I see a lot of people struggle with motivation, especially those who are already doing well. That represents a big loss of potential, as those who have already achieved some level of success are demonstrably able to channel motivation into output. I have some ideas on why this happens and also how to combat it.
While I think that it’s important to be able to work with as little motivation as possible, there’s no point in making things harder than they have to be. Working is easier and more enjoyable when we are properly motivated, so learning to motivate ourselves is a valuable skill.
It is possible, and maybe even preferable, to be motivated by work itself. I wrote a whole post called Love Work about this many years ago. If you are not able to love your work and be motivated by it, you are definitely in the wrong field. However, all of us go through periods of time when our immediate tasks are not overly motivating. I spent the last two weeks totally rewriting code I had already written, which is really hard to get very excited about.
Think of external motivation as the starter to your productivity engine. Work is usually most motivating when you’re in the zone and in the middle of an interesting problem, but sometimes we need a push to get there.
Over the past month I have probably watched at least 50 reviews of yachts. Some of them border on being affordable, but the majority are one or two orders of magnitude more than I could afford. I share a small boat with a friend and some of my most enjoyable times in the past year have been taking friends and family on the boat for one or two day trips. As I watch the yacht reviews I imagine being able to take my friends and family on trips that spanned a week or maybe even a month, cruising around the coast of Europe or hopping islands in the Caribbean.
Is it a waste of time for me to be spending hours per month watching reviews of yachts I couldn’t possibly buy? I don’t think so.
Watching yacht videos makes me motivated. I know that the only way I could ever get one is if I work really hard and create a lot of value for a lot of people. I will never be able to afford one on my current trajectory, so I must level up.
It’s important to want something that you don’t already have. It doesn’t have to be a big fancy yacht. It could be new knowledge, prestige, respect, the ability to donate a huge amount of money to a cause you care about, or anything else.
Most people start out with wanting things like financial stability, a good living situation, and maybe a nest egg for security. Those are perfect goals, but once you achieve them you have to find something new. Like so many things, what got you from point A to point B may not be the same thing that will get you to point C.
There’s the idea that wanting things is not good and that you should be satisfied with what you have. I think that this is half true. You shouldn’t be merely satisfied with what you have, you should be ecstatic! Humans came into this world living in the wild fighting for our lives, so anything above that (and even that, really), we should be grateful for. If you never get anything else in life, you should be more than satisfied.
However… that doesn’t preclude us from wanting things. We humans have created so many cool things (I mean seriously… just watch a yacht video), so why not be excited about those things? The best state to be in is to need nothing, be extremely happy with what you have, and still want a lot more.
Isn’t a yacht very materialistic? Sure. What I’ve found best motivates me is sharing experiences with people close to me. I love showing people my favorite cities (and, even better, hosting them there), teaching people cool things I’ve learned, or buying fixed assets that I can enjoy but also share with others. The best part of the island isn’t going there by myself, but being able to share the experience of staying on a private island with others.
It would be nice if my primary motivator was ending global poverty or something, and maybe those who are motivated most by that are better people than I am on balance. However, I’d rather figure out what actually motivates me so that I can use it to produce good work than try to convince myself I’m motivated by something more altruistic. It’s just more effective and honest.
It also doesn’t really matter if you ever get the things you use to motivate yourself. They’re just tools and you’ll change anyway. For years I was so motivated to work because I wanted to buy an airplane (Mooney M20J or M20K), but then when I got to the point where I could reasonably consider it, I lost all interest. The point isn’t to actually get the things, it’s to gain the ability to get them.
I think people feel bad about dreaming big these days. Wealth inequality is certainly too high, but rather than aspire to make it to the top and raise the floor for everyone else, we sometimes demonize those at the top (which isn’t to say that some don’t deserve it…).
Love work for its own sake, appreciate what you already have, and don’t become such a workaholic that you miss out on the joy of life. But also: think big. What would be worth working really hard for? What would get you out of bed in the morning eager to work? You don’t have to share your motivation publicly or even be proud of it. First find it, then channel it into great work, and then on the side think about what it is you want and examine the underpinnings of the desire.
Photo is our not-quite-a-yacht at Lake Mead.
I started a Patreon Account. I’ll write a post about it in the next couple weeks, but I figured I’d force myself to link it today because I’m sort of uncomfortable with the idea. Please feel no obligation at all to donate… I’ll be fine either way. If you want to donate to show your appreciation for the work I do, I really appreciate it. I made a somewhat arbitrary cutoff at $20 to create a group of people for whom I’ll try to do some special stuff (though what that is will depend on the size of the group, who they are, etc.), but you can choose any amount.
I think I’ve finally figured out the Sett performance issues that keep taking the site down. If not, I’ll probably either commit to fixing it or switch to another platform(!)