October 20, 2008

The Link between Security and Complacency

security and complacency?

Here’s a theory: the more secure we are, the less productive we become. The less risk and uncertainty we have in our lives, the more likely we are to amble along, getting by just fine but never really doing anything worth talking about.

Think about the sophomore album from bands that finally got their big record deal after years of struggling along. The first album is awesome; the second, mediocre.

Think about the reputations of professors at the last university you attended. If they were untenured (but on a tenure track), chance are they were more productive than tenured professors who had already obtained permanent job security.

You can probably think of other examples – bureaucrats, for example, who have safe but boring jobs.

Yes, there are exceptions to all of these. Some bands put out great sophomore albums, and some tenured professors become more prolific in their academic security. These exceptions, however, stand out because they are so unusual.

To simplify: complete security equals at least partial complacency.

I write this because we are living in uncertain times, at least financially speaking. Unless you have been living under the proverbial bridge, you’re probably aware that the U.S. economy hasn’t been performing as expected lately.

Where are our 15% a year gains? How come mortgages keep falling? And why are stocks still going down even though oil prices are also declining?

Someone else will have to answer those questions in more technical terms than I. Last week, I heard someone on Twitter say, “My 401k has become a 201k.” Ha ha. Except we’re not laughing, because as of right now, a great deal of wealth has disappeared into thin air.

As for me, I haven’t logged in to my Vanguard account since March or April. It kind of sucks, but what can you do? If you sell your retirement fund now, you’ve locked in your 20% loss. Better to stick it out, I say, and focus on what you can control.

If we were 100% secure, according to the theory of security and complacency, we’d become nonchalant about our most important work.

Complacency means you aren’t hungry for good work. You don’t get out of bed in the morning excited about the day ahead. You don’t go the extra mile, and you settle for “good enough,” because you correctly suspect that most people won’t notice the difference.

This is sad, but common. I’ve let it happen to me many times.

I’m not sure why some people are able to succeed without any uncertainty. All I know is, I am not one of those people. I’m best as an untenured underdog. I’m best when the risk of failure is high and success is far from certain.

Give Me Neither Poverty Nor Riches

Because security can be such a demotivator, the opposite is true as well: a healthy amount of insecurity helps us Get Stuff Done. For example, I told you when I started writing here that I would post three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

You know what? I’m scared of missing a day, because I know if it happens, it will become a lot easier to miss another day sometime. I’ll discover that the world doesn’t end and no one is really that mad or anything. But then, I’ll get complacent. And that, I am absolutely certain, is NOT a good thing for me at all.

Steven Pressfield writes about this in The War of Art, the best little book (it really is little) I’ve ever read about the need for scheduling your creative work. Thus, I keep the schedule. I haven’t missed a day yet, even though there are a couple of times I’ve finished something at 11:45 p.m.

A Short Unconventional Guide Update

I’ll post up the promised analysis of the Unconventional Guide to Working for Yourself launch on Wednesday, but in short, it’s gone very well. A lot more people than I expected have purchased the guide, and in the beta-test for the new affiliate program (invitation-only for now), several affiliates are also having good results around the internet.

I talked to another blogger on the phone a couple of days before the launch, and I said that I hoped it sold well “but not too well.” He thought that was odd and had never heard someone say something like that before.

I realized he was right: it is odd. It’s just what works for me, and I don’t necessarily recommend you follow this model. Anyway, I’ll give you all the details on Wednesday.

For now, bring on the uncertainty! The work will be better because of it.

Stay eager. Stay tough. Get up and fight. Nothing is guaranteed.

What else is there?

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19 Responses to “The Link between Security and Complacency”

  1. I mostly agree with you on your security/complacency dichotomy, but there is perhaps (well, at least for me) a sort of X-factor that might warrant consideration.

    There are those of us (again, at least me) who have had to compromise passion in work for the sort of security that comes from what I lovingly refer to as a “soul-sucking job”. This is, I believe, a slightly different sort of security than the sort you are addressing here. (Please correct me if I’m mistaken.) This sort of security permits support of a spouse/partner/extremely-significant-other whose creative endeavors/passion need a solid financial base from which to grow.

