I don’t know you, but I know this: You have internet access and enough time to spend some of it reading.
This is obvious to you and me, but this non-observation tells me two further, much more interesting things about you:
- You are in the top half of humanity’s wealth distribution. That’s right. You may not live in Singapore, Dubai, or even the US or Europe, but access to this all-powerful tool alone puts you in the top 50% — because the other half isn’t even online yet.
- You are fighting the modern human struggle. Since you’re here, reading, you’re not busy surviving. You’ve got the basics covered. Food. A roof over your head. It may not be great, not what you dream about at night, but, where you live, the basics of civilization are in place. You know you’ll be around tomorrow. You’re fighting to thrive, not survive.
In this fight, this lifelong battle to fulfill your potential and build a life that makes you happy while also giving you a sense of meaning, you’re not dealing with physical obstacles. You’re trying to defeat abstract enemies.
There’s no one blocking the road to riches. Anyone can get on there. There’s just the market, and, yes, it’s a tough place. But people pay for things every day. Good products, good services, good people win.
There’s no obscure cult guarding the secret to happiness. It’s all in your head. And your hands. Happiness is a consequence of the decisions you make and the people you choose to engage with. Your actions, your emotions, your choices are what you have to work on.
Even if you are facing challenges with physical constraints, like excelling at sports, overcoming a disability, or moving to a place with more economic opportunity, these real-world barriers aren’t what’ll stop you from living the life you want. It’s the hypothetical, made up, self-conjured concepts in your head that will ruin you.
Concepts like laziness, boredom, self-doubt, procrastination, and everything Steven Pressfield would subsume under the term ‘Resistance.’
I’m here to tell you: All these concepts are one and the same and there’s only one way to deal with them.
You’re not lazy. You’re not bored. You’re not unmotivated. What you are — what all of us are — is afraid. And the only thing we can do that really helps — the only line of motivation we’ll ever need, the only piece of self-help advice that actually works — is a three-word sentence Nike turned into the most successful marketing slogan of all time after slightly tweaking a serial killer’s last words in 1988: Just do it.
You’re Not Unmotivated
“I’m not motivated” is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. What does that even mean? Not motivated to do what? Work? In that case, aren’t you motivated to avoid it? You’re always motivated! Every action human beings ever take is driven by some kind of incentive.
It may not always be an obvious one, like money, but it’s always there. It could be a social incentive, some form of status among your peers, or an ethical incentive, the relief of feeling like you did the right thing, but behind every action lies a driving force, whether it’s happiness, or peace, or satisfying your conscience.
So if you work the counter at a sneaker store and hate every second of it, you’re not unmotivated to change. Heck, I bet you wish you could change much more so than the annoying corporate hack who’s on his third side hustle and pseudo-spiritual journey to inner peace already. But there’s something holding you back. For some reason, it feels like you can’t change no matter what you do. So you don’t even try. But that’s entirely different from not being motivated and it’s only a sign that it’s time to dig into this feeling.
You’re Not Bored
I talked to a girl on Tinder. She was a scrum master and physiologist. She was in business school, but, really, she wanted to study fashion and launch her own creative company. As soon as we touched upon her dream, the conversation tapered off.
Messages took days to come. She was “busy.” On vacation. Didn’t feel like small talk, but wasn’t interested in real talk either. Or getting coffee, for that matter. When I asked her why she even used the app, she spoke the most common lie in the world: “I’m bored.”
She wasn’t bored. Just like you aren’t bored. No one is ever bored anymore. Why should we be? There’s no reason to. We’re 100% connected, 100% of the time. You couldn’t even be bored if you chose to. And that’s the problem: We don’t even try to choose to be bored.
We just pretend we are so we can keep filling our days with meaningless little distractions, like empty conversations on Tinder. Not because we love our entertainment so much, but because we know what lies beneath the stillness: existential dread. Go through the door of boredom, and that’s what you’ll find. The great scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal once said:
Zat Rana has a wonderful interpretation of what he means:
At its core, it’s not necessarily that we are addicted to a TV set because there is something uniquely satisfying about it, just like we are not addicted to most stimulants because the benefits outweigh the downsides. Rather, what we are really addicted to is a state of not-being-bored.
