What motivates successful people? The primary source of motivation that leads to success—however you may define it— isn’t a big secret: Emotions are intrinsic to all human motivation. We are not always consciously aware of the emotional signals our brain sends to our body that create a sense of urgency, direct our attention, and produce thoughts and images influencing our decisions. Thoughts that accompany emotions give meaning to what we feel and enable us to minimize, amplify, act upon, or ignore the message an emotion is attempting to convey. In some ways, our emotions are like the dinging sound of a notification that appears on a computer screen. These messages garner our attention, while our thoughts enable us to determine their meaning and make a decision regarding whether or not we should attend to them.
A marvel of evolution is that humans are not solely motivated by positive emotions. They are also motivated, and even driven to achieve, by negative emotions—a primary, powerful, and often misunderstood source of motivation. Essentially, people are motivated to do something based on their desire to turn on emotions that are positive or to turn off the negative ones. It’s just a fundamental principle about how we function emotionally. Labeling emotions as positive or negative has little to do with their value, but instead involves how they motivate us through the ways they make us feel. Negative emotions like distress, fear, anger, disgust, and shame motivate us to do something to avoid experiencing them, or they urge us to behave in ways that will relieve their effects. There is no doubt that negative emotions, along with positive ones, significantly influence our lives by silently directing the decisions we make and motivate us, for example, to be giving and caring toward others or simply to get things done.
How we learn from dealing with core emotions, to a great extent, makes us who we become.
When an emotion is activated, it is filtered through our personal history and culture, linking with all of our memories when a similar emotion was triggered. This complex process produces the distinctive ways we experience and express an emotion and makes for interesting differences among people, including the uniqueness of their personality. In fact, numerous behaviors and convictions are the result of having an ideology that is fueled by emotion.
Emotional memories activate present feeling-reminders that can fuel our motivation to accomplish something. As such, many people experience an “addiction” to the positive feeling that is stimulated by accomplishment, and their present efforts are highly motivated by emotional memories of positive feelings around success. A stark contrast is found in people who have repeatedly failed. They may have difficulty accessing memories of excitement or joy. Instead, their pessimistic thoughts around the possibility of their efforts leading to a successful outcome, along with their emotional memories of failure, may activate fear, distress, or shame. It is no wonder that someone with a history of failure might cope with their feelings around a present challenge by withdrawing effort or avoiding any engagement with a task. Their warehouse of memories may lead them to anticipate the familiar negative emotions associated with defeat.
High achievers are motivated by their emotions to put effort into their work and never miss a deadline, although some may complete a task minutes before the cutoff point. In fact, while many successful people can’t resist the urge to do things right away, countless others put things off until a deadline beckons them. Does procrastination interfere with success? Definitely not. Those who wait are just as likely to be successful as people who complete tasks ahead of time. The different timing of procrastinators and non-procrastinators to complete tasks has to do with when their emotions are activated and what activates them.
As an example, consider Melissa and Sam who were invited to participate in a ceremony and had 3 months to prepare. Melissa was asked to recite a poem; Sam was asked to give the opening speech. Melissa began memorizing the poem right away. Typical of task-driven people, her emotions are activated by tasks that are not completed—she is task-driven. Thus, she likes to prepare in advance—“just in case something happens that will interfere with getting it done.” The possible interference could be anything because, as she put it, you never know what could stand in the way of getting something done. Sam accommodated Melissa’s requests to be her practice audience; however, eventually he limited how much time he’d spend doing it.
Intermittently, and with a hint of agitation in her voice, Melissa asked Sam if he had prepared his part. As a procrastinator who is driven by emotions that are activated by a deadline, Sam put off tangibly working on the talk, leaving it to “marinate” in his head. “During that time,” he clarified, “I worked on it at a subconscious level—in my yoga class, walking, sleeping, etc. At some point, much like a solution or steps to a solution, the content of the talk started to come together.”
Expressing her annoyance with Sam in similar circumstances, Melissa remarked, “He makes me nuts when he waits. I try to let it go and let him do his thing but I don’t get why he does this last-minute stuff.” Sam contends that Melissa just worries too much about when he will get stuff done.
The evening prior to the ceremony, deadline-driven Sam created an outline of his talk. According to Melissa it was after 11:00 p.m., they were in the hotel room, and she was in bed peering past the sheets at Sam’s notes scattered across the covers. In the morning, Melissa went for a walk knowing she would have a hard time being in the room while Sam was finishing his talk. When he is in that mode, she explained, he doesn’t answer her questions and sometimes doesn’t even seem to hear her speak. She knew he’d be a different person when she returned; that is, if he was finished. Sam wrote out his talk while Melissa was on her walk. “I knew exactly what I wanted to say,” he explained. “On one level, it may be called procrastination, but I think it is a way to more fully use the brain power I have.”
You may identify more with Sam’s deadline-driven approach, with Melissa’s task-driven way of doing things, or possibly with both styles of getting things done. In any case, what they have in common are the most important attributes of professionally successful people: they effectively meet deadlines and their work reflects their best efforts.