Jack and I sometimes like to play a game called Hay Day. (If you’re new, Jack is my youngest son. He’s seven.) We play it on the iPhone and the iPad. It’s a simulated farm game which I hear is similar to Farmville. I’ve never played Farmville so I don’t know.
It’s a fairly interesting study in economics, so we call it homeschooling.
In the game, you can earn colored tickets for performing special tasks. When you’ve amassed enough special tickets of a certain color or combination of colors, you can use them to buy items things in the game. The things you buy with tickets aren’t necessary to gameplay, they’re just nice little add-ons that you can purchase to make the gameplay more fun. You can buy special colored fishing lures, or you can buy pets. The pets are useless, but they make great status symbols, and they give you something to do while you’re waiting for your wheat to grow.
Recently, I leveled up to the point that I unlocked bunnies.
Now, if I use 24 green tickets, six blue tickets and one purple ticket, I can have my very own bunny rabbit.
I saved up for a long time to get my first bunny. I was so excited when I got it that I sat there and watched it for about 20 minutes. It liked to play with the butterflies. I thought that was pretty cute.
I am so enamored with my bunny that I actually have about 25 screenshot photographs I’ve taken with my phone to show the bunny’s exploits in action. Bunny washing face. Bunny chasing bird. Bunny sleeping. Bunny eating carrots.
This digital bunny rabbit gave me a feeling of pure, honest-to-God joy for a period of about a week. Around the end of that time, I got it in my head that I wanted to buy another bunny rabbit. (This is what people do in real life with dogs, right? They buy one and then they buy another to keep the first one company?) So I set about the task of saving up for the second bunny.
It took a while, but eventually I came up with my 24 green tickets, my six blue tickets, and my one purple ticket. Today was the day I got my second bunny.
Do you want to know what happened?
I’m pretty sure you can guess.
I looked at the rabbit for about 10 seconds, and I thought to myself, “It’s not as cool as I thought it would be.”
I was telling Jack the story later – he hasn’t levelled up enough to unlock rabbits yet, so he takes great vicarious interest in mine – explaining my surprise and chagrin that this experience wasn’t as rewarding as the previous one.
I have taken the liberty of transcribing his response.
“The second bunny’s never as exciting as the first. Never.”
One of the things we like to do with our readers is get them ready for the things that they can’t be expected to expect. We’ve had a lot of experience with a lot of people’s career trajectories over the years, and we’ve noticed some patterns.
One of the patterns that we’ve noticed is that ittybiz owners tend to anticipate that the second time they do something – run a launch, teach a class, release a new line or collection – will be just as exciting, rewarding, and self-actualizing as the first.
That’s dopamine at work.
Dopamine, the lovely, addictive substance that pumps through our veins when we do something fun and stimulating – especially for the first time. (Novelty leads to dopamine like vodka and Red Bull leads to extramarital affairs. You almost can’t have one without the other.)
Here’s how it plays out.
We engage in some kind of business pursuit. We succeed at it to some degree. We make some money, or we get some platform growth. And we’re happy.
When we look back on that experience, we remember the money and the growth and the success, and it’s easy to assume the next time we do the same thing and achieve the same result, that we will feel just as good.
But what we’re not remembering is the dopamine.
Because our search for dopamine is almost entirely unconscious, we don’t really know what it is that we’re looking for. We don’t know what it is that we’re missing. When it’s not there – when we don’t have that feeling we’re expecting to have – we often tend to engage in some fairly bad-for-us activities.
We do the kinds of things that anybody seeking a hit of dopamine does. We engage in high-risk activities, like inappropriate joint venture projects. We become reckless with our spending, like buying an unnecessary new website or hiring a coach that’s WAY out of our budget. We abandon our plans and change direction without considering the consequences.
That’s addictive behavior. The addictive substance is dopamine.
Unfortunately, for any given project, the dopamine level will never be that high again.
Now, all this could sound quite depressing. It would be quite normal to hear it and feel pretty down. But this is true in every arena of life and business. We’re actually already quite accustomed to this effect. The hundredth date just isn’t as exciting as the first. When he calls you for the 10th time, your heart doesn’t pitter patter the way it did the first. When you get your sixth raise or promotion, it’s just not as thrilling as the first.
This is the meeting place of The Law Of Diminishing Returns and the Hedonic Adaptation Mechanism.
That’s what we social science nerds like to call it when we’re feeling smug and intellectual. For the rest of the world, it’s called life. We have to accept it.
We don’t only have to accept it. This is not the Serenity Prayer. We don’t have to sit and wait in our ever more depressive state, slowly becoming more apathetic until death.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You just have to plan for it and take it in hand.
The way to do it in this case is to plan to get our dopamine another way.
In my experience, there are three ways to replace this dopamine. (Well, there are three healthy ways to replace this dopamine. I’m sure we could all get together and come up with plenty of unhealthy ways to replace it. But for the purposes of this article, let’s go with some healthy ways.)
First, you can make it bigger. You can add something exciting, you can make it more challenging for you than it was before, you can augment your existing thing with something new and exciting. Basically, you can take exactly what you did before and make it bigger.
Second, you can do exactly what you did before and find another challenge somewhere else.
When we re-launch a new session of an existing class, it’s not that exciting from our end. To new student, it’s a “first time.” But to us, it’s the same class as it always was. But to get my dopamine, I’m working on some other projects on the sidelines that are exciting, that are stretching me, that are challenging me in other ways.
Even though any particular class (to me) is pretty much the same as it was before, I’m getting my dopamine from the challenge and the thrill of other business activities. You get your consistency of experience and I get enough dopamine that I don’t run off with a cocktail waitress.
Third, you can get your dopamine somewhere else entirely. You can accept with grace that business is always not always going to be a passionate, wild ride. You can accept that it’s not always going to be full of excitement and thrills and passion and joy. You can accept that business is business, your job is your job, and you are free to have as much fun as you want in other arenas of life.
You can really pick any of the three that you want.
There’s no right answer. I find that a combination of two or more tends to scratch the itch better than one all by itself. Unless you have something very exciting going on in another arena, you might need to pull out more than one gun for this. But it doesn’t really matter which one you go with.
What does matter is you have to make a plan for it.
You can’t leave it to chance. You can’t figure it out later.
The dopamine issue is a pattern that we have seen occur frequently enough that it’s worth discussing, and thought leaders in this industry (and purveyors of fine webinars) don’t tend to be discussing it.
The passion and joy crowd seem to think that you will get as much thrill out of your business 50 years from now as you do sitting in your day job fantasizing about what it will be like one day.
This seems to me to be about as likely as 50 years into marriage being just as thrilling as you thought it would be when you were watching Cinderella when you were six.
It’s just not reasonable. But that doesn’t mean that it’s no fun. It doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.
It means that you are reaching a place where you have a much more mature and evolved way of looking at fun and joy and life as a whole.
You’re not supposed to get all of your self-actualization, all of your joy, and all of your passion out of your business. It’s not healthy. It’s not good for you.
What you’re supposed to do is adapt. Your silver wedding anniversary is not going to feel the same as your wedding day. Your golden wedding anniversary is not going to feel the same as your first date. The happy couples, and the happy business owners, are the ones who know what’s coming and make a plan to adapt.
Then your business will give you as much joy for the next six months, and the next six months, and all the six months thereafter.
I invite you to do some thinking on this topic today. What can you plan for to keep the happiness running high?
It’s worth thinking about, and it’s a very rewarding exercise to do.