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17 April 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 1:01pm

The trick in life is knowing when to care and when to be careless

When I’m making poached eggs, I crack the shells cautiously but this makes me more likely to mess up.

By Ed Smith

In asking if we should want things less, my question is pragmatic rather than anti-materialistic. Does decreasing de­sire improve effectiveness? Even if we are fated to be stuck with our ambitions and aspirations, should we – if we can – moderate the grip they exert over us?

Here is a trivial example. If you are a clumsy chef but take breakfast seriously, you may have discovered the paradox of poached eggs. When I am making poached eggs, I crack the shells cautiously to avoid breaking the yolks. Taking greater care, however, makes me more likely to mess it up. When I am making an omelette – and it doesn’t matter if the yolks break or not – I always crack the eggs carelessly but perfectly. Indifference makes me more skilful.

It follows – if only I could manipulate my mind better – that I ought to convince myself that I really want an omelette in order to make myself better poached eggs. This tactic is a well-established form of concentration. In The Master of Go, his elegiac 1951 novel about the Japanese board game go, Yasunari Kawabata describes how elite players trained themselves to become indifferent while waiting for their opponent’s moves. One player, never defeated in a tournament, seemed to expend less psychological energy than his rivals. How did he do it? “While awaiting a play he would sit quietly with his eyes closed,” Kawabata writes. “He explained that he was ridding himself of the desire to win.”

Arguably England’s finest batsman of the 1990s (unnamed for reasons that will become obvious) took the same logic to troubling extremes. As he waited to bat (the most anxious moments of a cricketer’s life), he would convince himself that he had just received a phone call informing him that his children had been in an aeroplane crash. The horror of confronting that imaginary news made the immediate challenges of the real world – standing up to the world’s greatest bowlers and dealing with his fear of failure – seem insignificant and manageable. His macabre psychological trick helped him to bat with freedom and self-expression. Honing a sense of perspective, though painfully achieved, became one of his professional strategies. When he told a team-mate how he manipulated his emotions, the reply was instant: “You’re sick!”

The candle problem, a classic social science experiment, reveals similar motivational paradoxes. Participants are given a candle, a box of drawing pins and a book of matches and asked to fix the lit candle to a wall so that wax does not drip on to the table below. There are two versions of the problem. The first requires some abstract reasoning. The second – an easier version – takes a little time but not much thought.

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In 1962, the psychologist Sam Glucksberg tweaked the candle problem by adding financial incentives. He split his participants into two groups. He told the first group that the person to complete the problem in the fastest time would receive what would amount today to $150; those in the top 25 per cent of times would receive $40. The other group was not offered a monetary reward but still asked to solve the problem as fast as they could. Glucksberg then split the two groups again. Half of the incentivised group was given the easier, non-creative problem while the other half faced the harder, more abstract challenge. Similarly, the non-incentivised group was split into two.

Monetary incentives, it turned out, did make a difference to performance – but not in the way you might expect. In the easier version, the carrot of a cash reward led more people to complete the challenge quickly. Yet the opposite happened with the trickier, more creative task: those not incentivised by money performed better than those who were. Glucksberg concluded that competing for financial rewards had shut down problem-solving areas of the brain. In creative disciplines, external incentives – and in consequence “trying harder” – can muddy people’s minds, rather than sharpening them. In the game of real life, this principle is easier observed than it is mastered. Over the course of my cricket career, I constantly struggled with seeking the right balance between two opposite states: first, conscious and assertive willpower; second, indifferent calmness and flow.

Some days, the happiest days, the question of what might happen – success or failure, glory or opprobrium – never came into my mind. In this “zone”, as sportsmen call it, the world seems co-operative; you do not have to bend it to your will. Your task is not to get in the way, but to make yourself more the conduit than the agent.

And yet whenever I decided that I wanted to bat like this all the time – that I would permanently disregard my conscious ambitions and goals as counterproductive – I would invariably get a nasty shock. Long sequences of matches would come and go without me leaving any mark at all. I would wait for the zone to settle on me but it wouldn’t come.

Reluctantly, I would be dragged back into the less elevated sphere of rooting around for grittier motivations – manufacturing scores to settle, bridling at criticism, sharpening desires, conjuring worst-case scenarios. Anything, really, that helped reinforce the conviction that I had to impose my will on the match.

I suspect most of us are always oscillating between those two extremes. Sometimes we rise above economic motivation, vanity and status. At other times, they fuel the fire. In effect, we are playing both versions of the candle problem, intermittently and perhaps involuntarily alternating between extrinsic and intrinsic forms of motivation.

But when should we care and when should we cultivate indifference? There will never be a sociology experiment to resolve that.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

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