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Motivation: You Don’t Get It

Stop looking for motivation. Reveal it instead.

Let’s start with a head’s up. If you are looking for motivation, stop the search. You see, after studying this field for more than four decades, I’ve arrived at this: motivation is not something you have, lose, find, get, create, or build. It’s something you reveal

If you get that, no need to read further. But if you’re even a bit unsure of what I mean, read on. Especially if you’ve been down the long, windy road of rituals, routines, reminders, rewards, rules, recalibrations, habits, objectives, willpower, grit, guts, commitments, journals, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, accountability partners, and putting your gym clothes next to your bed before going to sleep. 

“Your general willingness to do something…the psychological forces that compel you to take action,” is what some say motivation is all about. Wow! Psychological “forces.” Powerful, right? Or is it more simply a matter of “there’s more pain in not doing something than doing it,” as Steven Pressfield essentially posits in his book, “The War of Art.” Maybe it’s what Jeff Haden describes in his book, “The Motivation Myth,” “…it’s the fire that starts burning after you manually, painfully, coax it into existence…” Whew! Fire, manually and painfully coaxing. Let’s sit back and catch our breath from all of this compelling force, pain and coaxing. Maybe in the end, the real myth is that it’s none of that. 

We all have desire. Desire for things. Desire to do things. So, what gets in our way of attaining our desires? Consider that it’s not motivation. Those who achieve a goal, a desire, don’t have any special motivational power or motivation organ. Those who attain their desires do possess a robust ability, not motivation, but rather the ability to reveal and topple their mental roadblocks. They know how to depose and unseat their conviction barriers and unhitch from the self-imposed barricades and sentiments of their minds. They aren’t creating motivation. They are freeing themselves and revealing their inspiration, their enthusiasm, their cause, their spur and their purpose. 

This past week I was in an emotional education session by phone of course, (oops, I should’ve called it “telehealth,”) with a 17- year-old young woman who was awarded a scholarship to one of our nation’s leading universities based on her athletic prowess. She’s on her way to become a superstar in her sport. 

“This week has been a good one, but Dr. Mantell, I’m just worried that I don’t have any motivation to work out and do virtual practice. And since I got this really cool scholarship and all, I’m afraid that I’ve lost my motivation completely.” 

We spoke in detail about the worry and fear she described, her theory that she’s lost her motivation, what she believed led to it, and her beliefs and thoughts about motivation in general. Not surprisingly, she began using words like “feeling overwhelmed,” “self-doubting,” “lacking confidence,” “perfectionism.” As she heard herself through my looking and hearing glass, she hit upon, “What the ‘F’ am I self-sabotaging myself for? What??? Do I think I’ll fail if I try or what, do I think everyone will keep raising the bar higher and higher and then I’ll fail? And holy ‘S’ I’m thinking that’d be absolutely the worst thing in my life!” 

As she began listening to and hearing herself, she said softly, “Maybe it’s nothing at all to do with motivation. Maybe it’s entirely to do with me. Doc, is there really such a thing as motivation?” As soon as she began dialing back on demoralizing herself, undercutting and destabilizing her own path forward, she immediately placed herself in drive and accelerated without inhibition. Motivation? No. The freedom of rational thinking!

Bright young woman, wouldn’t you say? No wonder she’s headed to one of America’s most prestigious universities. But no brighter than any other individual who’ll take the time, yes, often with support from another, to listen to what they aren’t saying out loud, and only barely whispering inside. That’s how emotional education helps people suffer less and be happy more. 

So just what are the 3 steps?

  1. Identify your disordering, debilitating thoughts, the actual sentences in your thinking that overturn your forward movement. These will be thoughts characterized by a) fear, b) low frustration tolerance, c) demandingness, d) global self-downing, and e) catastrophizing/awfulizing/terribilizing – the major roadblocks to forward movement that are almost always confused with “lack of motivation.”
  2. Write those sentences on the left side of the paper and on the right side, construct a rational response. 
  3. Rational responses are anchored in good reason, are free of “should” “must,” “ought,” “have to.” They are forgiving and tolerant thoughts. They question the truthfulness of irrational beliefs.

In another emotional education session, yes through “telehealth,” a man in a position of significant influence in his industry wanted to discuss his “sudden lack of motivation.” Short circuit an hour discussion to his hearing himself growing more and more fearful of failure, more demanding that he must never make a misstep, and feeling mounting pressure by comparing himself to others in his field. He hadn’t realized any of this, thinking it was all about his not having motivation for his work any longer, wondering if it was “burnout.”

He was able to question, challenge and dispute his erroneous beliefs as outlined in the three steps above. He caught his a) fear, b) low frustration tolerance, c) demandingness, d) global self-downing, and e) catastrophizing/awfulizing/terribilizing. He questioned his thinking by asking, “Who says I MUST not fail? That’s ridiculous. I’ve failed my way to the top of this industry!” He recognized that he “could very well tolerate a misstep,” that he’s made plenty in the past, and that he hadn’t become a “loser” because of that. He also reminded himself that “while it’s not always a good thing to slip, it’s not a horrible, terrible or awful thing to do.” He was free to continue on his path, unencumbered. He had revealed his unfettered “motivation.” He learned that his irrational thinking, not lack of motivation, was at the core of his putting his life on hold from moving forward in his career. 

In his recent book, “This Book Will Make You Dangerous,” Tripp Lanier writes, “We get stronger when we relax our attachment to expectations, comparisons, and achievements, and instead focus more on the activities and relationships and processes that have us feel more expansive. Striving to be the best is a trap but bringing our best to what we do allows us to live with greater freedom and possibility. Especially if we’re willing to get over how we may appear to others.” 

Motivation? It has nothing to do with one’s floundering, compared to how unfounded, groundless thinking holds people back. Stop looking for motivation. Reveal it instead.

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