“How do you stay motivated?”
“How do you force yourself to get up and do it all over again, every day?”
“Don’t you get tired?”
“What’s your secret?”
My friend Marc made an insightful comment several months ago while the pandemic was raging and everything was closed. “If you can’t get in shape now,” he said, “you’re never going to get in shape.”
I’ve thought about this a lot because it applies to much more than getting in physical shape, losing that extra 5, 10, or 50 pounds that stubbornly cling, no matter how much Cool Whip and cheeseburgers you eat. The pandemic, or rather the crises that it occasioned, has in fact motivated some people to change shit up permanently.
But for the most part, it hasn’t. “Life will never be the same,” ” XYZ is changing for good,” “Good-bye commercial real estate,” “No one cares about celebrity crap anymore,” “People are focused on self-sufficiency, learning to enjoy home-cooked meals, baking bread, and that’s going to stick,” “So many people are riding bikes now!” and perhaps my favorite, “People are finally going to understand how enslaved they have been to their cars and their commute.”
What the pandemic did was to remind us how much we love the life we’ve chosen, all of it. We love the convenience and we love the shopping. As malls have reopened it’s now bumper-to-bumper and the feeding frenzy of buybuybuy has taken off beyond Retail America’s wettest dreams. Traffic in LA is now more than 90% of pre-pandemic levels. Bicycle inventory is still impossible to get, but it hasn’t translated into commuting or families out putting around on the weekend.
The group rides are all back in force, every day is new kit day; order in the universe has been restored.
So what was all that about?
Two days ago I camped on the lower Kern River near a place called Keyesville Beach. The dirt access road led to an area filled with car-and-RV campers. One prong of the dirt road was blocked off to vehicles for habitat restoration. I dismounted and walked down it. Around a bend was a large flat plain that had boulders and a cliff wall in a large arc that opened onto the river, and then dipped back into a small series of diversions that formed a little island with trees, rocks, shade, and a flat spot to camp.
I went about my business. Even though I could see some of the other campers upstream, they were a couple of hundred yards away, mostly obscured by trees, and whatever alcohols they had going on were totally muted by the thundering of the river as it crashed through a narrow sluice against boulders the size of houses.
It was a beautiful campsite and when the sun went down and the mosquitoes came out I withdrew into my tent and spent a pleasant night staring at the Big Dipper and listening to the roar of the water. At one point I got up to piss and the moon had bathed all of the stones in clear yellow moonlight, so bright that you didn’t need anything else to see even the finest details.
The next morning I heard the sound of an engine, which was odd because the road was closed. Someone had obviously driven through, over, or around the small barricades. A few minutes later I peered through the trees and saw a family setting up camp. They had come for the weekend and were determined to arrive early and snag a nice spot, damn the signage.
What struck me was not their blatant ignoring of the signage. What blew me away was their size. The man must have weighed 400 pounds and his wife easily 300. They had a son who couldn’t have been more than eight years old who weighed 150 lbs. or perhaps more. The only normally sized family members were a daughter, about thirteen or so, and a small Chihuahua, Max, who ran over to my tent and began barking at me.
They were so fat that mom and dad each had their own giant tent, with the kids and dog in a third tent. The slim daughter carried everything from the car down the short trail, maybe 50 feet, to the campsite, and dad set everything up. He was gasping and breathing as hard as someone at the end of an FTP test. After about an hour everything got set up, he drove the car back over to the legal parking area, and somehow walked the 100 yards or so back to his campsite.
When he got back he sat down in a lounge chair parked in front of his tent, next to two enormous coolers. He reached into one of them, which was filled with beer, and got started. On his other flank was a stack of five cases of 16-oz. water bottles.
I looked at that guy and knew one thing with absolute certainty: It was 8:00 AM, and he wasn’t moving from that chair until it was bedtime, pisstime, or both.
I got my gear packed and began walking my bike back to the road; since they had blocked egress with their three massive tents, I had to walk through their campsite.
The man glared at me. The woman glared at me. Even the morbidly obese little boy glared at me. The only person who smiled was the daughter, who was finishing her umpteenth trip to the car to get stuff for mom, dad, and little brother.
“Morning,” I said.
The man just glared.
At first I thought that they were angry at me for walking through their campsite. But they were the ones who had blocked my exit, and they were surely glad to have the entire area to themselves. The day hadn’t yet begun, I hadn’t made any racket, and was leaving.
That’s when I realized they hated me because I was skinny and on my bike. They lived in a kind of hell, the hell of morbidly obese people who spend their entire lives enduring the withering disdain, contempt, discrimination, and hatred of people who are thinner than they are, which is basically everyone.
They had gotten up early, probably 3:00 AM, driven up from LA, found a secluded campsite where they could wallow in their immobility and alcohols and food without being judged by other campers, only to post up next to the skinniest guy around, who was riding a fucking bicycle and camping in a tent that wouldn’t have housed the dad’s left leg.
