№ 5: On Gumption Traps

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes

This whole thing sometimes feels like a rather sisyphean undertaking. Establishing oneself as a creative professional or entrepreneur is difficult enough anywhere. Doing it in a foreign country potentially introduces a number of additional difficulties on top of what one would normally face. For me, the necessary effort is more than worth it, given the difference between various potential futures differentiated only by the effort that I put in now, but I won’t pretend it isn’t a massive pain in the ass. Last time I talked some about the practical problems of transitioning to working as a full time creative professional in Japan, but today I want to get into what is often a much more serious category of complication: the gumption trap.

Challenges feel like the external things we have to face. Gumption traps, on the other hand, often feel like things that originate inside us. When facing a challenge, it’s an external adversary. When facing a problem of motivation, it’s an enemy that’s inside us.

Compared to external challenges, gumption traps are a vastly less familiar concept for most people. This is unfortunate, as in many cases they are probably the more important thing to identify, as when your would-be forward momentum is getting sapped before you even really get going on the practical challenges, it’s going to be more productive to understand where that energy is going than to just press on and pretend it isn’t happening.

Gumption is a less common word now than it used to be, though recently it has been making occasional appearances in TED talks and book titles. I should take a moment to clarify the meaning of gumption in American vs British English, to avoid confusion for some readers. In British English, from what I can tell, in the common usage it means something like common sense or shrewdness of judgement. One lacking gumption, then, would be one lacking basic critical thinking skills. In the American usage, however, gumption refers to a sort of self-starting spirit of initiative and resourcefulness, an internal energy that gets one working without being told. It is the American sense of the word that I’m dealing with here, and that was being addressed by Robert Pirsig in his Metaphysics of Quality, when he described the problem of gumption traps.

The Wikipedia page on the topic begins with a very satisfactory explanation of the idea of gumption traps. A gumption trap is described as,

an event or mindset that can cause a person to lose enthusiasm and become discouraged from starting or continuing a project.

The “trap” portion of the term refers to the negative feedback loop that the event or mindset creates: That the reduction in the person’s enthusiasm and initiative decreases both the person’s likelihood of success in that project and the degree of success likely (thus doubly affecting the expected outcome of the person’s efforts). The usual result, whether a mere lack of success or instead an outright failure complete with embarrassment and loss of resources initially invested, further discourages the person.

Put more simply and in relation to our daily struggles, a gumption trap is something that sucks away your motivational energy and, if it is fully successful as a trap, either gets you stuck or keeps you stuck. If it is less than fully successful, it still slows you down while breeding a general sense of discouragement. Gumption traps come in many shapes and sizes and could be anything from a new regulation that massively complicates your process to a snarky comment received about the early results of a personal side project.

I suppose it’s possible that one reason that gumption traps don’t get more attention is that they tend to be messy, and in a way that people like to pretend their life isn’t. Nobody really wants to admit to having been brought down by such a thing. It feels lame, like you’re the little engine that couldn’t after all.

Everyone loves a good story of rising up, of overcoming, of vanquishing one’s demons and all that, even if we know at some level that many such stories are largely composed of heavily embroidered bullshit with but a kernel of truth couched somewhere in the middle. While not all motivational stories are dominated by fabricated elements, contemporary culture demands so much of inspiring tales that they are often exaggerated into oblivion, stretched beyond what would generally be the limits of believability. We tend not to look at them with a critical eye, as the culture of the bootstrap regards skepticism as heresy, but many of these stories would  come apart at the seams were they pressure-tested even a little bit.

Everyone wants an inspiring fairytale. Such tales necessarily contain adversity, but a sort of pasteurized, neatly-packaged adversity that can be kept contained. What’s much harder to sell is the years-long slog of sacrificing one’s evenings and weekends, occasionally blacking out from sleep deprivation, and seemingly endless cycles of sustained effort interspersed only with variable periods of depression and the occasional spike of joy from a light sprinkling of small successes. The fairytales leave out the mess, but the mess is real and important to acknowledge.

