Comfort Zone

The Wall

It is well know that when reps hit quota, they stop working. Quota means you keep your job and pay your bills. It’s the path of least resistance and effort. Not enough sales and you are in pain. Working too hard is also painful. In the middle it’s warm and cozy. It’s the “comfort zone.”

It’s as if they suddenly hit a wall and ambition becomes complacency. We know it exists, but what exactly is this phenomenon? How and why does it work that way? It’s all about “needs” and “ambition.”

What Do We Really Need? Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was an American psychologist famous for analyzing human motivation. His greatest achievement is known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Portrayed as a pyramid with fundamental base needs at the bottom like food and shelter, then up through levels including social needs, artistic, self-actualization, knowledge, and aesthetic.

The motivating force of the base needs are much greater than the so-called higher needs. If your airway gets blocked, or you are trapped in a blizzard, appreciating art is not foremost in your mind.

The higher the need is in the pyramid, the weaker and more distinctly human it is. The lower needs on the pyramid are similar to those possessed by non-human animals, but only humans possess the higher needs.

Let’s consider a situation where you are suddenly stranded on an island. At first you wait for rescue and none comes. You consumer what meager rations you had with you. You begin to get hungry. Not the kind of hungry that you normally experience between lunch and dinner. I mean seriously painful hungry. You see plants that may or may not be edible, or poisonous. You stare and fantasize a nice meal. You out off the inevitable decision of risking illness or death for one meal, a postponement at best of more hunger.

Finally your hunger overpowers you sense of caution and you try a plant. It seems to taste OK. You eat more are somewhat satisfied. You eat more and more and are full. You eat still more and find you have to force yourself to eat.

After a few days, you can’t stand looking at the filthy weed. You’d rather starve. Not really so you decide to try a second plant, even knowing it could cause your death.

There is an infinite gain from starvation to the first plant. A small gain for the second. And it drops quickly towards zero for the third and subsequent additions to a diet.

The risk is infinite if you don’t try that first plant – you could starve. You could also die by eating the wrong plant. The risk of death, unlike that for starvation, stays constant. You are either alive or dead. There is no middle ground.

What would a smart person do? They would eat the minimum number to get by.

The “natural” state of affairs is to do the minimum need to get by. That’s what is programmed into your DNA. Risk avoidance. It is the basis for cultures that are fixated on tradition. They like it the way it is, the way it has always been, and do not welcome change. Or tolerate it.

The graph above illustrates how external (coercive) motivation is high only for as long as base needs are unmet. As soon as they are, we are programmed to start taking it easy, to relax. External motivation drops towards zero when base needs are met and we are also comfortable. This is entirely “natural” and sensible. Why kill yourself to get what you don’t need?

Why indeed? Ambition is Crazy. Ambition implies no comfort zone. No matter how much you have it’s not enough. This is by definition abnormal and can even be called insane. Most people on the planet, and indeed throughout history, would shake their head in disbelief at somebody who kept working, at the expense of life’s’ joys and leisure, when they obviously had enough already.

The northwest coastal American Indian tribes had a tradition called the potlatch. The idea was to gather surpluses of wealth (food, furs, jewelry) over a year or more and then invite rivals to a little party. Guests were showered with gifts. It was humiliating because everything they received was just a little more or better than what they gave at their own little soirée. This was warfare! Wealth was plentiful – oceans teeming with fish, dense rain forest with many game animals and food plants growing like weeds in that ideal setting. They even had time sit around carving totem poles.

Status of families were not raised by merely being rich, having lots of resource. Instead by distributing those resources. The host demonstrates his wealth and prominence through giving away the resources gathered for the event. The guests reciprocate when they hold their own potlatches.

Contrast this within the Apache and other Southwest plains tribes. They lived in a desert. They raided other tribes and took their stuff. Not much to live on let alone give away for the joy of embarrassing others. This is Maslow’s concept in action.

Conscious Ambition

To do more than what is required to get by makes one ambitious. To sustain ambition requires internal motivation, or inspiration. This is the way out of the comfort zone.

Inspiration is defined as the arousal of the mind to special unusual activity or creativity.

Why go to college for 4 or more years? Either you are driven (mad so to speak) or you have a higher need, a higher purpose to do so. You are inspired to achieve something more than mere survival.

Why volunteer to help the less fortunate, or raise kids, or serve in the Army?

Internal motivation differs sharply from external forces which say what you have to do.

The secret to success, is defined as doing more than the minimum to get by. You must override your genetic programming. It sounds easy but it’s not. It’s like forcing your self to eat when you aren’t hungry. There are however backdoors to the mind which make the impossible easy.

The key is to define clearly why you want what you want. To visualize your life after you get what you want. Instead of vague feelings and ideas, nail down the specifics. Admit why you do what you do. Figure out the price and decide whether to pay it. You really can’t have everything. You can’t have relaxing evenings at home in front of the TV and that MBA you want by taking night classes. The money in the bank or opportunity to launch that new business.

Health clubs prepare for the big surge in enrollments every January 1st. The don’t worry about capacity knowing that most just as quickly drop out. Why? Motivated but not inspired. No vision to sustain the ambition. The pain quickly overcomes the perceived gain. Same applies to quitting smoking, losing weight, playing a musical instrument, learning a foreign language – anything that requires long-term effort and sacrifice.

This defines the 80/20 rule. It is what differentiates the top 20. They will pay the price while the 80 won’t, or can’t.