Almost anything else that controls our life in an unhealthy way finds its root in our realization that we dread the nothingness of nothing. We can’t imagine just being rather than doing. And therefore, we look for entertainment, we seek company, and if those fail, we chase even higher highs.
We ignore the fact that never facing this nothingness is the same as never facing ourselves. And never facing ourselves is why we feel lonely and anxious in spite of being so intimately connected to everything else around us.
So no. You’re not bored. You’re terrified of being alone with yourself in your own head.
You’re Not Lazy
Laziness is the scapegoat of everyone who’s trying to capitalize on your claim of “being bored.” “You’re not bored — you’re boring!” is what they’ll tell you. You need a hobby or a calling or a $250 fitness program with a personalized meal plan.
Of course, this too is nonsense. Laziness, like boredom, doesn’t exist. Psychology professor Devon Price explains:
If a person can’t get out of bed, something is making them exhausted. If a student isn’t writing papers, there’s some aspect of the assignment that they can’t do without help. If an employee misses deadlines constantly, something is making organization and deadline-meeting difficult. Even if a person is actively choosing to self-sabotage, there’s a reason for it — some fear they’re working through, some need not being met, a lack of self-esteem being expressed.
People do not choose to fail or disappoint. No one wants to feel incapable, apathetic, or ineffective. If you look at a person’s action (or inaction) and see only laziness, you are missing key details. There is always an explanation. There are always barriers. Just because you can’t see them or don’t view them as legitimate, doesn’t mean they’re not there. Look harder.
Once again, it’s not a lack of motivation, an inexplicable unwillingness to act that obstructs your path to success and happiness. It’s the invisible boundaries in your head that you’re tripping over — sometimes without ever moving at all.
Medicating the Symptoms of Our Only Disease
Laziness, boredom, procrastination, these are all excuses. Not as in “we suck because we succumb to these,” but as in, “we accept these as real problems when they’re just the symptoms.” Because that’s what they are. Surface-level phenomena that all lead back to the same root cause: fear.
My dad once told me this story: A colleague was driving to an appointment with a customer. As he was overtaking a truck, the truck moved into his lane. Seeing his car get crushed from the passenger side and compressing towards him, his animal instincts kicked in. Unleashing an ancient roar at the top of his lungs, he ripped out the gear lever of his automatic gearbox with one hand.
This is an automatic gearbox:
Clearly, we’re not talking about breaking off a knob on your radio. It’s a heavy piece of machinery, and the lever is properly fixated on it with multiple layers of further constraints built around it. That’s the power of fear. It can make you do unimaginable things.
Luckily, my dad’s co-worker survived the incident unscathed, but now imagine turning this same power not onto your physical environment, but against your own mind. That’s what you’re doing. That’s what you, and I, and everyone you know who’s struggling to realize their dreams is doing.
We’re taking this unbelievable source of raw power and, in lack of real-life threats to hurl it against, we turn it on ourselves. Of course, we don’t do it in outright, uncontrollable fits of rage — at least not most of us and not most of the time. We do it by self-medicating. By concocting and treating symptoms, like laziness, boredom, and other seemingly minor, but actually soul-crushing patterns.
John Gorman calls it “building around fear:”
Fear doesn’t manifest itself like you think, because often times we don’t give it the chance to. Fear isn’t always the sweaty palms that stop us cold in a job interview — fear is generally what prevents us from applying in the first place. It’s so subtly limiting that we often build around it without even noticing it’s there.
That’s why our long list of symptoms is so widely condoned and accepted. Society is playing a big, global, silently agreed upon game of “let’s hide the truth and move on with our day.” We want the cover-ups. And so in our day-to-day, it all looks the same; it all looks harmless.
The thing with fear is on a surface level it’s indistinguishable from laziness. 90% of the time it’s the former, and 90% of people will assume it’s the latter.
