What motivation is

What is motivation?

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 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’.

Finding motivation

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.

Motivation isn’t a pill

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 to persuade someone to do something you are going to have to do one of two things:

Connect the thing you want them to do with their desire, or better still, passion. For example, their desire to excel at something they are good at doing.

Connect the thing you want them to do with their self-advantage. For example, their interest in getting that promotion.


Featured image by Manasvita S on Unsplash


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