I'm a slacker married to a doctor

I'm smart but have no motivation. Am I a loser? Will I pass it on to my kids? Will my kids be losers too?

By Cary Tennis

Published April 19, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have a problem that's dogged me my whole adult life, though I've only recently been able to articulate it to myself. Namely, it's that nothing motivates me. Turning off the computer and getting off the couch to put a dish in the dishwasher is a Herculean effort, and I'm tired of it.

I'm a smart guy by almost any measure -- IQ in the 130s, 95th percentile SATs, near-photographic memory -- but I just barely get by. I honestly believe that if my wife were to leave me tomorrow, I would have a hard time supporting myself. I only graduated from college because of the poking and prodding of my mother and the woman to whom I am now married. My first job after graduating was the high-pressure post of security guard. I was promoted to a managerial position by virtue of being a slightly smaller screw-up than my co-workers, and now looking back, I'm amazed I kept that job for so long. Given the amount of slacking off, bullshitting and general incompetence I was guilty of, I should have been canned in my second year. When we relocated for my wife's job (she's a doctor with motivation to burn) I was unemployed for 14 months. Even as the financial pressure mounted, I could be relied upon to send out 10 half-assed résumés a week, tops. I finally only got a job because my wife's boss interceded on my behalf. Now I worry that I may lose this job to laziness too.

I used to rationalize that I had nothing to prove to anyone, that getting good grades and going to a first-tier college and interning and working hard was just selling out. I scoffed at valedictorians as conformist drones, not true leaders.

I somehow forgot the fact that I'd never led so much as a doughnut run. Worst of all, after graduation, I blamed my wife. I told myself that I'd put my dreams on hold so she could pursue hers, and I martyred myself and demonized her. The truth is that my dreams were vague at best, and I never was much interested in working for them. The fact that this woman remains married to me is a mystery for the ages.

I'm terrified that I'll pass this trait on to my children (one a preschooler and one due in October), but can't find the will to break out of the rut. And with 30 bearing down fast, part of me feels that trying isn't worth it.

I've struggled with depression in the past and had some success with medications and exercise (again, browbeaten into both, the former by my wife, the latter by my dog), but this feels like a completely different entity, and I have no idea how to fight it.

Thank you in advance,

Lost in Ennui

Dear Lost in Ennui,

What motivates us is emotional. What motivates us is stuff we like. That's a surprising idea, actually, for some of us: that motivation is not driven by our conscious values but by preferences we're not aware of. I'm oversimplifying, but there's a really good explanation of this in the first chapter of the book "Motivate Your Writing," by Stephen P. Kelner Jr. The book is supposed to be for people who are trying to write but what it says makes sense for anyone. The chapter "What Is Motivation?" explains this pretty well. It starts on Page 3.

You know, I have only a few simple ideas. Some of them are so simple they seem unreasonable. Another of my corny and simplistic ideas is that maybe what you are doing is exactly what you are supposed to be doing. Maybe you're supposed to be unemployed so you can stay home and take care of the kids. Maybe you really love these kids and aren't much interested in getting out there to compete with a bunch of a-holes for employee of the month. Is that so terrible? How about being a good husband and father? Does that have no value? You ask why your wife could possibly stick with you? Maybe because she loves you because you are a good person? Maybe?

Why did the doctor marry you? Because you are kind, thoughtful, interesting, witty and very sophisticated in a moral and aesthetic way? How could she know that? Because that is the side that she can see. What she didn't see is that you are also filled with self-hatred and anger because you think you are supposed to be motivated to do things you're not actually motivated to do.

You have some secret project you won't allow yourself to pursue because it seems childish or isn't up to your standards. Yet you will end up killing yourself if you don't just give up and let your emotions guide you to do this thing, whatever it is.

You worry that your dreams are vague. Dreams are supposed to be vague. That's what makes them dreams, not blueprints.

The fact that your dreams are vague means that there is the possibility of creating something; you have to go through the process to actually create it. That is the essence of being motivated. Going toward this thing, using your attraction as a compass, may be how you need to do it. Go toward this thing that is still vague.

Yes, that is the nature of our motivation: We move toward vague things that we want. We move toward what we are attracted to, even if we cannot articulate what it is.

It's possible that you actually were motivated to be a security guard. That is, emotionally, you want to be of service to others, to be dependable, to remain at a post. This may feel right to you. Others might call this archetypal energy or personality type; those ways of looking at it would probably yield the same results. Basically, this is who you are, and you can have a high IQ or a low IQ and it doesn't matter, because these drives of ours are independent of our mental processing speed.

In the security guard job you were of service. Also as a father taking care of your kids you are of service. And with your wife you are of service. It may be that you are drawn to positions of service. There is nothing wrong with that. What's wrong is that you are beating yourself up about this.

So, my friend: Have the courage of your lack of conviction!

The world does not need another titan of industry. What does the world need? Maybe the world needs a daddy to take care of his kids.

Don't worry. Being a slacker dad is not contagious. Your kids will probably annoy you by being valedictorians and captains of industry. That's how karma gets its laughs.

January 2011 Creative Getaway

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Cary Tennis

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