So instead of seeing everyone rip their gear levers out of their cars, we see them staring at their phones on the subway. We see them eating 4,000 calories in a single meal, playing 12 hours of video games in a day, or consuming weed, alcohol, and potentially worse drugs in the span of a few minutes. We see their outraged comments on social media, their finely curated highlight reels, their long or short list of small or intense vices, and we think, “Hey, these must be valid issues I have! After all, they have them too.”
No. The one true problem we all share is fear. We just choose to medicate it differently.
The Dog That Keeps on Chasing
Just like there is no reason to be bored anymore, there is no need to have any other problem in your life than fear. I mean, geez, that list is long. The number of things you can be afraid of is endless.
You’re afraid of dying early despite having no factual indication whatsoever that warrants believing you actually will. You read about plane crashes and armed robberies and natural disasters and newly discovered parasites and it all feels like it’s out to get you when, in fact, they’re all 0.01% incidents spun perfectly by the media to drill into your not-very-thick-skinned amygdala.
You’re afraid of being alone because well, existential dread, but also because it looks weird and gets weird looks, and if your parents haven’t asked why you’re still single yet, your friends most certainly have. You’re afraid of not meeting social expectations even though we all keep telling each other there are no more social expectations, afraid of talking the way you want to talk with your boss, your customer, and especially the dude you keep staring at at the café because for all you know, he’s your boss’s boss.
You’re afraid of writing chapter one of your book because who thinks that’ll ever work out, but you’re also afraid of wasting ten more hours watching Game of Thrones, especially now that you’ve already seen the whole thing twice. You’re afraid of never being rich, but not nearly as much as you’re afraid of losing whatever little you have, because how are you supposed to live without your IKEA living room table, your $500 iPad, or your custom-design wall decal of a world map highlighting all the places you’ve visited already?
This is just the tip of the iceberg. I could keep going all day. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking stupid, fear of losing something or someone, fear of fear, fear of wasting time or not having enough, fear of not being good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough, or inadequate in any sense whatsoever — your mind is littered with fear.
There are real fears, fake fears, the kind of fears you can neatly convert into boredom or laziness and dismiss at the surface, and the kind that makes you freeze right down to your bones in front of your computer screen despite absolutely nothing happening at all.
Now, here’s the thing: In order to deal with all these fears, you could spend thousands of dollars to further support the billion-dollar self-help industry which lives off reaffirming all your irrational jitters and nods along fiercely whenever you talk yourself into yet another cover-up. You could buy a new book from a new guru each week, collect a stunning array of probably-placebo supplements on your shelf, and attend a new seminar with a new pyramid scheme that is totally going to work every six months. Or, you can wake the hell up.
Wake the hell up and realize: it’s all the same thing. It’s all. The same. Thing. Fear. There is nothing else and there never was. Never will be. It’s the same, godawful, rotten, dark creature that’s always plagued us, and it will continue to invent new tricks till kingdom come. But, at the end of the day, it’s all fear.
That dog is going to keep chasing you until you die. And some days, it will get to you. But it can never — never — stop you completely. You have to keep moving. Always. Forever. The day you run into the bright light at the end of the tunnel, I want you to look back and give the finger to that dog trailing behind. Smiling. “Screw you, I won this! I made it. And I did it my way.”
Now, I’m not qualified to talk about fear any more than the guy at the corner store. I hold no degree in psychology, no certificate from some brain research institute, heck, I have zero formal training as a writer. But, like you, I have lived with fear my whole life. And, somehow, I’ve still arrived here. I have a job I love, lots of time, few complex structures in my life, and would describe myself as a happy, positive, optimistic person. I don’t know much and have my own issues to resolve, but I sure feel okay taking life one day at a time. And I think that’s what it’s about. Beat the dog. Again. And again. And again.
My theme for this year is ‘Focus.’ Across all areas of my life, I’m trying my best to drill down to what really matters. Projects. People. Parts of those projects and how I talk to those people. How I manage my time, my energy, my life.
The one thing that has helped me show up consistently in spite of fear, particularly with writing, but in other places too — and I have thought long and hard about this — is some version of Nike’s glib, cliché, annoyingly obvious slogan: Just Do It.