It can be difficult to find examples of people being honest about the struggle, particularly if one is looking for examples where the teller of the story isn’t touting their suffering as a badge of honor or hanging it out like a pity flag on their flagpole of me-me-me. Rare is the creative or entrepreneur who hasn’t lost a day and a half of what should have been productive time to a bad mood that started with receiving a shitty text message and ended in an epic hangover. Shit happens, and while we shouldn’t force others to put it under their noses, we also shouldn’t pretend that the ground isn’t littered with the stuff. We all tread in it now and then.

This stuff is difficult, and it requires more work and a higher tedium tolerance than people generally admit, not uncommonly a lot more. I say this knowing full well that dangerous levels of overwork are rampant in the world and people even boast about their heroically long days and lack of sleep. This is dangerous and stupid and I am not remotely suggesting that everyone just needs to HTFU(1)harden the fuck up, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unkIVvjZc9Y and put in the work. Yes, that’s precisely what a lot of people need to do (to a reasonable degree), but it must not be confused with murdering yourself by pointlessly running yourself through the meat grinder when more reasonable alternatives exist.

Those long days and short nights are a fact of life sometimes, but they are not themselves virtuous. They are only part of the path from A to B. The practical and physical messes, the hangups, the getting stuck, the drunken phone calls confessing crises of confidence, the everything awful that we’d all rather forget: this, too, is part of the process, and at the heart of it is the gumption trap.

We all deal with them, even the most successful among us, though you don’t get much of a sense of that if all you’re looking at is the small contingent of genuinely successful online entrepreneurs who are clearly at the top of the heap. You especially don’t get any sense of these difficulties from the would-be content creators, bloggers, and social media influencers, the throbbing hordes of Instagram pretenders who fake their desired lifestyles, posting idyllic snapshots while claiming to work only thirty minutes every third Tuesday. Most of the people who claim to have that success are outright liars, and those who aren’t generally aren’t speaking much about the bad days they had. They may even be vastly more miserable than you could possibly imagine.(2)https://babe.net/2017/09/07/the-dark-truth-behind-being-an-instagram-influencer-11816(3)https://www.fastcompany.com/3013197/how-instagram-almost-ruined-my-life(4)http://www.collective-evolution.com/2015/11/03/19-year-old-instagram-model-admits-her-perfect-life-was-a-lie-exposes-the-ugly-truth-behind-social-media/  Everyone gets stuck, has bad days, feels lost and disconnected from their aspirations at least once in a while, but asking people to admit it or discuss it honestly will generally elicit a response of only superficial honesty. This honesty is the marketable kind that is supposed to make us more relatable, the kind that should help make us appear more authentic,(5)See also: Hugh MacLeod’s Authenticity is the New Bullshit whatever the hell that means.

Requiring a lot of work doesn’t mean that our aspirations are any less worthwhile, or that we have to be unhappy while doing the work that will get us there. It’s a great thing to aim higher, and if we’re doing it right, those long days aren’t so bad because we actually give a shit about what we’re doing, which is only a short step away from just plain enjoying it. And while I think people have gotten a bit better about being legitimately honest about the practical difficulties of doing whatever thing, the motivational difficulties are still pushed off into the shadows, to be tended to only in secret.

Practical difficulties can be spun off into sharable articles about how to use one hack or another to eliminate that particular problem while simultaneously making cash on the side and getting laid. Gumption traps are the gremlins lurking in the darkness, waiting to sabotage our efforts and make us feel like crap. We’re working ourselves into early graves but feeling like we’re not getting anywhere, and often the effort is mostly for show because somewhere underneath we’re actually stuck, and until we dig down and pry ourselves free from whatever psychological trap has us by the ankle, we will remain at least partially disabled in our effectiveness.

An idea that is distinct but related to gumption traps is that of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness, to again refer to Wikipedia(6)If you’re grumbling about Wikipedia not being a reliable resource for legitimate research, quit it. For my purposes here, it’s good enough.,

is behavior typical of a human or animal and occurs where the subject endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn or accept “escape” or “avoidance” in new situations where such behavior would likely be effective. In other words, the organism learned that it is helpless in situations where there is a presence of averse stimuli, has accepted that it has lost control, and thus gives up trying.

