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The 3 Most Powerful Motivations — Just what you need to know to get yourself going

Admit it. We all have moments where we just can't get ourselves to do the things that we wish to accomplish. These are times where we feel powerless and somehow lacking in this energy called motivation. This is exactly what this post aims to address: How to summon a motivation strong enough to jump-start our systems, especially when we are devoid of them.


The concept of motivation always fascinates me. As an educator, we often look into motivation in hope to inspire our students to take action towards a learning goal or cultivate positive behaviours. As the saying goes, one can lead the horse to the water but can't make it drink. To me, the difference in the outcome (i.e. drinking vs not-drinking horse) depends on its motivation. This is why I am always fascinated by the studies on motivation since this helps us become more emphatic and effective as leaders (of others and ourselves).


Just ONE thing before we examine the Big Three...

It is worthwhile to share the concept of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation whenever the topic of motivation is being raised. Simply put, these two terms describe the source of motivation, namely: extrinsic for external factors (i.e. environment) and intrinsic for internal factors (i.e. self-generated) of influence in motivation. Literature has often emphasised the importance of developing intrinsic motivation for greater sustainability (of positive outcomes) instead of constant reliance on extrinsic sources of motivation. Considering how challenging it is to change the mental construct of any individual, the usual course of action involves the use of extrinsic motivators through the thoughtful design of the environment to eventually shape and develop intrinsic motivation. I find the general awareness of this process helpful in reducing the frustrations felt if one tries to address/develop intrinsic motivation (ideal state) right from the start — i.e. don't do it.


Ok, enough said. Let's look into the 3 motivators!


Our 3 Biggest Motivators are...

1. Survival

What would you have done differently if your entire future depended on this one outcome? We often hear about how situations transform people. People with great achievements often shared stories about how they were put into situations (by fate or by themselves) where they had no choice but to succeed.


But this is not limited to those remarkable people. We know of how a health scare or a close shave from an accident can cause people to turn their entire life around. Chain smokers can go cold turkey on their life-long habit. Family which has always been second-tiered against work finally got the promised time and attention.


Leveraging this motivator:

When our very existence (physical and metaphorical) is threatened, the situation motivates us to literally do anything we can to effect the change. But it is just not feasible or too late to wait for such unfortunate situations to occur before we get motivated for change. So instead, what we can do is to set aside time/days to first imagine such situations unfolding and then put into practice what we would have done in those situations. While such simulations would never result in the same magnitude of motivation as if the event were to happen, just taking moments to think about "what would I have done different should I die/lose my job/lose a loved one a year from now" would shake up our current paradigms, challenge our existing practices and ultimately motivate us to take action.


2. Interest/passion

One key reason why researchers, journalists and photographers can give up the comfort of security and head into warzones and wilderness comes down to their burning passion. These passions are so great that the risks involved are just inevitable part of the process and they use the term trade-offs instead of sacrifices. In their minds, all of these are all worth it for that knowledge, news or shot that they envisioned is waiting for them to be discovered. As we would agree, it is a matter of perspective but undeniably, they proved that interests and passion can create motivations so great that transcends one's personal safety.


Leveraging this motivator:

Often, we hear of this phrase: find your passion, which suggests that one's passion is a fixed entity, waiting to be discovered. However, when we use the term "passionate" to describe someone, it portrays a person who shows strong feelings for multiple (if not, every) subjects. Hence, in my opinion, while one can and should increase exposure to discover areas of interest, passion can be developed and a great part of this developmental process lies in putting in the extra bit of effort to appreciate the process of getting things done. Don't rush. Get down to the basics and have more fun. Then the motivation will come naturally.



3. Pain

Interestingly, pain, which is on the other end of the spectrum of fun, works just as well as a motivator. In fact, pain is such a universal motivator that it has been used to train animals (alongside the use of treats).


For us, pain can come in many forms. In most cases, we are not referring to physical pain but more in the form of shame, loss and stress. It is the fear of these sources of pain that creates powerful motivators. This is why students behave in the fear of being signal out (shame), why investors throw in huge sums of money in the fear of losing out, and why we are able to miraculously complete seemingly impossible feats only when the deadline draws nearer (stress).


Leveraging this motivator:

As all things in life tend towards the path of least resistance, we make use of this concept of pain to help motivate ourselves by (1) increasing the pain of the unintended action and (2) decrease the pain of the intended action. This is why the first step to effective dieting is to remove junk food from your house (increase the pain involved in accessing them) and restock the house with healthy food instead (make taking healthy food at least less painful).

We can also leverage the fear of "losing face" (shame) by making a public declaration on something that we would hope to keep up so that the pain of being judged will keep us motivated enough to take action, even at times when we do not feel like it.


And there we have the 3 most powerful motivators. Do you agree? Share your thoughts with me!



Motivation is about push and pull. Leverage not just the pretty (passion & interest) but also the ugly (pain & survival)! 😉

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