Dopamine and Desperation

This past weekend, I attended a seminar on how to write a bestseller. Unsurprisingly, the focus of the event was mostly upon publicity and marketing. (If nuanced insights and a scintillating prose style were all that were required to sell books…well, I can dream.)

One of the speakers had a lot of energy. At first, I thought he was caricaturing the manic marketing guy; he was talking so fast, and in such a high-pitched voice, that a punchline seemed imminent. But he kept it up. For an hour. By the end of the hour, I was horribly certain that if producing a bestselling book requires a person to become a compulsively Tweeting, twitching shell of a human being, I will die in obscurity.

That ‘bestselling author’, however, will die of a nervous breakdown some forty years before I do.

Recently, I read Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking. This book is a bestseller for a good reason. It’s piled with non-obvious insights about the way people’s nervous systems differ from one another, and the implications for the way they function in work and society.

One insight which floored me is that introverts and extraverts have substantially different patterns of ‘reward’ in their brains. An extravert gets a huge hit of dopamine whenever they win something–a sporting event, a game of blackjack, the top 10 list on the New York Times Book Review. Their decision-making habits can often be skewed by this; they may be blind to serious risks they’re undertaking in pursuit of this reward. She uses, as an example, a man who gambled away $700,000 of his $1m retirement fund, in the continuing certainty that GM stock was going to rally dramatically–in 2007.

Introverts, on the other hand, get small hits of dopamine all the time–chopping vegetables with the sun streaming through the kitchen window, listening to a favorite piece of music, hugging their child. What they don’t get is a whopping dopamine wallop when their team wins the Super Bowl. It’s nice, they’re pleased, but it’s really no big deal. They’re motivated by risk-avoidance rather than reward, which means that there should be more introverts in charge of the financial system than there are.

This explains a lot.

I’ve always thought of myself as ‘ambitious,’ but there are many things I am not willing to sacrifice to ambition. Everyday quality of life is one of those things. I’ve often been baffled by people who seem unable to take a break. It appears that their ‘pursuit of fame, fortune and hot sex’ switches are turned on all the time, to the exclusion of enjoying the humble pleasures of Now. Sure, fame and fortune would be nice, but not at the expense of coffee breaks!

Because desperation isn’t healthy. When I’m working on a client, or writing an essay, or studying my Rolfing textbook, I can’t afford to be thinking about how I’m going to Tweet about the right celebrity to get more followers to sell more books to make it to the New York Times bestseller list to raise my fees to become a multimillionaire. That’s not what this work is about. What makes my work special is the details–the right environment, the right timing, the right words, the right silences.

For some truly wise advice on how to fill your life with something more valuable than celebrity Tweets:

How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love

“Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.”