No wonder they were glaring. “Good fucking riddance,” they were thinking.
And oddly enough, I got it.
If you are morbidly obese in this world, you not only have to deal with the crippling effects of immobility, but what’s worse, the condemnation of everyone around you, judging you for the supposed moral failures that cause you to be fat, and worse, to raise your little kid to be fat, too. These folks just wanted the peace and quiet that other human wants.
That’s when I began to think about the bike-a-hike that Kristie and I had done the previous two days, riding to the base of a stiff climb, shouldering our backpacks and hiking up a vicious gradient to a secluded campsite on a mountain bike trail.
The only two people we saw in two days were two local MTB riders, who stopped to say hi. They had parked one car at the bottom, driven the other up to the pass, and were now cruising down what they told us was a “Black Diamond” trail.
Parenthetically I wondered why trails were named “Black Diamond” for difficulty. Why not something more interesting, like “Dazzle Princess,” “Lumpy Leprechaun,” “Cake with Chocolate Drizzle,” or even “Poopers”? Why “Black Diamond”?
Answer: Cuz it sounds so badass. To my mind though, driving a car up and biking down wasn’t all that badass. Why not ride up and then ride down?
This trail, which we’d hiked up, taking a route so steep and arduous that the MTB riders didn’t even know it existed, was a perfect example of the pandemic’s Chances Not Taken. It would have been brutal even without my 20-lb. pack and Kristie’s 40-pounder. And however hard it was going up, going down the next day was worse.
But after all was said and done and I’d ridden on to my river campsite that afternoon, there was no denying that the arduous route left me feeling pretty good. There had been scenery, solitude, extreme exertion, companionship, and a mountain lion outside our tent at night screaming at us. Terrified? Very.
But back to motivation, and the unlikely convergence between the camper who was too overweight to walk and the mountain biker who was too lazy to ride up the slope before riding down. The big guy, who I’ll call Al, was actually quite motivated to go camp when you think about the effort, planning, and expense he went to in order to wind up by the river with his family for the weekend. And the MTB guys were motivated to downhill a Black Diamond trail called “Just Outstanding” that took a couple of hours to descend.
Where did their motivation come from? What, actually, is motivation?
One obvious clue is that it stems from the word “motive.” One has a reason to pursue a thing and when one pursues it one is deemed “motivated.” It’s a simple concept. Motivation is nothing more than the will to achieve your end. It isn’t a magical elixir or elusive state of mind accessible only to the chosen few, it’s the drive every person has to do every single thing that requires overcoming an obstacle. For Al the obstacles were gravity, mobility, and small spaces; for the MTB riders the obstacles were gravity, large objects, steep drops, and sudden unplanned stops, occasionally of the head-first variety.
In no case do we say that a person is motivated to do that which is effortless. “Motivated to eat ice cream,” “Motivated to sit and watch TV,” “Motivated to fuck off all day.” It’s only when we have to struggle to attain the end that we start thinking about motivation. But oddly enough, we seldom stop to think what the actual motive is. Instead, we look to motivation as if it’s some magical chemical in the coke can or coffee cup, some divine inspiration that drives people to greatness and the lack of which dooms us to the pedestrian, boring, ordinary failures of life.
However, since we are all motivated throughout the day, it’s easy to divine our motives, and these are the problem, not the absence of “motivation.” Al’s deepest motive is food satiation and he orders his life and his family’s life around that. It’s not easy to be morbidly obese and there are numerous aspects of it that are hardly fun. And it’s time consuming, expensive, and subject to unjust social opprobrium of the worst sort.
The MTB riders were motivated by the thrill and skill of the descent, not by the agony and physical exertion of the climb. Their motivation was clear and easy to understand, and that ride had gobs of it.
This plays out with everyone and it’s instantly recognizable: The person motivated to work hard for money, the person motivated to spend all day commuting on the freeway for a job, the person motivated to study hard to pass the bar exam, the person motivated to drink or do drugs for relief from stress, the person motivated to take great risks for fame, or the person motivated to buy organic food for a (supposedly) longer life.
Of course when the answer to “How do I get motivated?” is “You’re already motivated,” it’s disappointing to say the least because the person asking the question doesn’t want it pointed out that they are motivated by food satiation, money, celebrity, rent money, pride, social status, or any other of the things that truly motivate people.
When people ask the question “How do I get motivated?” what they really mean is “How do I change my motives?” In hard terms, “How do I become different from who I am?”
And the answer to that is not simple, because as even the smallest child knows, “Change is hard.”
Questions about motivation are really questions about being. “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to become?” and “What am I willing to endure along the way?” Because motivation requires you to overcome obstacles, and because people are inherently lazy, it’s a daunting prospect to say the least, cf. diets.
