The following idea could change your life.
That idea is this: Motivation is not a personality trait. It is situational.
If you think you’re unmotivated, you might believe that there’s something wrong with you. Labels like loser, lazy, and failure are thrown around when you may find yourself in a funk, but never let these words define you as a person for one simple reason: They don’t. Let’s look at some extreme examples to show you what I’m talking about.
If I placed a hungry lion in your room, would you not be motivated to run?
If you were caught in a dangerous storm, would you not be motivated to find shelter?
How about this shark swimming behind you?
What motivates you in this case? Well, fear, obviously. You’re motivated to save your own life. According to Abraham Maslow, the answer is that when your physiological and safety needs are not being met, they will motivate you. Being hungry will motivate you to find food. Being in danger will motivate you to find safety. When such needs are met, however, they no longer motivate you.
I’m sure none of this is too ground-shaking yet. But where it gets interesting is when we apply to concepts to higher forms of motivation: being motivated to study, to have a strong work-ethic, to pursue relationships or to reach our utmost potential as human beings (what Maslow called self-actualization). Below is a diagram illustrating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Continue to scroll down for a brief explanation that can make it applicable to your daily life.
Ignore the lowest two levels: I’m going to assume that if you’re able to read this, these needs are already being met.
The third level is love and belonging. This level illustrates every human’s desire to be loved and accepted. Individuals who do not feel loved and accepted may suffer from social anxiety, chronically low self-esteem, clinical depression, and so on. These issues become the central themes in the individual’s life: they consume the individuals as he struggles to find validation and acceptance while others are onto bigger and better things, such as the fourth level of the hierarchy.
This is the Esteem. This illustrates the need for self-respect, independence, freedom, mastery, and so on. The highest level is the idea of an individual being all that they can be, and accomplishing all they are able to accomplish.
What the specific levels mean is not all that important. And the hierarchy isn’t perfect anyway. What is important is to understand how our needs tend to motivate us.
Consider the classic scenario of a spoiled only-child with wealthy parents. She has everything she needs and has never had to work for anything. The bottom four levels of the hierarchy will therefore be unlikely to motivate her. If she doesn’t find a way to self-actualize, to express her true being, she will appear lazy to the untrained eye. But the reality is that her needs are being met, and so no motivation is being created.
Take that same individual and put them in a scenario where some of their basic needs are removed, and you will see motivation like you never thought possible.
These days, motivation is labeled as an individual trait: you either have it or you don’t. You’re either driven or you’re just lazy. I hope a did a good job of introducing the idea that this belief is false: motivation is actually situational. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, although not perfect, does a great job of illustrating this fact. The best part about this is that adjusting your environment (or situation) can lead to creating the kind of emotions that can drive action.
Now, a lion isn’t going to motivate you to get a job, or study harder, or whatever your goal is…but, moving out might, for example. Men who work 12 hour days to support their families are no different — from an internal motivation standpoint — than a guy who’s sitting at home in his mom’s basement playing videogames all day. One is driven because his circumstances leave him with no other choice. The other is not, because his basic motivational needs (food and shelter) are being satisfied without having to work for them.
The idea is, take this knowledge and extrapolate it to your current situation. In other words, find what moves you, personally, and take advantage of it. Hack your brain. The following examples are meant to get you started in the right direction. The ones that apply to you will vary drastically based on your demographics. Obviously the things that will motivate an unemployed 18 year old living at home will probably not apply to a 30 year old with a full-time job and mortgage. I expect you’ll be able to find which may be relevant to you. Some examples to galvanize motivation:
- Take full financial responsibility for your life by refusing to be dependent on anyone else (e.g. your parents)
- Surround yourself with motivated individuals whose presence inspires you
- Move out. Not only will having to pay rent motivate you to work, but you’ll actually find this motivation spilling into other aspects of your life as well. Responsibility brings satisfaction.
- If you want to lose weight, buy smaller sized clothing.
You get the idea. It’s important to work on ourselves from an internal standpoint, but this article takes the opposite approach. It’s about changing your environment so you can change your internal state. If it works for you, run with it.