Staying Motivated When Your Prospects of Success are Low

Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is most important that you do it.

Posted Jan 07, 2020

You get together with a close friend who is very excited about some new prospect of achieving something they’ve long hoped for – their career finally about to take off, the partner of their dreams has arrived at long last. 

Trouble is, you think it’s wishful thinking, more hopeful than realistic and therefore headed for disappointment. What do you say?

The kind, tactful thing would be to humor them. Just say, “That’s great! Go get em.”  Don’t pour cold water on their dreams. After all, they probably just want some encouragement and who knows? Where there’s a will there’s sometimes a way. Maybe if you give them some encouragement, luck will favor them, proving your skepticism misplaced. And anyway, it’s better to humor them than to insult them with your skepticism, however realistic it may be. 

Or perhaps the kind thing is to be honest with them. After all, they may be looking for your honest second opinion. If you warn them with what’s hard for them to see through their wishful thinking, they may thank you for being honest. Better to honor them with your honesty than insult them by simply humoring them. 

People prioritize both realism and optimism, both truth and hope, both honesty and kindness, both facing facts and staying motivated. 

There's a potential tension in each of these pairs, a potential trade-off whereby you’re forced to lean into one or the other, not both. 

Realism, truth, honesty, and fact-facing are about reading probabilities as neutrally and accurately as you can. Optimism, hope, kindness and staying motivated are about tipping the odds in your favor. It’s the difference between unspun and spun interpretations – taking your thumb off the scale vs. putting your thumb on the scale.

There isn’t always a tension. Sometimes your honest opinion is encouraging – you realistically think they’re about to breakthrough. But when your honest opinion is discouraging you’ve got to choose whether to be honestly discouraging or tactfully encouraging. They may get frustrated with you either way: “Why aren’t you being honest with me? Why aren’t you more encouraging? Or both ways: Why can’t you always just be both honest and encouraging??”

People tend to ignore or avoid facing such trade-offs. We’d rather assume that good things are always good, not noticing when they contradict each other: Always be honest and kind since they both sound like good things. Always be serene and courageous since they both sound like good things. 

I like the serenity prayer because it corners us with one such tradeoff. According to the serenity prayer, wisdom is facing and managing the tradeoff,  knowing when to be serenely accepting and when to be courageously unaccepting.  

Noticing such tradeoffs makes us more productive.  It’s counterproductive to serenely accept what you could improve or courageously try to change what can’t be improved. You want to minimize both kinds of errors and for that, you have to notice that the serenity to accept is not always good, the courage to change things is not always good. 

Not noticing such tradeoffs tends to make hypocrites out of people. If you think you can always be kind and honest, you won’t always be kind and honest. No one can be. Instead, you’ll come up with ways to ignore it when you’re not being kind or not being honest. 

The potential tradeoff between realism and hope has been on my mind lately. There will be times especially from now on when our prospects are discouraging and yet we must stay motivated. 

I, therefore, turn my attention to the interesting challenge: how does one stay motivated when realistically discouraged?

In earlier decades, we had lots of hope, time, and prospects for making the world a better place. These days, the news is more discouraging. It doesn’t seem like we have that much time to turn things around, and still, we must stay motivated. 

At the rate things are going, hope may well become less credible in the decades to come. Imagine how hard it could become to hold out for love, peace, harmony, and reason as the climate crisis kicks into high gear, as nuclear weapons proliferate, as fascism’s toehold becomes a foothold and then a stronghold. And yet still we must stay motivated. 

The common response to discouraging prospects is to lean into hope, compromising realism. You probably know a person or two who, for whatever reason –  bad luck, disadvantage, or some quirk of temperament – keeps failing. They have to stay motivated and yet every day they get news of new failures, dashed expectations, again and again, evidence of no breakthrough. What are they do? They have to stay motivated despite a steady stream of disappointment.

Typically they become more unrealistic, more prone to magical thinking and rationalizing. They dismantle their BS detectors.  What else can they do?  

And yet for solving the problems they the worst thing they could do. How can you expect to find realistic solutions with your BS detector dismantled?

At a global scale, we all run that risk. Call it the dissociation death spiral.” When things aren’t working we check out, entering fantasy land, dissociating, neglecting reality which, as a result, gets more dysfunctional motivating more magical thinking.

As we age too, realistic prospects decline. If you’ve had a brilliant career it can begin to dry up. If you haven’t, the chances that it will yet become brilliant begin to dry up. Again, the question is how to stay motivated when prospects aren’t great. Is there a way to be honest with oneself about one’s low prospects while still staying motivated? 

If you love your work enough for its own sake for the satisfaction of doing it carefully and well regardless of how it’s received, and if you can afford somehow to sustain yourself financially, you can hunker down, caring to get it right without caring whether it brings you success. 

Most movies are about heroes with low prospects plugging away anyway but then most such movies end with the hero vindicated, proving that their effort wasn’t a waste, it worth it all along. Real-life isn’t always like that. One way or another, staying motivated while realistic about one’s limited prospects is a worthy goal. 

Recently, I was talking with, Dan Ellsberg, an 88-year-old activist superstar who has been talking about retiring for a while now. He told me his work feels more important than ever and yet he's increasingly confident that it will continue to fall on deaf ears. I was reminded of a bumper sticker Gandhi Quote that used to annoy me. "Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it."

Gandhi must have said it to a particular audience. Not everyone's work is most important to do. 

I looked for the quote and found that the original was different and better – more paradoxical: "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is most important that you do it."

That's the paradox I have in mind here.