The Motivation Secret: How to Maintain Intense Motivation as a Hacker (or Anything)

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Image Credit: Veklabs on Unsplash

I’m an ethical computer hacker, and I follow a lot of others in the same profession on Twitter. In many ways it is a demanding job because it requires constant learning. Every day there are new techniques and vulnerabilities to exploit. To be a reasonable ethical hacker, you need to be on top of all of them. This may sound exciting, but it can quickly turn from exciting to exhausting.

I’ve noticed a lot of tweets lately from people saying that they have no motivation to hack or learn anything new. They might have enough motivation to turn on their computer, but the next 5 hours are suddenly swallowed by Netflix. Another day passes without doing that thing you’ve been talking about.

If this sounds familiar to you, please read on.

Before hacking came into my life, for many years I worked as a trumpet player and teacher. I have a jazz performance degree (it’s pretty useless, but difficult to acquire). There were long periods of my life where I practiced trumpet for 8+ hours every day. Playing trumpet requires intense concentration, and it is physically exhausting.

For this reason, musicians have the same struggles with motivation as hackers. I had these struggles myself, and I saw them in my students. Motivation comes in waves. One month you can’t put the instrument down, the next month even touching it feels like work. Sound familiar?

After many years, I realised why my motivation always peaked and troughed so hard. It was because instead of practicing what I instinctively was drawn to, I practiced what I thought I should be practicing based on what others had told me (teachers, lecturers, peers, etc.). At times, I had even convinced myself that I enjoyed something, when deep down I really didn’t.

The times in my life where I couldn’t put my trumpet down, I was exploring some new musical concept or technique that I was naturally drawn to. In contrast, the times in my life when I was not motivated to practice, I was studying something because I thought it was what I should be spending time on, not what I was naturally drawn to.

Once I realised this, my trumpet practice sessions transformed from perfectly planned-out, timed exercise routines into long streams of improvised music. Suddenly, practicing was no longer work. I was itching to get into my next practice session. It was a form of meditation and catharsis. Instead of draining my energy, it fueled me. Naturally, I could practice for longer periods of time.

Sure, the highly organised practice sessions set out by my lecturer may have technically been a more efficient way to practice, but I could rarely stick with this for more than an hour or two. Practicing what I was drawn to allowed me to stay motivated for many hours. What I lacked in efficiency was made up with the extra time spent. Using this new practice method, my trumpet ability began to improve at a rate that I had never expected, in ways that I could not have predicted. All the while, the joy of playing music had been reignited within me.

Today, I spend much more time hacking than playing music, but I apply the same practice techniques I learned in music to hacking. I practice what I love in that moment. Tonight I had planned to finish a video tutorial I have been watching, but I was drawn to write this blog post instead, so here we are! Instead of struggling through the video tutorial that I was not motivated to watch, I am ploughing through this blog post with ease.

If you’re trying to learn a new skill (let’s say, coding) by reading a book start to finish, you’ll most likely fail. The reason is that you probably won’t finish the book. You think you should, because an expert wrote this book and it has a perfectly laid out method for learning to code, but you are not naturally motivated to read this book, rather, you are motivated to code! Before you know it, you have a bookshelf full of books that will never be read.

In contrast — if you learn this skill by creating a project you’re passionate about and just Googling through issues along the way, the knowledge will naturally seep into your brain and the whole process will flow effortlessly. You will wake up excited to work on the project each morning and it will buzz around your brain as you fall asleep each night.

To sum up: follow your instincts. If you are halfway through learning one thing and suddenly feel a wave of motivation to do something totally different — follow that motivation. Over time, you will amass a wealth of knowledge in a variety of areas that you are naturally drawn to, and your entire life will shape around the things you love.

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