Feb 3, 2021

The Trough Of Despair, Part 2: Denial

George Howard

In the first article on The Trough Of Despair, I implore artists and entrepreneurs that the only true way of managing the cycle of ever lower dopamine highs and ever deeper troughs of despair is to accept the immutability of this pattern in order to manage it rather than fight futilely against its reality:

Accept this inevitability and your on your way to peace in your work, your art, and your life. Fight against it and you will swing from one dopamine-induced thrust of excitement in which the peaks get lower and the valleys deeper, until....eventually....the bottom falls out altogether.

Unpacking the distinction between acceptance and acknowledgment of the pattern rather than trying to “outwit” it in order to operate successfully — in business and life — is the essence of this article...and the essence of Management.

To recap: humans habitually move through their days and lives from one dopamine-excited high towards a dopamine-deprived valley as the effects dissipate. At this point, the hunt begins anew to reclaim the high — whether through food or drugs or love or sex or work or exercise or prayer — by grasping for anything to bring us back to the top.

It’s an illusory quest and why so much of Eastern philosophy attempts to save us the effort of this futility and, e.g. with Buddhism, just cuts through the shit and gives us the answer: “Life is suffering.” In fact, the first of the Four Noble Truths is dukkha, which — among other meanings — is translated as “incapable of satisfying.” The path that leads to relief from this dukkha comes from acceptance or the “letting go” (“nirodha”).

It’s a good thing to keep in mind in life generally, but imperative in art and entrepreneurship. For the artist, the moment of letting go — as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it in Flow, “the optimal experience” — occurs when you detether from external stimuli and quests for validation, and instead look within and “just” create.

I reference the great Buddhist philosopher — more widely known as one of the most important stand up comics and creators of the past century — Gary Shandling who in his “Zen Diaries”  would continuously exhort himself to “just” be the most Gary Gary.

It’s the hardest thing in the world. Doing so — becoming the most you — is a life’s challenge not just for artists and entrepreneurs, but for humans. Anything less is a life stuck in suffering.

If we zoom in on the first quadrant of the entire Despair/Enlightenment journey, we see a sort of Bermuda Triangle in which most souls are lost:

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Far too often, when artists and entrepreneurs have lost the dopamine thrust that brought them to the illusory “Peak of Excitement” — due to the axiomatic challenges of any endeavor — and they crash below the Excitement-level “flat” at which they felt prior to the beginning of the journey and all the way down to the “This Sucks” state, they do what any animal hard-wired through millennia of evolutionary fight or flight survivalism do: they look for something...anything...to ease the pain; for staying in this trough — they rightly believe — will kill them.

At this moment, there are only three ways in which it can go:
1. Die in the Valley of Despair
2. Attempt to climb out
3. Find a Bright, Shiny Object that makes it all go feel better....for a moment.

Number one above is not worth talking about; we all know what that looks and feels like. You’ll have to wait for number Two.

This piece is focused on the Siren-like allure of Number Three: the previously-referenced “Bright, Shiny Object” “approach.”

I’ve written about the Bright, Shiny Object Syndrome before as a stand-alone phenomenon:

...when we feel that our work is not connecting in the way or on the timeframe that we need, and so we start looking for something....anything....to ease the pain. We seek that dopamine hit that we felt when we came up with the original idea that got us excited in the first place; the one that is now causing us pain. We want both the pain to stop and the feeling of excitement to return, and we know exactly what the answer is: abandon the original idea and “pivot” to something new.

What “new” thing should be pivoted towards? The artist and entrepreneur at this moment are like a cat who catches a glimpse of something bright and shiny in the corner of their feline eyes. They abandon whatever it is they are doing and — with utter conviction, unbridled instinct, and laser-focus — pounce upon that bright, shiny object as if their life depends on it. And, as is so often the case for the poor cat, the entrepreneur and artist end up pawing at something illusory: a flicker of reflected light through the window that disappears almost as quickly as it emerged.

I see this all the time with the artists and entrepreneurs with whom I have the good fortune to work with. Some of the very smartest people I know are not immune to the bright, shiny object syndrome. People who have had success —  at the moment when whatever they are working on becomes painfully challenging — allow their animal brain to take over and, instead of remembering that these moments of severe frustration are endemic to the artistic and entrepreneurial process, begin flailing and grasping — pawing like a cat — at some bright, shiny object that they perceive will ease their pain.

It doesn’t. It makes it worse. It’s a habit, and a cycle....a doom loop that will keep both the entrepreneur and artist from ever breaking through.

Here, I make the point that the Bright, Shiny Object phenomenon is not something that occurs out of context, but rather is a consistent, recursive pattern that repeats and repeats in an unbending “chasing dopamine” cycle as part of the necessary journey within the entrepreneurial and artistic trough of despair.

Deny it at your peril.

Management — of a business or your artistic endeavors — is the opposite of denial.

Like most things, unless and until you acknowledge and give a name to your behavior, you have no chance of transcending; it’s just a blurry, nameless, uncontrollable “thing” that convinces you that you lack autonomy and are instead just a being batted around like a cat toy; you are the bright shiny object that the universal cat is playing with.

The job of the manager is to acknowledge it, give it a name, and literally manage through it.  

Acknowledging it also allows you to feel less alone. Once you recognize this pattern in your life, you’ll see it everywhere in others. Once you see it in others, you’ll recognize it more acutely in your own life. You’ll see it for what it is: a slow-moving car wreck where you absolutely know what’s coming, and the more you try to steer the car out of the inevitable collision the more rapidly you approach the telephone pole. But those who have crashed into a few telephone poles eventually realize that the key — as it is to when your car is skidding on ice — is not trying to steer your way out of the collision, but rather, steer into it momentarily — acknowledging what’s happening and remaining calm rather than denying it and flailing — so that you can then regain control.  This is how you begin climbing out of the valley rather than just endlessly repeating the cycle.

Photo by Jerry Zhang on Unsplash

George Howard

George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc, the world’s largest independent record label, and cofounder of TuneCore, the world’s largest independent digital music distributor. He is also the cofounder of Music Audience Exchange, which comprises a team of digital marketers, engineers, and music lovers, using technology to redefine the fundamental structure of brand-artist relationships.