    The rub is that this security does not breed complacency as much as it does a dying soul. Though I believe it could look to an outside observer as complacency and not the putrification of the soul. Thus, the two may appear similar, but in fact are vastly different realities.

    So perhaps the challenge for one trapped by the latter condition – security that breeds a sort of death – is not so much to stave off complacency, but rather to muster the energy (soul-sucking jobs tend to destroy everything in their path) to find a new way. Sometimes even seeing that there CAN be a new way is the challenge.

    Sorry, I’m rambling. The sum is simply to say that what may appear as complacency to the outside observer may in fact be the final gasps of a soul that set out to do something good for her/his family in finding “security” but has given too much to thrive and contribute to the universe in a fulfilling way.

  2. Great post. Professional sports are a great example of this. Just watch the athlete who is in the last year of their contract. Most have very good years, but after signing the big contract their production drops off.

    The problem is, security is an illusion. None of us have job security as long as we work for someone else. Even the self-employed are subject to changing customer needs and downturns in their industry. We all need to stay on top of our game, constantly moving forward. If you’re not growing, striving, evolving as a person — you’re slowly going to die.

    Keep up the great work, Chris. I’m going to buy the Unconventional Guide to Working for Yourself sometime soon. I read a good review on it (can’t remember where, sorry!) by one of your affiliates that convinced me to buy.

    Have a great week!

  3. I was really looking forward to reading your new Guide; it was coming out at the exact right time for me. And then Wednesday I had to suddenly put off all entrepreneurial thoughts, since I found out I’ll be getting laid off early next month.

    Related to your post and my job search, I think I’d like a job where I’m paid based on the effort and quality of my work, not just the same amount every week, which causes me to slack off.

  4. Ah, its so true.

    For example, teenage-mode, when I realized there was a lot at stake if I didn’t whip myself into shape and take education seriously, I became a complete knowledge nerd.

    For the first three years of high school (I’m home schooled) I basically twiddeled my thunbs and waited for mommy and daddy to tell me what to do. They didn’t, so I didn’t do all that much.

    It’s all changed now. I don’t know whether the University path is for me, although I’m applying at a few just so there’s the option, or if I’m going to go a tad travel-frenzy, but either way, I want high test scores and lots of “useless” knowledge. Education has become prime in my little life, more so even than a social life. (gasp!)

    When I realized I could fail and live a sad, coulda-shoulda-woulda-been life, when I realized success did not come as naturally as I’d been brought up to feel it would, I flipped out. It’s my choice how to live my one puny life.

    Ramble ramble.

    Great post, and thanks for keeping to your schedule.

  5. To me, more than the feeling of security, it’s the feeling that what you do doesn’t matter that saps the will to go on. And that can come from feeling set up to fail or unappreciated at any cost as much as from security.

    For me, last things are also always extremely hard. My last written essay in college was by far the hardest to get done. I’m now in my last project at my current job, and making myself do properly it is feeling well nigh impossible!

  6. Great post. More food for thought. I am enjoying the other comments as well.

    Jess, you might think about attending college in a foreign country. You can travel, get to know another culture and even learn another language.

    Employees usually only work as hard as they have to in order to get a pay check, unless you going for a promotion. Look for ways for your company to make more profit.

    You could set up a income center in your spare time and ask for a percentage of the increased profit. Jay Abraham discusses this in his $3,000 course on passive income. I would be happy to share some ideas if you write me at wymancrane@yahoo.com.

  7. Lately I’ve truly realized what means to get out of your comfort zone.
    It changes everything. And you can’t just let go like everyday and everything keeps going as usual.

    It’s not a fun thing, but if you look at it after some time in a different perspective you see that it served you well.

  8. Wonderful Post! Really gives you something to think about. But it seems to me that what you write is true, especially about the teachers/professors.

  9. I couldn’t agree with you more! As I’ve been telling anyone who asks (and I realize you haven’t asked, but I’ll say it anyway) I believe those who have been creatively self-employed are going to come through this chaos with their peace of mind intact.

    And I add a huge rave for War of Art, one of my top ten all-time favorites. It’s so brilliant. The September issue of Ode magazine is also loaded with articles that really tie in with what you say. Especially good are “The End of Childhood” and “In Praise of Failure.” I can’t stop thinking about either of them since I read them recently.

