Hacking Your Reward Systems

Hacking Your Reward Systems

“The reward system is a group of neural structures responsible for incentive salience (i.e., motivation and “wanting”, desire, or craving for a reward), associative learning(primarily positive reinforcement and classical conditioning), and positive emotions, particularly ones which involve pleasure as a core component (e.g., joyeuphoria and ecstasy).[1][6]” – Wikipedia

Disclaimer: If you’ve perfectly hacked a growth mindset, this article might not be relevant to you, since you will react differently to failure. But if you think you’ve perfectly hacked a growth mindset you’re probably crazy or I want to be your friend, or both, so read the article anyways and send me an email to say hi.


Playing the violin is hard and takes a long time.

It’s useful to short circuit your long term goals into small successes that lead to your brain being high on success dopamine.

The brain gives us an incredible gift – long term thinking.

The brain is attached to a human body that incorporates several million years of survival instinct telling the body of the ponderous human to react instantly to everything it thinks is important and ignore everything else.

This is not a good setup for steady systematic improvement.


Most of the time, when a human wants to learn something new. The process looks like this:

Human gets an idea (learn to play violin).

Acts on the idea (begins to learn the violin).

Reacts emotionally to the results of that action (feels good about a success, or feels bad about a failure).

Decides on the next action based on the previous reaction (failure means stop practice, success means keep going).


Obviously, this system works until it doesn’t. As long as the human is racking up successes by learning new ideas or playing pieces of music well, this system works. But once the human starts to make mistakes, or “fails” according to whatever definition that human has of failure, the human begins to have less and less desire to push forward unless they’re wired to always push forward in the face of failure, and as wonderful as that wiring is, not everyone has developed it.

(Side note: The more willing you are to tag on the label “failure” to the result of any given attempt at anything, the less likely you are to attempt things. That, in my personal value based judgement, sucks. So don’t do it.)

The basic reason why we have less and less desire to work on something when we start making mistakes, is because most people don’t use their mind and body’s reward system during perceived failure. And we’re pretty simple complex creatures, so if we go very long without a hit of dopamine, or if our future success starts to seem too far away (same thing) we start to lose momentum.

So we need more psychological tools to keep ourselves moving forward.

We have to hack our own mind and body’s reward systems.

The fastest way to do this is make smaller and more specific goals. When practicing a complicated piece of music. Don’t make it your goal to play the whole piece well. Make it your goal to play the first line well. And then honestly, without the slightest internal sarcasm or self deprecation (I mean it!), celebrate it. If you’re a person who has trouble celebrating success (if you’re a person who doesn’t, and this sentence is confusing to you, be aware that there are humans that aren’t like you, boo!) then this practice could feel artificial at first. And frankly, it doesn’t matter, it still works. It’s harder, but it still works. Just as your body responds psychologically to the physical act of a smile, your mind and body responds to your mind’s self praise of achievement.

Let’s get a little bit more specific about the single line of music though. Often, there are passages that we may need to repeat hundreds of times in order to play them well. When playing those passages, we need goals inside of goals (targets, intentions, hopes, things you’re going to do, call it whatever you want). The passages we need to repeat many times have so many elements of interest, physical technique, intonation, dynamics, tempo, emotional expression, inflection, timbre, etc… To say, “I must play this passage exactly right in all the ways it must be right,” is way too broad of a goal. We must break the process down. A better train of thought is, “I need to play this passage with correct intonation.” And then, once that is achieved, it needs to be celebrated as a success, even if the passage was sixty bpm too slow and the bow scratched the entire time. Next, the train of thought must be changed to something else, “I need to play this passage with my left hand forearm relaxed.”

And here’s the important part. You must let go of the original goal.

It’s too much, at first, to say (to continue with our example), “I need to play this passage with correct intonation and with my left forearm relaxed.” Because the moment you add the two goals together you’ve split your attention. You first must commit wholly to your new goal. Play the passage with a relaxed forearm. And if your intonation now sucks, so be it. If you succeeded in playing with a relaxed forearm then you’ve achieved your goal. You’ve won. repeat the practice several times to make sure you can play with a relaxed forearm, without worrying about the intonation. And then celebrate that success internally.

Then put the two goals together. Make your new goal, “I want to play this passage with correct intonation while keeping my wrist relaxed.” But only after you’ve mastered the first two goals on their own. Because mastering two things at once is a different skill from mastering two things individually.

One of the biggest pitfalls in music practice in worrying about everything at once. This is chaos. This is overwhelm. It’s where hopelessness thrives and hope goes to die.

When Joe Rogan asked Elon Musk how he was going to have the time to build an electric jet, because Elon had an idea for how to build one, Elon responded, “The electric airplane isn’t necessary right now. Electric cars are important. Solar energy is important. Stationary storage of energy is important. . . . It’s important that we accelerate the transition to sustainable energy.”

And I thought, damn. That’s why he’s successful. Not because of his genius. He’s successful because he has the ability to have hundreds of brilliant ideas but can still maintain enough discipline to say. “We need to do this right now, not that other thing.”

We have to focus our attention.

And this is hard. And sometimes it feels fake, and slow, and depressing. So we have to find a way to make this process be more pleasant, because it’s one of the few ways that actually work. Candy helps. Or strawberries.

Seriously, if you’re working on a project, and you want some treats, put a bowl nearby. Set a limit on how many treats you can have at once, and set a goal for when you can have a treat. When you achieve your goal, give yourself the treat, and only the number of treats you decided to allow yourself. This gives you a cutoff, so you have to achieve your next success in order to get your reward. This method works. Or any number of rewards variations (stretching, rest breaks, texting a friend, etc.)

But to be clear, this is a hack. And it’s very important that you actually have a pleasant inner dialogue with yourself, praising yourself for your achievement each time you treat yourself. Otherwise your just another miserable treat junkie rationing out what your begging yourself for. I would know. I hate dieting.

So make small goals, and praise yourself when you achieve them. Positively interact with yourself.

Not because you want to.

Because it’s how to get better. Plus, it feels good.



Get in touch with me if you’d like to study with me, collaborate, or discuss cool things. I’m working away, teaching here in Austin, Texas. I teach around the world online. I’ve got a couple spots left.

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