Yesterday I called up my 15 year old son’s tutor at the school. I wanted to meet with him to find out why Dominic isn’t doing so well at his exams this year.
‘He isn’t motivated’ said the teacher.
Now I have spent a lot of time studying motivation. In fact I once ran a coaching workshop for employees with ‘motivational’ problems. And I have concluded that it doesn’t exist. That people who use the word ‘motivation’ are really talking about something else. They would be better off using words like ‘desire’, ‘interest’, or ‘reward’.
So when someone fails to show up for work for the third time this week that is telling you that they have more interesting things to do than come to the office. It’s not that they don’t have any motivation to do the job; they just don’t have a reason to.
If an alcoholic breaks his promise not to drink any more it’s not because he lacks ‘motivation’. It’s just that getting drunk is so nice, compared to other things he could do, that there is no reason why he should give it up. As Gregory Bateson once said, the alcoholic’s problem is not alcohol; it’s sobriety.
I don’t know yet why my son isn’t working harder at his grades. But I do know it’s not because he isn’t filled with motivation (he has plenty of that for his Saturday job, skate-boarding, and chasing girls). It’s more likely that school work isn’t interesting enough. Or that he doesn’t see the point.
Some people – including psychologists who ought to know better – talk about motivation as if it were a pep pill. Something that gives you lots of energy and galvanises you into going to the party you wouldn’t otherwise go to. Something that a highly-paid consultant can give you if you sign up for enough sessions.
Now, if we apply Reverse Thinking to this idea we get something like this:
“Motivation doesn’t exist inside the person. It is a reason for doing something that comes with the activity.”
If you want someone to work for you, you are going to have to give them an advantage for doing so. Or, else, you are going to have to take away the advantages they have for not coming in (why would anyone in their right mind go to work if they knew they were going to be paid anyway?).
If you want to quit drinking you are going to have to find another activity that is more rewarding than alcohol. Or you are going to have to find out the hard way that getting drunk every day is going to take you to a lot of bad places you’d rather not visit.
I don’t yet know what needs to happen for my son to work harder at his exams – or even if he wants to. But if he finds a motivationless way out I’ll post it here.