Holiday Fragment: Motivation

On how we can decide which areas of life to focus on.


As an independent unit of life, man faces two limits: that of body and that of mind.

Any instance of human activity ceases either because of a hard biological limit (I broke my arm therefore I cannot paint), or because the discomfort becomes too great (no one is buying the paintings therefore I shall not paint).

The latter is a soft limit that can be stretched through training (perseverance can be learned: maybe I should continue painting anyway?).

However, if the soft limit stretches so far it meets the hard limit, you get the bodily smack-down of madness or illness: you will go no further.

The difference between the soft and the hard limit is measured in effort.

A personal anecdote

A long time ago my high-school sociology teacher delivered a blow to my pride that set me in my place for life. I had asked him for a reference. He wasn’t too worried about keeping what he wrote a secret, indeed, he encouraged me to look at the form, right there, in front of him.

Only one point surprised me: he’d scored me 4 out of 5 on “General Effort”.

Tell me my facts are wrong, tell me my form is poor, but how dare you tell me I didn’t try to the utmost of my ability?

I brought this up in diplomatic tones, and I witnessed the first and so far only instance of someone’s eyes glinting.


Then a grin.

Then he said: “Well, if you’re honest with yourself, do you try as hard as you could be trying?”

You only get so many of those self-searching moments where circumstance, mood, and honesty join in a bitter-sweet union. This was one of them.

Of course, I didn’t try my utmost. Few people do, and when someone does we laud them for “giving their all”. I’m thinking athletes competing with broken bones, surgeons operating despite great personal adversity, people sacrificing whatever is needed, body and brain, to push through towards a goal.

There’s a recklessness about smacking soft to hard limit, a life-changing finality which you bring upon yourself: succeed or fail, there will be consequences. So this is not something I advocate; the motto should almost always be caution before ambition in the final reckoning. However, most of us never come close to that final reckoning.


Well, the law of diminishing returns, also known as common sense, tells us it doesn’t pay off to paint for twelve hours a day to achieve extreme artistic adroitness unless this is an important aspect of our lives. Finite time and finite energy set the boundaries to our utility maximisation problem: we can’t excel at everything, all the time. But the question is still relevant in so many minor instances: why do we often give up before we need to give up?

Lack of motivation?

Sure, but I think a bigger issue is muddied motivation: we half-try, half-abandon things.

Since the start of a New Year is a time for soul-searching questions, often ineffective and futile, here’s my proposed method for an improved, systematic approach to sorting through motivation:

  1. Pick an area of life you’re unsatisfied with (be realistic, no I’m unhappy because I can’t fly complaints).
  2. Determine your hard limit (the final limit of your resources, mental and material).
  3. Determine the soft limit (what you are capable of now).
  4. Determine how far apart these two limits are.
  5. Ask: why are they that far apart?
  6. Take a good hard look at the answer: it will tell you much about the nature of your discontent.
  7. If the answer is I cannot be bothered, immediately cease to be unsatisfied with that area of life.
  8. If the answer is I haven’t been trying hard enough. Consider trying harder in the New Year. This is where you make a traditional list of goals with concrete steps saying how you will try harder.
  9. Go back to 1. and repeat until your life is ordered according to things I’m satisfied with and things I will try harder in.

Let us spare a thought for those living on a soft boundary that is within a hair’s width of the hard boundary: I’m sorry, I truly am—no sarcasm—this teetering on the edge occurs with sever physical and mental illness, irreversible damage, old age, bondage, self-reinforcing negative social cycles. When you recognise such a person, offer them all the humanity and help that you can muster.

Returning to the list above: before you say that this is just a glorified way of telling someone to skip to step 8, let me point out that people make lists of the things they want most, but they do not make lists of the other areas not worth bothering about (and therefore also not worth feeling dissatisfied about).

For example, many people will tell themselves they should read a lot more because they’re not reading enough, but few will consider how much more reading can fit into their schedule realistically and whether they actually need or want to read more for any specific reason. That’s neither trying harder nor admitting I cannot be bothered. I recommend clearing the air by committing to either stance.

My sociology teacher also gave brilliant lessons on day-to-day life. The class never opened a textbook, but we learned more from him than from any other teacher who stuffed our heads with formulae or grammar rules.

One day he gave a demonstration of trying to get up from a chair. He put his hands on the edge of the desk and heaved and heaved until his face went red. Then he gave a demonstration of getting up from the chair, where he just got up from the chair.

His lesson: don’t try, do.

On an Effort Scale of one to five, five means you’re red in the face, six means you got up from the chair and sought a new challenge.

May you seek many new challenges this year.


This is part of a series of holiday posts. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: Dark Smell of Velvet.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

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