Because besides being glib, cliché, and annoyingly obvious, it’s also universally, inescapably true. “Just Do It” isn’t an elegant solution and certainly not a perfect one. It’s not dismissive or snobby but empowering and humble. It’s motivation. Inspiration. Action. Energy. And truth. And that’s why it’s the most brilliant piece of marketing of all time.
People don’t realize how deep this slogan is. I don’t think the creators did when they came up with it. They didn’t mean it to be. But it is. However, you can’t see that when you get hung up on its immediacy. “If it were that easy, don’t you think everybody would ‘just do it?’” No, no, no. You’ve got that all wrong. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about something a guy named Marcus Aurelius told himself 2,000 years ago:
“You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible — and no one can keep you from this.”
Sure, we’d still have to pause and reflect on occasion, and not all goals would turn out to be worth chasing in the first place, but we’d just…get there. Don’t you get it? This is everything. All you need. The whole strategy. But it’s more than that still. It’s also a tactic. Because another consequence of a relentless bias towards action is that there’s no room for self-doubt. You don’t have time for big picture concerns when you’re doing. And I don’t mean running around all day like a rat in a maze. I mean steadily engaging and re-focusing on the task at hand. Even if it’s relaxing. Whatever the next small step is. Because the next small step is always doable.
Let’s talk a little more about what living “Just Do It” means.
“Just Do It” as a Strategy
A strategy is a long-term approach to getting what you want. A set of behaviors you’re committed to, a line of principles you’re unwilling to compromise.
Amazon’s strategy is to be the most convenient place on the internet to order stuff from. That’s “the way they do business.” Almost everything they do serves that strategy. The whole point of a strategy is that it can’t possibly work out tomorrow. It’s only efficient if you stick to it, and, because it’s a fundamental guideline in how you make decisions, it’s hard to change. If Amazon changes their strategy, all their hard work goes out the window. If they started being hell-bent on quality, they’d have to shrink their product range to the point of inconvenience. So they don’t. The strategy is set and maintaining it all these years has served them well.
No more gimmicks. No more wholesale adoption of get-rich-quick schemes, diets with pointless rules (“never eat celery!”), and fake silver bullets you know can’t possibly keep the promises they make. You chase your goals based on what you believe in. If you think art should be free, then make art for free and get sponsors or donors. If you don’t believe in remote work, rent an office and hire locally. If you see the people in your country just not getting what you’re trying to do, move.
When I started writing, I gave lots of specific tips in my articles. “Here’s how to set goals, have a morning routine, be productive.” But specifics are full of hindsight bias. I’m only giving you the final 10% that worked and that worked for me in particular. The last iteration of all the cycles I’ve gone through. The messy 90% of the journey that led me there? I left those out completely. I might have tried 15 different things over the course of two years to finally nail my morning routine — but now I’ve turned that last, functioning process into a pattern and am telling you how to do just that step by step.
Am I even talking to the right person? Who is it for? Because if I’m talking to “me-from-two-years-ago,” then I’m talking to the wrong crowd. And if I do catch you at the point where you’ve covered the 90% of your own journey, well, then what do you need me for? My specific advice is only going to work for a tiny fraction of people who happen to be in the right place at the right time and for whom it will click immediately. Everyone else who still needs to go through the random 90% in their journey will be left out in the cold. Still feeling alone, still stuck with their fears. Except now, they’re disappointed too.
“Just Do It” may not be perfect, but at least it clears the air from the start: Yes, you are alone, but you also have everything you could ever need to figure things out. You will make many mistakes, and you’ll have to take responsibility for each and every one of the countless choices you’ll make on your own dime. But since no one on this planet can give you the perfect answers to the questions created by your unique, once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, choosing proudly and continuing to move forward is not just the best thing you can do, it’s also the right thing you should do.
That’s why I now keep saying things like “just start” and “get off your butt” and “go do things.” Because specifics won’t help. Fear or no fear, for each next challenge and next chapter, you’ll have to get through that messy, random part. You have to make your mistakes. Forget the advice. The empty promises of “proven plans you can follow.” There is no such thing. Summon your confidence. Be proud of who you are. Have faith in yourself. Pick your own battles and how you’ll try to win them. Commit to “Just Do It” as your strategy of getting everything you want out of life.
