Despite the certitude of that dictionary definition, I don’t think I actually know what “motivation” is.
Most people talk about motivation like it’s a personality trait: we all have a certain amount of it. Some people are shy, some people are funny, some people are lazy, and some people are motivated. Or, we can be motivated temporarily for some reason.
In other words, we think of motivation as an attribute.
But that definition of “motivation” doesn’t match my personal experience of it. I don’t think motivation is actually just one thing. I have many motivations: some altruistic, some selfish, some scared, some hopeful. Some I’m proud of… others not so much.
For instance, why do I get up and go to work at Hardbound every day?
- It’s a lot of fun to think though the problems we’re solving.
- I love hanging out with my teammates.
- It’s nice to do something that’s somewhat respected.
- I want to pay the bills and be able to provide a good life for my family one day (when I have one).
- I want to have enough money to eat great food and travel sometimes with my girlfriend.
- I’m afraid of the company running out of money and failing.
- My ego is pleased when people tell me I’m smart.
- Because when I was growing up I didn’t get very much respect or attention at school and now I have a lifelong craving for it.
- But — I also get a deeply meaningful and satisfying feeling when I find out that someone got a lot of value out of something I helped make.
- And — it’s even more meaningful when a story I helped create resonates with someone, and when they feel it improves them somehow, as a person.
So yeah, that’s an interesting cocktail of motivations. But let’s be honest — on a daily basis I don’t think about any of that stuff. It’s not like I freshly evaluate my reasoning for going to work each day.
I just do it because it’s a habit.
It’s true, most actions are fueled by pure habit inertia. There is some initial motivation and subsequent decision, and after that it’s easy to just keep going down that path by default, unless you have some reason to change direction.
There’s only one problem: like physical inertia, if you don’t reconnect with your motivations often enough, eventually friction will slow you down.
But what does it mean to “reconnect with your motivations”? Should you reconnect with all of them?
I don’t think so. Here are some of my motivations that I try to not think about or act out of:
- “It’s nice to do something that’s somewhat respected.”
- “I’m afraid of the company running out of money and failing.”
- “My ego is pleased when people tell me I’m smart.”
- “Because when I was growing up I didn’t get very much respect or attention at school and now I have a lifelong craving for it.”
Of course, they’re always there. But I try to dismantle them with logic. And I find that interrogating these more negative motivations causes them to have a lot less effect on my behavior.
On the flip side, I try to consciously cultivate these motivations:
- “It’s a lot of fun to think though the problems we’re solving.”
- “I love hanging out with my teammates.”
- “ I get a deeply meaningful and satisfying feeling when I find out that someone got a lot of value out of something I helped make.”
- “It’s even more meaningful when a story I helped create resonates with someone, and when they feel it improves them somehow, as a person.”
How does this work? I literally stop and think about how it makes me happy when those things happen, and I consciously narrate to myself how and why these things give me energy. It’s not about receiving any new information or learning new facts, it’s about connecting with old information (your core values) in a fresh way, that gives you a boost.
Conversely, when someone tells me I’m a genius or thinks what I do is really cool, I try to consciously dismantle it and I tell myself that I don’t really care about that stuff. I mean, I’m glad if people get value and meaning out of the work that I do, but I try to be genuinely happy that they experienced that value, not that they think I’m impressive.
I’ve been consciously molding my motivations for awhile now — feeding some and starving others — and I can happily report that it really works. Of course I am not perfect and I have a long way to go, but I genuinely feel more satisfied and fulfilled than I used to, by a long shot.
It reminds me of a parable I once heard, that really has stuck with me:
A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other.
One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear.
The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”
The grandfather quietly replies: “The one you feed.”