seek them out. Watching a great movie, taking part in hobbies that inspire me, and having fun conversations with important people in my life are all ways I “ping” myself that aren’t directly related to my career…but still inspire my work.
Try something just a little bit different.
At least a couple of times a year, I go through a day or two when I think I want to throw everything over and start over with a new career entirely. Everything just feels so gray and unrewarding at those times that I can’t see myself plodding along through the same tired old pings for one more day.
But after cycling through these low points dozens of times I’ve realized that often all I need is an adjustment to my daily objectives to have a big affect on the way I feel about my work. For example, a few years ago I started making a shift toward making pro blogging, rather than pitching stories to magazines, the bulk of my revenue. After doing well with blog sponsorships and blogging gigs for a while, over the last year or so I started pitching magazines again to shake things up. And often, when I feel like my work doesn’t have enough of a personal connection, I launch a new writing class, seek out content strategy clients, or promote my creativity coaching programs: all things that are writing-related, but that allow me to connect with people, which definitely keeps things novel.
Over the years I’ve learned is that sometimes, when I feel like chucking everything, it just takes a small tweak to get the creative juices flowing again. Before you throw the baby out with the bathwater and head back to corporate America, try making a small change and see what happens.
Keep dreaming (and tell someone about your ideas!)
I’ll always be a writer, but that doesn’t mean that I can never indulge in other dreams. And sometimes, they stick around long enough that I realize it’s time to act – for example, over the last year I’ve gotten serious about my podcast, and I’m planning a series of retreats starting in the fall of 2015 (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.) At any given time I’ve got at least 5 “crazy” non-writing-related ideas bouncing around my head. Who knows which ones I might make a reality one day?
To me, the key to making a big idea energize, rather than overwhelm, me is to talk about it. Sometimes just the act of typing out an email or private message about the passion project I’d really love to be working on feels kind of like I’ve taken action on it, and that’s enough to give me the energy to attend to the things I have to work on. So if you’re feeling restless and drawn to work other than, well, your work, find a trusted friend or colleague – or three or four – that provide a safe place to bounce those pie-in-the-sky ideas.
A note: when you’re still in “big dream” mode, it’s not yet time to go to the “yeah, but…” person in your life (trust me, they will come in handy later.) Instead, it’s time to go to the “wow” people – those who will listen, react with enthusiasm, and offer only the gentlest of constructive criticism sandwiched in fluffy layers of “I love this.”
I know who my big idea cheerleaders are. Do you know yours? (Tweet this!)
Listen. Having a novelty-seeking brain isn’t always convenient, but it can be a lot of fun if we just honor our natural inclinations and stop beating ourselves up for thinking “differently” than the average person might. Serious work does not have to happen between the hours of 8 and 5, it doesn’t have to take place in a traditional workplace, and it doesn’t necessarily even need to make a lot of sense to people on the outside.
What matters is that we keep moving, keep thinking, keep creating, and keep believing that our work has meaning, that we are disciplined and capable, and that one way or another – even on those boring, gray-hued, dull, low-ping days – that we’ll find a way to make it interesting again.