THE LONGER YOU PURSUE or try to generate motivation within yourself, the longer you will fall prey to what is already motivating you, and consequently, never change the actions you take. Just as a sailor must harness the direction and force of the wind in order to get to his destination, so too must we learn to harness our own innate pre-existing motivations or we will be blown off course.
It seems like there is an enormous, never ending patch of internet real estate devoted entirely to useless advice on motivation. Ranging from “never give up” platitudes on persistence to echoed sentiments of “you choose your own destiny”; motivation is treated like something that we can learn; a skill that we can obtain.
This, of course, means that when we’re lacking in motivation, it’s due to our lack of will, ambition, drive or discipline. In short, when we’re lacking in motivation it means that we are lacking in strength of character. This position, the most commonly held by people, is the most persuasive. Chiefly because of how it allows us to self-aggrandise when we’re doing well, but also, more sinisterly, it allows us to indulge in our feelings of worthlessness when we’re lacking motivation. We agree with this reasoning of motivation because it agrees with how we feel about ourselves.
But consider your life. How often have you willed yourself into a state of motivation, and how often has motivation arrived on its own, generated from a place within you that you have entirely no say over? How often have you turned motivation into a skill, and how often have you simply been at the whims of varying motivations throughout your day, that arrive and depart of their own accord?
If you’re anything like me, then motivation shows up whenever it wants to and has little to do with your own determination. Motivation isn’t something we learn or generate but in fact, something that is already there, and already motivating us.
When we pursue and identify with a goal, and then lack the motivation to pursue it, we often fail to realize that our lack of motivation doesn’t stem from laziness or lack of discipline, but often because we are already motivated to pursue something else that is contrary to our goal. And the longer we fail to identify and understand this motivation, the longer we are susceptible to its influence, and condemn ourselves to move away from what we want.
I spend a lot of my time writing. I consider it my dream to become a novelist. To write well structured, emotionally engaging, dramatically memorable stories is something I’ve wanted for the last 6 years of my life. I would consider myself very motivated to write. I write on this blog, I read innumerable amounts of fiction, and have spent countless hours thinking about structure, plot, and character; yet I have scarcely taken any large strides towards my goal of becoming a novelist.
I have ideas, I have characters, plots, scenes, structures, acts, moments, images, descriptions; I have, at the point of writing this, at least three clearly outlined novels in my head. Yet still, they go unwritten. Despite my motivation to pursue writing, of which this blog is a testament, whenever I approach the craft of fiction, I shy away even though the pursuit of writing fiction is what I am so motivated to pursue.
So why don’t I write?
Because I believe that I don’t know what I’m doing, and because I’m scared that my stories, once written, will reveal me as someone who fundamentally isn’t a novelist. And for someone who is actively invested within his identity with the idea of being a writer; this would be intolerable. This would be painful.
And it’s a contradiction.
Just as I am motivated to change (through the act of becoming) the novelist that I believe I am, I am even more motivated to not pursue that change as it threatens the identity that I am possibly a novelist. My motivation lies more in enjoying my idea of myself than it does the reality of what I want my life to be.
But this contradiction doesn’t just stop at writing.
When I was younger and looking to improve my dating life, I decided I wanted to approach girls during the day and I considered myself extremely motivated and driven to do so. I would go out, I would dedicate time to figuring out what I wanted to say, wear, do, act, and where I would go about doing this. But strangely, once I’d arrived, I was never really motivated to do so. The tricks that I’d learned – getting myself in state, desensitising myself, and visualising my goal – never seemed to work, and instead, all I seemed to notice was how fucking weird it is to approach people during the day, and that everyone would see, and that I was a social reject.
Needless to say, I rarely approached. And far from just being during the day, this reluctance extended into meeting girls at night. It was something I didn’t want to be seen doing, and no amount of generated motivation could change that.
Because, as with the writing, I was already motivated. Rather than being motivated to change my dating life, what I was motivated by was something far different. And as soon as I realized that, everything changed.
When it started looking at my actions and how I went about pursuing my goal, it became apparent to me that I was more than willing to sort myself out and put myself in the necessary environment, and I was even willing to approach. I had no problem with motivating myself to change my life. But when it came to changing my life by approaching girls in front of other people in socially awkward ways, I would always back down. Always.
Changing my life, it turns out, wasn’t my real motivation. Preventing social embarrassment was. So, I began to dig.
And it only got worse.
Preventing social embarrassment wasn’t just my motivation, but changing my life was simply a channel through which I was attempting to prevent myself from being embarrassed, rejected and alone in future. I wanted to change myself into that ‘cool, confident, fearless’ guy I pictured in my head. The one who was the exact opposite of how I felt.
What led me to seek to change my life was exactly the same thing that was preventing me from approaching. I was both propelled and withheld by the same force.
Try that for a mind fuck.
That single motivation – to never feel like I didn’t measure up socially (whether that be with others, friends or romantically) motivated 90% of the decisions I made within my life. Even if the motivations seemed to be contrary, and caused me to take actions against my best interests, the motivations for each were often exactly the same thing.
And it was only upon understanding this relationship, that I began to by extension, understand myself, and work on the factors that were affecting and nurturing my motivations.
Understanding that I wasn’t being motivated by a desire to have a better dating life, but instead to protect myself from being alone allowed me to address that fear of aloneness, and address the issues of inadequacy that were shaping my life, and affecting my motivations. And it was no surprise, that upon doing this, my motivations began to fall in line with my desires.
Likewise with writing, understanding that my motivation stemmed from my investment in my idea of who I was allowed me to realize how it was holding me back, and defining the actions I could and couldn’t take. When I was certain about who I was, anything that threatened that certainty was a threat to my very being, and by extension, a threat to my happiness. Letting go of that allowed me to view writing as it is – a craft and a way to enjoy my time.
This is why I look at motivation less as a series of techniques, and less a reflection of our ‘strength of character’ and more as a deeply personal relationship. When we lack motivation in our lives, it’s usually because something is fundamentally wrong, and is being left unaddressed. And rather than addressing it, we usually seek to pile things on top of it and crush it with will power and determination.
Instead, if we treat ourselves with empathy, if we pay attention to the actions we’re taking and ask ourselves ‘why’ our true motivations begin to come to light and we can begin to unearth the contradictions within our lives and our identities. And once we’ve discovered those contradictions, we can begin to work on them.
Because that’s the secret.
Motivation isn’t about forcing ourselves to become who we want to be, it’s about discovering who we actually are.
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