6th July 2011

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation. Not surprising, given that I have an occupation that requires a great deal of the stuff. As most free-lancers know, motivation is a slippery old fish. When working from home, procrastination often rears its ugly head. The lure of the snooze button is a constant, and planning, shopping and cooking always seem to eat into a large portion of the day. Finally, one’s impeccably neat flat suddenly seems in need of further tidying when there’s work to be done.

Note the following case in point. A friend of mine (now a very successful Hollywood director) once confessed that he spent an entire year sitting around the house playing video games and watching films when he was supposed to be writing screenplays. What’s odd is that this guy loves writing and making films pretty much above all else. So, what gives?

The Neuroscientist Candace Pert claims that the brain is primarily motivated by the pursuit of pleasure. Yet, as in the case of my friend the director, even when an activity is pleasurable, people still struggle with motivation. Furthermore, the path to pleasure can be circuitous at best, and often includes a fair amount of pain. For instance, what motivates someone to climb Everest when the journey is so treacherous and, let’s face it, uncomfortable? Is it the moment of bliss at the summit? Or the pleasure that results from the achievement of something so arduous?

There seems to be a relationship here between a task’s relative difficulty (i.e. how challenging does something need to be in order to motivate) and our enjoyment of it. If something is too easy, we get bored. But if the mountain is too high to climb, motivation wanes. So we need to feel like something is both challenging and achievable in order to feel motivated and we enjoy doing things we are good at. ‘Achievability’ obviously varies from person to person and through time, so it’s possible my film maker friend didn’t feel ready or skilled enough to tackle his screenplay and this impacted his motivation.

In his book Obliquity, the economist John Kay notes that profit is an ineffective motivator for businesses. Hence, when a company places profit at the centre of its strategy, it is often less profitable then an organisation that is motivated by things like innovation or the needs of the public and its workers. So companies that have a clear set of values which are then manifested through external goals are financially more successful then those whose only goal is financial success. Similarly, people who are motivated by something other than money or happiness, often end up with, ironically, money and happiness. The American founding documents talk about ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as a primary motivation for people, and yet it appears as though happiness is a side effect of something much larger. The question is, what is it?

There is an argument that we are motivated simply to survive and procreate. Yet for most people, these basic motivations rarely lead to a sense of fulfilment. Rather, it seems that a sense of meaning beyond basic survival is the wider theme that motivates us. We want our lives to have value and values are essentially the foundations of our lives. They are the glue that binds our motivations together and anchor our internal states to the external world. Similarly, a core of shared values is elemental when building a social community, whether that community is a business, a group of friends, a political party, or a family. Ultimately, we want our lives to have meaning and to share that meaning with others.

Still, as Pert indicated, if there is no pleasure in the pursuit of meaning, whether that pleasure is immediate or delayed, we can easily become de-motivated. So, to paraphrase a wise old friend of mine, the key to a motivated life is this; “Step One: find stuff you like. Step Two: get good at the stuff you like and ideally get paid for doing it. Step Three: find people you like and share the stuff you like with them” And the delightful side effect of this three point plan is…happiness. Simply put indeed.


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