Anyone who’s felt genuinely stuck in a pursuit or in life has felt the pull toward this kind of helplessness. Those who have dealt with chronic depression know it all too well. It’s also a common experience for many who genuinely desire to change their jobs, start a business, etc, but who are ultimately defeated by repeated setbacks and failures, eventually resigning themselves to an indefinite stay in whatever unsatisfactory situation they were originally attempting to escape. I see it a lot in the expat community and among English teachers in general. A lot of people go to one country or another with a dreams of doing something legitimately interesting, but either can’t get it off the ground and eventually give up, or find themselves back in their home countries after a period of time, having had the eventual “realization” that it just isn’t going to work. Lots of the time, there’s not actually any good reason why it wouldn’t or couldn’t work. It hasn’t worked yet, perhaps, but that’s not the same thing. But when you get pulled back into that slump again and again, it gets ever-harder to climb back out. With enough stacked failures and nothing to break the pattern or reframe the situation, that learned helplessness is well on its way.

Gumption traps and learned helplessness are, I believe, at the very core of a great deal of the difficulty we experience in contemporary life, especially for those of us who are aiming for specific goals. For someone who is totally satisfied with the shape and direction of their life, gumption traps wouldn’t be much of a problem, but for people like me (and perhaps like you) they are often the wall against which we feel we are banging our head. They are the quicksand, the quagmire, the always getting stuck when we most want to be moving forward.

So what are some examples of real life gumption traps? [he finally writes, to the exasperated relief of the handful of readers who have hung on this long] I’ll give five real-life examples . 

Sample Gumption Trap № 1: Lack of Sleep

The science on the deleterious effects of sleep deprivation is clear. Not getting enough sleep for even one night can screw up your day and your ability to function well. If it keeps up, it really messes with your ability to function well. This is a funny thing to be typing in the early hours of the morning when I’ve gotten out of bed because of too much bouncing around in my head. I don’t have to go to the office tomorrow, so I can take a nap if I need one, but this points directly to the problem of sleep hygiene and the ways your life can go more or less off the rails if you’re not getting enough sleep or if the sleep you are getting is poor in quality.

It doesn’t take more than a few nights of crappy and/or insufficient sleep for the quality of your work and general ability to concentrate to take a nosedive. This, of course, makes you feel slow, stupid, inefficient, etc. You feel like crap and you are incapable of actually getting through the work you need to get through, at least while maintaining the level of quality that you would like to maintain while doing so. The quality of your work suffers, the satisfaction you feel through the work suffers, everything suffers. You feel frustrated and stuck and it sucks.

In the Tokyo work culture, chronic lack of sleep is a fact of life for most workers. I typically get to bed around midnight, fall asleep by 1:00 AM, and then the alarm goes off at 5:50. I typically only get about five hours of sleep per night. If something is on my mind and I can’t fall asleep (like tonight), that number can easily drop to three hours, sometimes less.

Remember that scene in Fight Club where the protagonist is describing insomnia? It’s right on the money, as far as I’m concerned:

When you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep, and you’re never really awake. With insomnia, nothing’s real. Everything is far away. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.

Chuck PalahniukFight Club

I have spent a startling portion of my time since coming to Japan in a state of moderate to severe sleep deprivation, as a result of a) shitty work schedule, b) badly managed sleep hygiene, and c) stress/anxiety/depression-related sleep-onset insomnia. At one point I was only sleeping a max of two hours per night for a period of several weeks. I was blacking out and hallucinating. I’ll let you guess if I got much of anything done during that time, and whether I was satisfied with the quality of work I was putting out. Think I felt stuck?

Sample Gumption Trap № 2: Depression

Depression is something that I’m not sure it’s possible to understand unless you’ve experienced it yourself. There are many forms of it and many severities. It is a real thing, though, no matter what some asshole on the internet says (some people love to deny the existence of legitimate problems others have on the basis of their own lack of experience). It manifests differently for everyone, but if you haven’t experienced it (which is good), just imagine doing everything you normally do, but all of it requiring a lot more effort. Depression can lead to things like a crippling lack of energy (it’s a disease that makes you tired, though ironically may also factor into insomnia), extreme difficulty focusing, and social withdrawal. That it makes everything in your life more difficult would be bad enough, but it also tends to make it harder for the individual to see the value in their own work or be aware of progress made, even if they’re legitimately making very good progress indeed.

