How to Stay Motivated in Life and Work Using the Goldilocks Rule

It was 1955 and just opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California, when a ten year old boy approached and asked for work. Labor legislation was loose at the time and the boy managed to obtain a position of selling guides to visitors for $ 0.50 per piece.

This article appeared in James Claro’s blog.

In the space of a year, he made the transition to the Disney Magic Shop where he learned the tricks of older employees. He experimented with jokes and tried simple magic routines on the visitors. Soon, he discovered that what he liked was not magic, but that usually happens. The child has set the goal of becoming an actor.

Once he entered high school, he began acting in small clubs around Los Angeles. The crowd was small and their action was short. He was rarely onstage for more than five minutes. In one case, they literally gave up their routine standing in a vacuum club.

It was not a glamorous job, but there was no doubt he was getting better. His first magic routines would last only a minute or two. In high school, his team expanded to include a five-minute play and then a ten-minute show. At age 19, he has spent every week in clubs for twenty minutes at a time. Of course, I had to read three poems for just the law for quite a long time, but still. I was getting better.

He spent another decade to experiment, to adjust and practice his act. He took a job as a television screenwriter and, little by little, he was able to land his appearances on television shows. By the mid-1970s, he had worked his way to being a regular guest on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.

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After nearly 15 years of work, he crossed to wild success. He has visited more than 60 cities in 63 days. Then 72 cities in 80 days. Then 85 cities in 90 days. 18,695 people attended a show in Ohio. 45,000 tickets were sold for the 3-day show in New York. He catapulted to the top of his class and has become one of the most important actors of his time.

His name was Steve Martin.

The long road to Steve Martin’s success

I recently finished the wonderful autobiography of Steve Martin, Born He stands.

Comedy is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard to imagine a situation that would scare the hearts of more people than not being able to get a single laugh on stage. However, Martin worked there for 18 years. In his words, “10 years of learning, refining and 4 years 4 years of great success.” His story offers a fascinating perspective on motivation, perseverance and consistency.

Why stay motivated to achieve certain goals, but not others? Why do we say we want something, but give up after a few days? What is the difference between the areas in which naturally motivated and those that remain to abandon us?

Scientists are studying motivation for decades. While there is still a lot to learn, one of the most consistent findings is that perhaps the best way to stay motivated is to work on “simply manageable difficulty.”

The Golden Rule of Cats

Humans love challenges, but only if they are in the best zone of difficulty.

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For example, imagine that you are playing tennis. If you try to play a serious game against a four-year-old, you get bored quickly. The game is too easy. At the other end of the spectrum, if you try to play a serious game against a professional tennis player like Roger Federer or Serena Williams, you will be motivated for another reason. The game is too difficult.

Compare these experiences that play tennis against someone who is your equal. As the game progresses, you earn some points and you lose some points. You have the chance to win the game, but only if you really try. Their approach narrows, the distractions disappear, and they are completely invested in the task. The challenge you face is “only manageable.” Victory is not guaranteed, but it is possible. Tasks like these, science has found, are more likely to stay motivated in the long run.

Tasks that are significantly lower than their current capabilities are boring. Tasks that significantly exceed their current capabilities are discouraging. However, tasks on the frontier of success and failure are incredibly motivating for our human brain. We want nothing more than to master a skill beyond our current horizon.