This is a story about spite. Or, more specifically, it’s a story about the joy of spite, which is to say, it’s actually a story about how to use spite as a flow trigger.
Psychologists tend to think of spite as a negative, but they tend to be speaking about what we could call “Capital S—spite.” This is the desire to hurt someone who has hurt you. Here, I’m talking about “small s—spite,” for which there isn’t a terrific word in English. The British call it “bloody mindedness.”
Here’s an example. For the past decade, my wife has kept a fortune cookie fortune taped to our fridge. It reads: “You get great pleasure out of proving other people wrong.” She thinks it sums me up perfectly. I think she knows me a little too well.
Athletes typically call reminders like these “bulletin board material.” They’re reminders of all the times people doubted you, and all the times you proved them wrong. And this desire to prove wrong those silly souls who had the nerve to doubt you, that’s what I’m calling “small s—spite.”
And the case I’m going to make is that small “s” spite is a fantastic tool in a flow hacker’s arsenal.
For starters, spite is that little nudge that says “go harder, focus more, stretch farther.” But “go harder” means take a little risk. Focus more means amp up your concentration on the task at hand. Stretching farther means pushing on the challenge-skills balance. All three are flow triggers. Spite is only a tiny bit of extra oomph, a nudge, but sometimes, for triggering flow, a nudge is all it takes.
But don’t waste the nudge. Don’t spite the small stuff. Useful small “s” spite isn’t about proving your best friend wrong—the ego-boost you get from being the one who absolutely knew the fastest way to get to the restaurant. This isn’t “I told you so” spite. This is “you told me to not waste my time chasing my dreams” small “s” spite.
In other words, my first grade teacher told me I wouldn’t amount to much, my sixth grade teacher told me I wouldn’t live to see thirty, and a busload of people told me that wanting to be a writer was a form of mental illness, well thank you all so very much.
High performance psychologist Michael Gervais—who is both on the board of the Flow Research Collective and works with Pete Carrol and the Seattle Seahawks—has found a way to use this same motivator to drive group flow. It’s become a regular portion of the Seahawks pre-game warm up. Here’s the drill…
The Seahawks gather in a circle and trash talk, but in a very particular way. Player X says—“Don’t try that one-handed catch shit in the game, this ain’t practice.” In other words, player X doubts Player Y. But Player Y has a very specific kind of comeback: “I’ll not only try that shit, I’ll catch that shit, why, because I caught it a thousand times this week in practice.”
Gervais has crafted a more competitive version of the “yes, and” game, which is one of group flow’s more powerful triggers. But to play the game, the players can’t just boast, they have to use prior successes as the core of their boast. They are reminding themselves of their capabilities—which lowers anxiety, increases focus, amps up motivation, tunes the challenge-skills sweet spot and, collectively, drives flow.
Even better, every time you actually do manage to exceed expectations you gain a deeper level of confidence and unlock a deeper level of the adjacent possible. Confidence matters because a large portion of the “skills” portion of the challenge-skills balance is actually how we feel about the skills we have (in some cases, this matters more than our actual skills). Unlocking the adjacent possible matters because it allows you to continue to stretch, which keeps you in that challenge-skills sweet spot over time.
The point is that intrinsic motivators can be ethically-neutral. You can turn spite or anger or resentment into fuel. As Sarah Sarkis, one of our resident psychologists likes to say, “our drives don’t have to be benevolent, they just have to drive us.”
So take that doubters…