“Know thyself” was the immortal advice of Socrates, and this is the path to motivation, not tricks or tips or early alarm clocks or to-do lists or personal trainers or lifestyle coaches or the therapist’s couch.
When you live in society, knowing yourself is exceedingly hard because much of what we do is a reaction to the demands, expectations, and suggestions of others. How can we separate our innate wants and desires, our deepest motives, when they are tangled up with the infinite motives of others?
Look no further than social media to see how paralyzing outer influences can be on self-knowledge. The curated photos more perfect than any plastic surgery, the glowing reports of life lived successfully and perfectly blissful in paradise, and the suggestion/coercion that YOUR life should be just as perfect is enough to derail even the most single-minded student of self.
Nor is self-knowledge enhanced by excessive knowledge of the political and social and scientific world around us. Some basic understanding of those processes is critical, but to immerse oneself in the daily swamp of vitriol, polemic, and opinions-wielded-as-facts diverts the only resource we have, our reflection, from its most important object, to the most trivial. What good is it to have an opinion on anything if you don’t know yourself?
None. None at all.
As with all obvious choices, the simple decision to know thyself is the most arduous route of all, and it brings to mind this immortal poem by Stephen Crane, “The Wayfarer,” which sums up the conundrum of striking forth along the obvious, well-marked, and undeniably proper path of truth, which is nothing more than self-knowledge.
The wayfarer,Stephen Crane, 1899
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”
What was true in 1899 was true in 1899 BC, and long before that. Finding motivation is really nothing more than finding yourself, and the precursor to that is recognizing the motivation you currently have and what it says about your motives. It’s a harsh mirror that can’t be tricked with a little nip-and-tuck or a better photo filter.
Standing in the bathroom and gazing soulfully at the scraggly sag that stares back isn’t, perhaps, even all that effective. The mirror is manmade and the reflection is artificial under artificial light.
Where can you get an honest assessment?
Look no farther than outside, where the sunlight is harshest at midday, but where evening and morning lend an unspeakable softness and beauty to even the hardest granite crags. Look no farther than outside, where the tiny limits of your little speck of a home give way to the vast breadth of sky, so broad that you have to pivot full circle to see it all.
This is the environment most unforgiving but most forgiving, most critical but most accepting, most indifferent but most filled with warmth and love. Whoever “you” really are, nature will reveal it. And the good news is that we only have a few types. Briggs-Stratton and Rorschach notwithstanding, every single person is, or once was, capable of mercy, of love, of gratitude, and of happiness. In order to get at those things, though, you need a motive–you need self-knowledge–and all you seem to have is a Catch .22 because you can’t get motivated without self-knowledge, and you can’t get self-knowledge without motivation.
Pass the beer. The syringe. The Facebook. Whatever.
It goes without saying that if you’ve read this far you really have an excess of time on your hands, or you’re in jail, or you have more than an academic interest in motivation.
Which brings us to what I started with, the source of mine. Maybe my experience is a red herring. You be the judge.
This essay began with the question, “How do you stay motivated?” Because the assumption is that getting up every day, pedaling to a new destination, setting up camp, provisioning, combating hunger, weather, and exhaustion require some special motivation sauce not readily available at Safeway.
Well, it doesn’t.
To the contrary, being outdoors for the better part of a year now has shown me an ever-clarifying picture of who I am: Hairy, bearded, smelly, introspective, loving, patient, slow, accepting, and eager to learn the tiny secrets that nature reveals in her daily, minute-by-minute variety show of animals, birds, insects, stones, waters, skies, plants, storms, and stars.
I’m a student and will be for life, and my motive is to learn and to pass on the crumbs that I’m lucky enough to collect. In me there is no greatness, no fame, no novelty, no originality, nothing remarkable, unique, irreplaceable, or otherwise an exception to Ecclesiastes 1:9, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
How I got to this place is less important than what it teaches every single person out there looking for “motivation” to lose weight, be happier, quit drinking, have less anxiety, get richer, live healthier, be more active, quit spending so much time on Pornhub, and every other failed New Year’s Resolution ever. It teaches us that what we need isn’t motivation, but someone to teach us who we really are, and that someone is nature, and it’s right outside your front door.
Don’t be surprised when you step out and get rained on, snowed on, or when it’s too hot, too humid, or when the mosquitoes descend in a cloud.
Don’t be surprised when your legs ache, your lungs burn, your back hurts, or your joints throb.
Don’t be surprised when sleep in a tent seems worse than a bed of nails, when your nature getaway turns into a state park jamboree filled with howling drunks, growling generators, and terrible music played past midnight.
Instead, take those as the singular blades of grass that cut sharply but not mortally. Take confidence that each tiny scar impels you another step down the path of truth and of knowing thyself.
Believe with all your heart that motivation is nothing harder, nothing easier, nothing uglier, and nothing more beautiful, than you.
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