“Just Do It” as a Tactic
A tactic is a short- to medium-term course of action that serves as an attempt at living up to your strategy. “Given our strategy, this is the next thing we’re going to try.”
Going back to Amazon, Prime is a tactic. Launching a program that offers faster delivery, exclusive products, and extra discounts at a fixed price per year gave them the answer to the question: “Will people pay us to make ordering online even easier for them in a predictable, calculable way?” Based on the revenue they made from the new service, they concluded the answer was “yes.” Had it been “no,” then Amazon would’ve shelved Prime and that would’ve been the end of it. Compared to the commitment required by a strategy, a tactic is just a wet wipe. If it’s not enough, you toss it and pull out the next one. No hard feelings.
Your boss didn’t like the presentation? Fine, you do it over and show her again. You’ve run out of clients and your freelance business never really got off the ground? Fine, you shut it down and start from scratch. The girl behind your dream profile ghosted you for no apparent reason and made you feel miserable? Fine, you delete the app and try another way of meeting people.
All professional athletes ever do is to focus on the next play. How do we convert this move? How do we recover these inches? How can I get the ball out of the bunker? All year you worry about minutes, inches, seconds — and by the end of it, you’ve won the championship without ever thinking about it. Michael Jordan’s so-called “next play speed” was less than a second. He’d score, run back to defend, steal the inbound pass, lose the ball, then run down the opponent.
The faster you can re-center after you complete something or get rattled, the better. Having a high next play speed also leads to improved happiness because it simply leaves you with little time to even worry about the picture. There’s no wiggle room to dance around your fears, but also not enough space to let them get to you. What’s the next play? What’s the next play? What’s the next play? That’s all you’re ever asking.
Again, this isn’t to say you should never rest or that you’ll never have moments where the dog creeps back around the corner and stares at you with unblinking eyes. It’s to say that, with this focus, it’ll happen far less often and you’ll feel more confident in handling it when it does. Once you’ve chosen a strategy, a set of long-term plays you want to make, forget the big picture. Keep your head down. What’s the next play? Figure it out. And then just do it.
Make a Promise to Yourself
I don’t know you, but I know this: You’re fighting the modern human struggle. You have been equipped with everything you need to accomplish everything you’ve ever dreamed of and a whole lot more. You’re not scraping around the bottom of human existence. You know you have it in you, and the only thing that can make it all come crashing down are the ghosts inside your mind.
Those ghosts are here to stay in all their nefarious, despicable, irrational forms, but you and I both know you can’t let them stop you. You won’t let them stop you. You’re going to use your gifts and use them to the best of your ability to fulfill your potential.
You’re not unmotivated. You’re not lazy. You’re not bored. In a world where you walk around without blinders on, these things don’t exist. You are afraid. Like me. Like your neighbor. Like all of us. We are all afraid. And yet, we are still here. So every day, choose to be here. To hold a flashlight in the face of your demons and say, “I’ve played your games before. I know who you are, and you all look the same to me.”
Nike’s simple, mainstream, maybe even trite but genius mantra is the perfect reminder of how simple and straightforward, yet how demanding and strenuous this lifelong battle is. “Just Do It” is the song we grew up on, the ad that made us smile and clench a fist in fierce resolution. It may be a corporate marketing ploy, but it’s also the spirit of human potential, of the original American Dream.
Using this motto as both your strategy for living your best life and the tactic to see it through will accelerate and clarify your personal growth in ways no self-improvement gimmick ever could. It’s a contract, a promise to yourself to live life on your own terms and not be swayed by the events in it or the tricks your mind plays on itself. It’s not a miracle drug and it won’t lead to a guaranteed happy ending, but I think it’s our best shot at looking back on the brief time we spend on this earth with pride instead of regret.
And if that’s not a cause worth fighting for, a promise worth keeping, then I don’t know what else to tell you. Except “Just Do It.”