Something Kevin Durant (undisputed top 3 NBA player) said stuck out to me. It was the end of a workout. New trainer. Famous for being different and pushing the envelope. The session was tough, grueling even. As if Durant was a dirty gym towel the trainer had wrung him out. And at the end of all of it the trainer asked him if he enjoyed it. Durant replies, with sweat leaking down his chin, “No. I didn’t enjoy it. But I’ll do it because it’ll help me get better.”
He was in high school.
Greatness isn’t born, greatness is bred.
You see it everywhere.
Kobe Bryant waking up at 4 to get up 1000 shots before practice.
Steve Jobs working fanatically on a new idea.
Russian mathematicians locked up in their attics solving impossible equations.
But what separates them from us?
Why are some people locked in a state of mediocrity while great people are out doing great things everyday?
The short answer: their brains are charged with huge reservoirs of dopamine.
Let’s rewind it back.
What is dopamine?
Plain and simple, dopamine is why you wake up. It is why you go out and do the things you do. Dopamine is why you pursue your hobbies. Dopamine is why sex feels good. Dopamine is why people do drugs.
In short, dopamine is why people become rock stars.
It is why we achieve.
Dopamine is responsible for a large variety of functions, but for our purposes we’ll focus on its effects on attention, motiviation, and desire.
Diving Deeper into Dopamine
Dopamine is released whenever you predict a reward ie. hitting play on your favorite song or getting a notification on your phone. This is why you carry your phone everywhere … even when you’re in the house.
As you move towards the reward, your brain secretes dopamine to keep you focused.
Like cold is the absence of heat, boredom and lack of motivation is just a lack of dopamine. Your brain feels like whatever you’re doing is not worth the reward or it feels like you can be doing better things.
The brain is a dopamine fiend, but it’s lazy. It will seek out the easiest path to get its fix. But this is not always aligned with our goals.
You’re hit with a deadline. You’re not enthralled with the work so you surf the web, check your phone, do your chores, anything to avoid doing actual work. “Easy” achievements.
Thing is your work becomes even more more boring as a result.
Let’s take an extreme example to the paint the picture.
It deregulates your brain’s dopamine stabilizers so you’ll secrete more dopamine than usual. It makes for some crazy nights, but when you go back to your crappy 9-5, everything becomes more dull. Nothing is the same anymore.
It’s a classic high peak, low valley situation.
After the cocaine use the brain has to balance out dopamine secretion by releasing lower levels of dopamine for every other activity. Elongated use will eventually lead to “real-life just isn’t enough anymore.”
Quick. What do you when you first wake up? before you fall asleep?
Look at your phone?
Brush your teeth then look at your phone?
Real life just isn’t enough anymore.
I kid, but you get the point.
We’re bombarded everyday by easy, cheap doses of dopamine.
Video games, mobile apps, advertisements are all designed with neuroscience in mind. Grocery stores strategically place junk food where you enter and leave because they know it’ll cause you to buy more. This all takes advantage of the fact that many of us go through life without any focus, without any goals.
Think about all the people in your life more successful than you. Are they really that much smarter than you? that much more talented than you?
It all comes back to dopamine or just how strong your desire is.
The Rich Get Richer
Highly-creative people, geniuses create incredibly developed visions, they piece together connections normal people can’t see, they think at a higher level. All byproducts of having huge dopamine reservoirs.
Higher dopamine levels have been show to lead to increases in focus, motivation or desire, and social function.
But what is even more amazing is how these highly-gifted people are able to acquire their surplus of reward juice. They think and create, they don’t rest until they finish, all they see is the finish line. And what happens is, by forgoing distractions, they get less dopamine immediately, but it builds up into a massive wave once they’ve achieved.
Having actually created something original, the effects last longer. You know it, it’s called pride.
And it builds. The rich get richer.
It’s the Journey, not the Destination
Then it’s not what we achieve, it’s how.
Do you read the Ikea assembly instructions or do you figure it out yourself?
Google search or do you really try to remember?
Nicolas Carr showed us in 2010 that The Internet is Changing the Way We Think (and basically making us dumb and unfocused). Quote:
“every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” We can, for example, rotate objects in our minds better than we used to be able to. But our “new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence” go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”
The easier we make it for ourselves, the dumber we get.
Dropping Some More Science
In the 70’s, psychologist Walter Mischel gave a group of children a choice. He would place a cookie in front of each individual and then walk out the room. Those who ate the cookie before he came back would only have the one cookie. However, those who waited would be rewarded with an additional cookie, notching their count up to two.
Children being children, only a few ended up with two cookies. Walter Mischel dubbed those children, high-delay children.
It sounds like some lame superpower, but high-delay children would score on average 210 points higher on the SAT, graduate from college at a higher rate, and, on average, have higher incomes. In contrast, those who only had one cookie were statistically were more likely engage in impulsive behavior such as drug/alcohol addiction.
For the most of us, we’re one-cookie kids. We want things and we want them now. We can learn from these high-delay children. Read on.
Mischel did another experiment to discover how the children were able to delay their gratification.
Same experiment (except with marshmallows), three groups of kids.
One group he told them to imagine how much marshmallows are like clouds.
Another he told them to imagine how a pretzel would taste and feel.
And then he had a control group where he told them to imagine how good a marshmallow would taste.
Not surprisingly, the pretzel group was able to delay gratification the longest followed by the cloud group.
When you are distracted from your goal, redirect.
More importantly, be obsessive over your goals. The control group couldn’t help but eat the marshmallow after thinking about how good it would taste. The more they thought about it, the more they wanted it.
The quick fix is that there is no quick fix, but here are a few things you can start doing to improve your dopamine efficiency.
No more junk
Phones, video games, television, mindlessly surfing the web. Personally, I still indulge in movies and television, but I make an effort to think and make new connections. The key is to not let yourself fall into a habit of letting your brain take breaks. Focus is a muscle.
Daily. It doesn’t have to be difficult, but simple things like writing out math instead of using a calculator or trying to figure things out instead of going on Google will slowly acclimate your brain to delayed gratification.
The key is to take risks you know you have a good chance at succeeding. This creates a feedback loop where you become more confident in your abilities and grow more acclimated to “danger.” Risk-taking and delayed gratification go hand-in-hand. Entrepreneurs, athletes, musicians, explorers, politicians, all share these two characteristics.
Set goals and break them into smaller goals
Dopamine is released everytime you achieve, but long-term goals can be difficult to manage because there is no reward in immediate sight. Break it down and write it down, everytime you pass a goal, cross if off. This process rewards your brain for staying on-track and keeps you focused without being too mentally draining.
Zen monks do some crazy stuff like meditate underneath waterfalls. If that’s not focus, I don’t know what is. They also have some of highest levels of free-flowing dopamine in the world.
You don’t have to be that extreme unless you want to, but regular meditation has been proven to increase dopamine levels by 65%
As humans, it’s mind boggling to think that we’re the manifestation of countless chemical reactions. But the sooner we come to gripes with it, the closer we get to self-realization.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”