Everything in Western life seems to require gaining momentum these days.

This is how you gain momentum: you grind fruitlessly for a long time; eventually, the effort you have put in earlier starts generating significant compound interest, and you see results. Let's call the moment when you start seeing results "escape velocity".

Reaching escape velocity

Due to industrialised communication, it is now easy to access anyone, anywhere. This indirectly makes it harder for new players to gain enough momentum to reach escape velocity. Why? Power law distribution.

In the era of slow communication, physical distance restricted network sizes. In other words, there used to be a lot of small ponds with big fish. Globalisation merged them into one ocean.

At the same time, industrialised communication introduced lots of noise. It is too costly to find gems in an ocean, so people with limited funds (attention, money, friend slots, whatever) stick to known big fish as safe bets. If others liked it, you probably will too. This means several big fish grow into whales. At the same time a huge amount of new players enter game: plankton.

As a result, it is much harder to grow from a beginner to "well-known", because people have no incentive to give you a try. A new player needs to grind for a very long time before they discover whether the grind pays off.

Motivation to grind

I have about a month's worth of concentrated effort in me (as in: several hours a day, every day.) If I don't see any results that matter to me, I am unable to keep it up. It's not tractable to willpower; I cannot concentrate on the thing anymore, I lose mental focus.

Given that it can take years to reach escape velocity these days, how do you keep up motivation while grinding?

1: Follow your passion

"Follow your passion" is one recipe to combat focus loss. If you find the grind enjoyable or meaningful, you will naturally keep it up. You need to apply mental judo thusly: byproducts of grind become your goals, and results enjoyable byproducts. In other words, "it's the journey, not the destination."

2: Aspirational grinding

The second recipe is change your identity so that grind is a part of it, as seen in:

  • "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield recommends assuming the identify of a professional as opposed to an amateur; one of the characteristics of a professional is that they always show up
  • "Atomic Habits" by James Clear explicitly recommends this method for picking up habits: "Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become"

This method works if the identity is aspirational. It hooks into your belonging self-worth. The payoff is warm fuzzies you feel after every grind session. Wanna be a pro rather than an amateur? Grind!

3: Grind ennobles you

As for the third recipe: acknowledge that grind is suffering, and find meaning in suffering. This is recommended in:

This kind of mental judo requires knowing your values well enough that you can reframe meaningless actions into meaningful actions.

Frankl's book provides two universal noble motivations other than suffering: relationships ("I'm doing this for my friends/family/children/etc") and great work/deed ("I'm doing this for future humanity, only I can do this".)

4: Grind anything valuable

The fourth recipe requires no judo: grind in whichever direction that provides immediate rewards. The theory is that interesting and lucrative opportunities are only obvious and accessible to insiders, so direction doesn't matter at the beginning. Acquire career capital by becoming an insider in anything valuable (grind), and then keep looking for your big break. Cal Newport recommends this strategy in "So Good They Can't Ignore You".

Direction of grinding

All four methods require you to make a choice on what, specifically, you will grind. This matters, because the length of grind makes it a huge blind investment (best seen in decisions about education and future profession.)

For example, Cal Newport advises against following your passion because it does not guarantee a payoff (you may never reach escape velocity if what you're grinding is not of value to others), and because it can be really difficult to decide what your passion actually is.

Unfortunately, his method isn't really better. You might not enjoy the insider opportunities once you make it in. It's a good recipe for good earnings and/or job security, but you risk having your other needs going unfulfilled.

So, how do you choose a thing on which to work? How do you validate whether it will pay off for you without incremental tests?

The best metric that happiness researchers found so far is "are other people finding it worthwhile?" (yes, sticking to the whales.)

You can also try coming up with several options and educating yourself about what it's like to commit to them by:

How do you find those people, if your network doesn't already contain them? That is a problem. Linkedin / Twitter / Google search might help, start by searching for people who do your thing professionally and then ask them for recommended groups or forums.

Unfortunately, building a personal network is a grind of its own. More on that later.

Categories: momentum