The Rubik’s Cube That Is My Life

Steven Barnes
5 min readAug 5, 2022


“When you want wisdom and insight as badly as you want to breathe, it is then you shall have it.”


There is a story about a young monk who asks the abbot of his monastery: “when will I achieve enlightenment?”

The old abbot asks if the young man REALLY wants it, and the boy says “yes”. The abbot says “come with me” and takes the young man to a nearby stream. He grabs the kid’s neck and SHOVES HIS FACE INTO THE WATER. The kid fights like hell, but the abbot’s grip is like iron. Just as the kid begins to weaken, the abbot lets him up long enough to grab a single breath — then back in the water. Again and again he does this, then finally pulls the kid up and throws him on the river bank, where he sobs for breath.

When the young monk has recovered, the abbot said: “what did you feel?”

After he’s recovered a bit more, the kid says “I…I would have done ANYTHING for a breath of air.”

The abbot smiled. “When you want enlightenment THAT much…then will you find it.”


“You have to want to win more than you want to breathe” — Mike Tyson (paraphrase)


I had to maintain motivation and enthusiasm for FORTY YEARS, waiting for the culture to change enough to tell the stories I wanted to tell. When people ask how to do that, the answer is in the quotes above. Somehow, to motivate yourself, you have to connect the activity to your most basic motivations, values, beliefs, and goals.

EVERY TIME I talk to someone who lacks the motivation to do something (say, exercise regularly) the problem is that their reasons NOT to outweigh their reasons to do it. All you have to do is shift that so that the motivation to act is weightier than the motivation NOT to act, basically to overcome emotional and physical inertia.

And the fastest way to do that is to connect that goal with survival, sex, power, or family — the first four Chakras. And the more basic the motivation is, the more direct, the better.

Me? I had a core belief: if I could not excel, I would be killed. This came from observing racial and social realities in America and Los Angeles.

But THAT was complicated by something my mother said: “If you let white people know how smart you are, they will kill you.”

Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts.