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On Origin Stories

2020-03-30

Origin stories are mostly unproductive. They are also everywhere, and there’s a reason for this: They’re easy. Or at least easier than motivation. Once you see this, it’s everywhere and you can’t unsee it.

Take popular media: Every superhero gets an origin story. Dead parents are good, other relatives may work, too. Robberies, injuries, all kinds of trauma – often in loving detail and with a whole lot of creativity. If we’re talking about an elaborate story, the villain might an origin story, too, apart from “kinda gay and evil”. Motivation is much harder to come by: The villain’s motivation often comes down to “uhm, revenge, or take over the world, I suppose?”, and the hero’s to “uhhhm, stop the villain?”. This is not just about protagonists not being effective altruists – it’s about the Good Side fundamentally lacking a motivation apart from being reactionary reactive and maintaining the Status Quo.

The past is over and done. It resonates in the present, but you can’t change it. Analysing the origin story is much safer than daring to think about goals and motivations. Imagine having to describe an actual actionable goal for the hero to pursue – they might not look quite so heroic after all. Imagine explaining a company’s goals instead of the American Dream story of the founder. Everybody has goals and motivations, but since they open one up to criticism, they’re avoided in favour of the safe heroism of a difficult past.

The same goes for us non-super non-heroes. It sounds very wise to analyse one’s past, and it can produce a wide variety of feelings and tensions – and occasionally, catharsis. In some cases, digging in the past can be useful (though it can also be harmful) – but I’d argue that these cases are rarer than Freudian-based pop psych makes it seem.

Sure, when I find myself procrastinating some activity, I can interrogate what led up to me doing this. Childhood habits, parenting decisions, trauma – the origins may not always be obvious, but they’re definitely there. You’ll find a lot to dig up there unless you’re one of the Truly Enlightened. But in most cases it’s more helpful to question your motivation, your purpose. What good does it serve to postpone the work? What am I trying to avoid? A coworker? An unclear requirement? What goal, unproductive as it may be, am I serving with my actions? These questions will point out problems that are currently solvable. Emotional scars from my childhood may play into it too, sure – but what am I going to do about those right now?

Going with “What am I doing this for?” is often much more powerful than “Why am I doing this?” because it forces you to focus on the motivations and outcomes instead of the origins.

Further reading

This post is mostly inspired by the book The courage to be disliked and its presentation of Adlerian psychology. Alfred Adler was a contemporary and colleague of Siegmund Freud, and the founder of the school of Individual Psychology.

If you want to know why this post is useful but wrong, read David’s response, or add a plural ‘s’ to every mention of “motivation” and “goal” in this post.