What’s the Source of Your Fire?

Motivation fascinates me.

It is a positive manifestation of some deep-rooted pain? Is it an adrenaline addiction you get from things like destroying an opponent in sports? Is it purely altruistic? Is it trying to prove to someone that you really will amount to something? Is it avoiding the present, and always living in the future? Is it blindly believing stories you have been told about what the right thing to do is? Is it just another form of fun?

I suppose it is different for different people, but there must be some common threads woven through all the complexity. For example, the never ending anecdotes of immigrants coming to the United States and starting the most successful companies in the world suggests that hardships are actually motivating. There are benefits to being born into a family with all the resources of Maslow’s hierarchy provided in spades, but there are also drawbacks. Not experiencing life-threatening strife, not seeing first hand what the opposite of a prosperous life looks like, not getting treated fairly, can motivate you to squeeze every drop you can out of anything that even looks like an opportunity. Smart, successful people know this and teach their kids these lessons in a safer manner. By volunteering to help people who are struggling, you get to experience hardship without going through it first-hand. However it is learned (or not learned), knowing how bad things can get is a strong motivator to get your ass out of bed every day to keep that predicament as far away from your reality as possible.

Metaphorically tightening up your belt, and marching on can be addictive. Whether your resources are high, low, or somewhere in the middle, this common ground we share of seeing what you are physically and mentally capable of is motivation in action. One more rep at the gym, running one more mile, one more software bug fixed, one more certification earned, one more shovel of dirt dug. Acts like these are can be self-motivating. The process of doing them, while knowing you are going to complete them despite some risk of failure, activates some primal, human instinct that makes you feel good. The higher the risk of failure, the stronger the good feelings are when you succeed.

Grinding long hours towards some pie in the sky vision doesn’t come without a cost. You give up living in the now when you are working towards an idyllic future. Deferred gratification is associated with a healthy mind, and success. But what is the optimal formula? What if you delay gratification your whole life? For some, delaying gratification is their form of gratification. They can grind away their whole lives and die happy. Yet for others there is no need to delay their gratification because they are able to thrive through their gratification. But for the “average person” there is a tug of war. How hard do I push myself? How much do I indulge? The more motivated you are to do the work, and the more you can enjoy the work, the more likely you will be successful and happy.

Whether we like to admit it or not, our childhood has a huge impact on the adults we become. Being raised with parental figures that support your success, and help train you to realize that working hard towards something will yield rewards is key to being successful later in life. But is knowing this, and experiencing this first hand the same thing as having the fire within to do it? No. They are separate. You need to know the tools and tactics of success, learning them first hand through various forms of education and experiential learning. But you also need a reason to use those tools. I believe it is possible for the heat at the center of this fire to come from some negative experiences in life. Motivation to be better, to do more, to push harder kind of implies you aren’t good enough right now. It sounds a little twisted, but I think it is a good thing. If you are totally satisfied with where you are at, it doesn’t leave much room to step outside of your comfort zone and grow. This is another delicate balance. Flat out abuse when you are young will be difficult to recover from. But having some degree of other people doubting you can serve as a motivator. The sweet spot is a blend of self-confidence and humility.

If you were the only person on earth, you had resources, and you had a full life to live, how would that impact your motivation? Let’s pretend loneliness isn’t a factor. Would you do more, less, or the same than you do now? Is your motivation so intrinsic that you would still put in the work to create value and delay gratification? Or would you lay on the couch and eat chips way more than you do today? It’s an interesting scenario to try to understand how much of our motivation comes from within versus how much is driven by the opinions of others.

I don’t fully understand everything that goes into motivation. I consider myself to be highly motivated, but I’m always looking for ways to get more motivation. I’ve been blessed with a rich continuum of experiences from extreme hardships to euphoric successes, and I’ve learned so much from both ends of the spectrum. I’m extremely fortunate that the fire within me is inextinguishable. Even in situations that were borderline hopeless, my motivation has pulled me through to the other side and put those situations far away in the rear-view mirror.

What motivates you? Think about a time when you’ve pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, and they broke off, and you had to make a new pair of boots and pull yourself back up your bootstraps until the circulation in your hands got cut off, and you still pulled up until you were so high up that you looked down and pulled people around you up by their bootstraps. Where did this motivation come from? What did it feel like? What has worked to stoke the fire that burns inside you?

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