On learned helplessness

Over the course of my career I've had the displeasure of suffering through learned helplessness—the psychological state of feeling as though my efforts have no impact whatsoever.

After enough rejection of ideas, contributions, and partnerships on a team, the entire job ends up feeling futile.

You end up feeling like nothing is going to change and nobody wants you to try anyway, so you develop a passive response to the work.

When you develop learned helplessness it often manifests as lack of self-esteem, low motivation, lack of persistence, and ultimately feeling like a failure. You wake up every day wondering why you're going to a job you can't contribute to, and you wonder if you've lost your ability to do the work you once were deeply passionate about.

The thing about learned helplessness is that it can feel like "the world is against you", when it's really "you against you."

It's all psychology and how we think—and the actions we do or do not take as a result of our thoughts.

Learning new skills, participating in regular deep meditation and personal reflection, working with mentors and partners, and changing environments are the best ways to break ourselves out of feeling like everything we do is futile.

For me, small personal projects have been the most effective antidote to learned helplessness.

I spent years building things like silly iPhone games, writing about (and having a book published) on the subject of creativity to half a million readers, and had a weekend project go viral. But when I look back at these things today, they feel superfluous or as though it was somebody else who did these things. Not me.

And this is the point for me: it's not about what you've done before (or haven't done!), it's about what you do now or next.

When I can point at something I designed and built or otherwise created (no matter how small or imperfect or un-important), it reminds me that I am capable. That I do have good ideas. That I can do things well.

So I find myself getting back into small things that are often just for myself. And that work—identifying problems, brainstorming then creating tangible solutions—is the clarity I need to break out of this state of helplessness.