Sample Gumption Trap № 3: Clutter and Disorganization

Have you ever spent two hours trying to find something in your home or office, only to give up in a state of complete frustration? This can relate back to depression and other things, but some of us just have a hard time keeping organized. At all. It can be a daily struggle, even with our best efforts. Even if it’s something appearing inconsequential, like not being able to find a certain pen when there are other pens on hand, it can feel disproportionately like a failure and a sign of some greater personal deficiency.

Sample Gumption Trap № 4: Lack of the Right Tools, Resources, etc

Not enough money. Not enough time. Not speaking the language (or not speaking it well enough). Not having access to the resources you need to do X thing can be extraordinarily frustrating. A lot of this difficulty can be addressed through reframing the situation to better understand how you can get around any particular limitation, but it’s a difficulty all the same. This is one of the gumption traps that often gangs up with depression and sleep deprivation to make one feel helpless and stupid.

An example: I’ve been studying Japanese for years, but I still can’t speak my way out of a casual encounter. Between a work schedule that has largely kept me in an English bubble for most of my waking hours and (more importantly) the effects of depression and social anxiety making practicing the language out in the world an inordinately stressful affair, I just don’t get enough practice with it, even though I live in Japan. It’s stupid, you might say, and you’d be right. But it’s real and it frustrates the hell out of me. There is so much more that I could do already in Japan, had I the language skills. But I don’t and it’s driving me crazy. I’m working on it, and I’ll get into language challenges another time, but it’s a daily thing that feels like banging my head against a wall.

Sample Gumption Trap № 5: Bad Habits

Smartphone before bed. Alcohol a bit too often and a bit too much. Eating shitty food because you’re too tired to cook. The list is potentially endless, but we all have our bad habits and they largely have the potential to get in the way of getting things done and generally being happy. They can have us feeling particularly helpless because they become so deeply ingrained in our daily lives that they just happen before we even realize we’re in a situation where we have a choice. This compounds the frustration and resulting loss of gumption. Breaking bad habits can seem impossible, but it can be done. And sometimes it’s even better to aim to replace a bad habit with a good or better one, but until we manage to do that, the automaticity of behavior is a special kind of trap.

Bonus Gumption Trap: Preoccupation

I’m adding one more because it has occurred to me that this is one big thing taking up entirely too much mental bandwidth for me personally at the moment. When we are preoccupied by something, we’re always fighting to stay focused and not letting that thing steal our energy and focus. But time and again, it does exactly that, and it makes us feel like crap.

I’m currently in the situation of having a wonderful woman in my life, someone I adore and intend to spend my life with, but whose family currently totally rejects us on the basis of my not being Japanese. I struggle with this every day, and I try really hard to keep it from taking over my mind, but at least once or twice a day it creeps in the back door and before I know it, I’m not focusing on the task at hand so much as feeling helpless and pissed off.

I don’t bring this up to try to get sympathy in the comments. Rather, because most or all of us have something that preoccupies us in such a way at some point or another in life, and it should be recognized as the drain on mental resources that it is. It’s a gumption trap for sure, and one worth talking about.


There was going to be one final, closing section to this, but it’s already 3,400+ words long, I started this post two months ago, and it’s after 2:30 AM. Time to try sleeping again. More and shorter posts coming soon. I think.

Notes   [ + ]

1. harden the fuck up, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unkIVvjZc9Y
2. https://babe.net/2017/09/07/the-dark-truth-behind-being-an-instagram-influencer-11816
3. https://www.fastcompany.com/3013197/how-instagram-almost-ruined-my-life
4. http://www.collective-evolution.com/2015/11/03/19-year-old-instagram-model-admits-her-perfect-life-was-a-lie-exposes-the-ugly-truth-behind-social-media/
5. See also: Hugh MacLeod’s Authenticity is the New Bullshit
6. If you’re grumbling about Wikipedia not being a reliable resource for legitimate research, quit it. For my purposes here, it’s good enough.

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