  10. Great post! I can relate big time. The same is true when you have a day with nothing to do vs. a day when you have absolutely spare no time. It’s the days when things are the most hectic that stuff gets done. On days when nothing is required that the least gets done as we all tend to squander that time. I’ve heard it said that you’ve got to have a HUGE “why” (dream) that keeps you going. Robert Schuller talks about the “Peak to Peek” principle and how if one works hard to reach their goal or “peak,” then as long as they are prepared for continued growing they will get a “peek” at a new and even higher goal or “peak” to strive for.

    Success is the progressive realization of a worthwhile goal. It’s the process and the journey that count, not the destination!

  11. The days I am striving to achieve something are the days I enjoy most. I enjoy the chase, not necessarily the prize (although I hope to get closer at some point).

    When I get comfortable, I get bored. When I get bored, I usually do something that causes me to become uncomfortable, so in the end the process is sort of cyclical for me. I guess I just enjoy having something to work on.

    Great post as always Chris.

  12. Interesting subject. I agree with Heather above that “it’s the feeling that what you do doesn’t matter that saps the will to go on”.

    My fist full-time job was at a company regularly voted best employer in my country. It really is a great place, full of smart people, job security and excellent benefits. But about a year into the job, and due to personal problems, my productivity went down to less than 50% for about two months–and NO ONE noticed. It was incredibly demotivating to see how little my effort mattered in the end, and convinced me of leaving that place ASAP. I’m now in a much riskier environment, with higher stress, longer hours, and heavy travel. There are days when I hate all the time spent on the road, but overall, I very much prefer the extra effort over the earlier comfort.

  13. Hi Chris,

    Stimulating post. I should probably follow your advice. Sticking to your postulation of three posts a week is good discipline. If you had a mag that had to go out monthly no matter what came along, what else would you do but make your deadlines.

    I finally had the realization that all that I do which had seemed to be an assortment really isn’t. It was a logical solution to put all my creative works under one roof and call it a think tank and inventions laboratory, using Edison’s early establishment as a model. Not that I’m shooting for over a thousand patents like him, quite a remarkable, but my writing, screenplays and inventions all fit together in the one creative laboratory. Sanity reigns.

    That doesn’t mean I am going to post on schedule though. But I do admire you for doing that and keeping to your game plan.

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  15. Timely post, Chris. I was talking to some friends about the theme of ridiculous success. Reading 2 of my favorite authors and on-air personalitie’s first books(Anthony Bourdain – Kitchen Confidential and Jim Cramer’s Confessions) I saw a theme of complete and total lack of self-confidence in their early careers. No matter how good they were, they always saw themselves as the worst in the world. To make up for their self-percieved lack of talent, they worked harder and harder and harder. The prepared better than everyone else. They did their homework.

    Maybe that’s why they were, and are, so ridiculously successful.

  16. It makes sense. If money (or fame, or whatever) is your main motivator for doing whatever it is you do, of course it’s going to start running dry once you have ‘enough’. On the other hand, if your main motivator is to help as many people as you can, or be the best you can be… is there such a thing as ‘enough’? If you get complacent and stop trying hard, you are actually in fact going backwards. It’s like the one quote from Smallville I saw earlier. Cop guy says to Clark: “You can’t save everybody”… Clark replies: “The day I start believing that is the day I stop trying”.

  17. Remember the Greek Generals; victorious, they were paraded through the streets lined with cheering crowds all the while a servant whispered repeatedly in the General’s ear, “all glory is fleeting’.

  18. Timing. I just saw that Joaquin Phoenix is leaving acting for a recording career. Artists, I suppose, thrive on risk and insecurity. The reason for so many successful unsuccessful artists. I agree that self-motivation becomes increasingly difficult when things are going swimmingly. But I also suppose that self-motivation is difficult period.

    Peace.

  19. I agree with most of the article. I think you are right that complacency creeps in when the main motivation is just security. But I think there can be other forms of motivation which are completely independent of security. It could be some end goal that really drives one to work hard until you get to it. That can be a much more effective form of motivation. Of course, what if you got a taste of that end goal randomly (perhaps security could be an example). Would that be the most effective (Pavlovian) strategy?

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