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The Motivation Problem
Why is it so hard to live well in the modern world?
It’s a really exciting time to be human.
We have a chance to live more fulfilling lives than any earthlings before us, pushing the limits on happiness, longevity, and impact.
But making good on that chance, as you know, is bafflingly hard. We have a pretty good idea of what to do (work out, foster relationships, don’t drink too much…), but we really struggle to make ourselves do it.
In this post, I want to lay down a basic framework for thinking about why that is. I’ll talk about legacy brains, how they hold us back, and why we need more motivation.
I hope you find it useful!
To be a modern human is to be constantly battling with your instincts.
To us, it seems totally natural: it’s hard to do things that are good for you and easy to do things that are bad for you. Exercising is hard, vegetating is easy. Eating well is hard, eating junk is easy.
From a broader perspective though, our battle with instincts is a brand new problem.
If you’re a wild animal, your instincts almost always line up with what’s best for you. It would be dangerous not to listen to them. That used to be true for humans, too.
So what happened? Here’s my attempt at a one paragraph explanation:
For billions of years, evolution tuned our brains under a pretty stable set of conditions. The conditions changed slowly, but not faster than evolution could keep up with. Eventually though, humans emerged and broke the process. We became much smarter and more cooperative than other animals, which allowed us to change our own conditions at an exponential rate. It wasn’t long before we were changing things way faster than evolution could react. We had the agricultural revolution, then the scientific, industrial, and digital ones, all in the last 12,000 years!
Now here we are, living in cities and interacting mainly through computers, but sporting essentially the same brains we had when we were hunter-gatherers.
Rocking legacy brains1 in the 21st century means we can’t just do whatever feels good anymore.
Day-to-day survival was an all consuming challenge for 99.99% of our evolution. Brains evolved to increase our odds, and the system they formed to do that was really elegant. In the simplest terms:
Your brain rewards you with good feelings when you do things it correlates with staying alive2, encouraging you to keep doing those things.
That’s it; that’s the system. That simple mechanism is the cornerstone of our entire psychology!
The system worked beautifully for a very long time, but humans ran into a major flaw3 once we started our technological growth spurt: it has no built-in limiter.
In the environment it evolved for, it didn’t need one— scarcity was the limiter. But in the modern world, at least in rich countries, scarcity is a thing of the past. Our cups runneth over! That means we can keep doing the things that give us good feelings over and over and over again.
Unfortunately, many of those things, which help short-term survival in a scarce environment, hurt long-term survival in an abundant environment. They also keep us from doing more fulfilling4 things.
Example 1: Your brain rewards eating sugar, salt, and fat, so you eat tons of McDonald’s, become obese, and die of a heart attack at age 50.
Example 2: Your brain rewards social interaction, so you spend most of your free time scrolling Instagram instead of working on your passion project.
Example 3: Your brain rewards energy conservation, so you spend too much time on the couch and get caught in a depression spiral.
Now that we finally have the resources to move beyond daily survival, our legacy brains are working against us. In order to actually do the things that make our lives better, we have to out maneuver them.
So, being a modern human comes with two big challenges:
We have to resist doing bad things that our legacy brains encourage (e.g. scrolling Twitter, eating donuts).
We have to make ourselves do good things that our legacy brains don’t encourage (e.g. reading, being charitable).
To overcome those challenges, we need to create our own motivation. I call this “the motivation problem”, and I think it’s one of the most important problems in the world.
In fact, you can think of this whole post as background information building up to one actionable insight, and here it is:
The only thing keeping us from being much happier, longer-living, and more impactful than we are is a lack of motivation5.
If we want to live better, we have to figure out how to motivate ourselves more effectively. Our legacy brains won’t do it, and our willpower can’t be depended on. Solving the motivation problem is the key to unlocking 7.8 billion people’s latent potential!
That’s been my main focus for the past few years, and I’m excited to start sharing what I’ve learned here on Bright Blue.
Thanks for reading!
“Legacy systems” are outdated computer systems that, for some reason, are still use. Your mom’s PC that runs Windows Vista is a legacy system. I think of our brains in a similar way.
Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, staying alive is just a prerequisite for making babies. Making babies is the ultimate goal, and our brains use the same mechanism to encourage it.
I’m focusing on a downside here, but I actually find it incredible that our brains still serve us as well as they do, given how different the modern world is from the one they evolved in. So generalizable!
The good feelings our legacy reward system gives us are super compelling, but shallow. There are other good feelings that are less compelling but much more satisfying.
I’m not saying that lack of motivation is the reason for everything bad in our lives. Lots of things are out of our control, and they set the cap on how happy, long-living, and impactful we can be. What I’m saying is that each of us could be much closer to that cap than we are, and lack of motivation is the only thing holding us back.