Self motivation: fickle and elusive

Self motivation is a fickle flower. Some people seem innately driven into action. Others flounder flitting from thing to thing. Starting and stopping looking for the map. But as Seth Godin has written, there is no map.

A few weeks ago CASUDI engaged in a conversation about self motivation and inspired me to think a little deeper. I’m fascinated by how people end up in their respective careers – some by happenstance and others because they followed their muse. Most people though don’t seem to take a proactive approach to their careers. They let the jobs come to them rather than make the effort to design their own. And then they look at those who make it and consider them lucky. As if luck was all it took. Sure it can play a part, but only after one works to put themselves into a position to get lucky. Often failing many times before they got ‘lucky’. But most people don’t see that. They think it can’t be them. They’re not willing to expend the calories it takes to achieve a higher level of being. They let others tell them where to go. What to do.

I consider myself a fairly motivated person, always reading, learning and curious. I love exploring new ideas and pushing my thinking. But I don’t consider myself the picture of driven, self-made success. I just saw Invictus last weekend about Nelson Mandela – talk about self motivation. Jailed for 27 years and keeping his focus, determination and then being able to forgive. ‘I am the master of my own destiny’ is what he told himself. How many of us can find such strength?

I read about people like Gary Hirschberg, Jason Fried, Gert Boyle. Or how about Chris Gardner? When so many others would remain homeless, he wouldn’t accept that and took action. To different degrees, each has a work ethic and persevered in the face of adversity. Some started solving problems for themselves (Jason). Others have a vision (Gary) and others are merely motivated to survive (Gert and Chris).  In reading these stories recognize that each is personal and specific to them. While you can glean tips and inspiration, you have to make it your own. Find your own way.

But each had the internal fortitude to keep digging for the answers. And never give up. For me, I’m motivated by the desire to create, help others and achieve financial independence. I’ve certainly made mistakes earlier in my career – failing at commercial photography (but learned the secret to building a million dollar photography business: start with two million).

I also think it comes down to decision making style. Some people are more adept at committing to a direction, cutting through a sea of limitless choices to the idea and process that fits them. That takes discipline. You have to have the confidence in your thinking to make the big decisions and break them down into manageable steps that take you to success. Rarely is it one big leap. Think about the 10,000 hours it takes for mastery.

You might think going to a motivational seminar will do the trick. But it’s like a drug. It lasts in the moment. Long enough for you to spend some cash on their motivational materials only to end up on that shelf in the back of your office. Seminars like Get motivated. If you’re seriously going to get something out of such seminars, you have to do the hard work that comes after the high wears off.

Same goes with all the self-help books. Yes, they provide insight, advice and motivation. But it’s what you do with it that counts. And that takes YOU. Self motivation. No one else can do it for you. You have to want to change.

The best way I’ve seen to be motivated is to not be too comfortable. You have to want change so bad because if not, you’ll keep doing what you’re always doing. Change causes physical pain in the brain and only through consistent focus can you internalize that change and make it stick. To transfer that new way of being to the part of your brain where it’s internalize. Like you did when you learned to drive.

So to get motivated and sustain it, you need to want it. You need to find and set direction rather than swing for the latest fad. You need a process with rituals that take you step by step to where you want to go. You need to make it past the Dip. You need to look into the drop off and be able to make the leap across. Which takes a little faith and willingness to step out of your comfort zone.

In short, it takes you. And you alone. It helps to surround yourself with others who aspire to better themselves rather than those content with punching a clock. And that means you need to be aware of who you spend your time with and seek out people that push you rather than drag you down.

Most people are inherently lazy and not hungry. They don’t take action. But you’re different right? How do you get motivated and sustain it? Where do you find your inner strength. That’s something I’ll be exploring both to understand what really motivates me and how I can better push myself.


  1. CASUDI says:

    This is really a great post and an apt continuation of our discussion. I have known people who “have it made”, both from a lifestyle and financial security perspective, who are self- motivated; so “hunger” in the final analysis of things would not be the driver.

    The other part of the discussion is how can you take, inspire or teach a person who is lacking in the self- motivated department to become self-motivated? How can you get people who work for you (at all levels) to take initiative; look around see what needs doing and do it (and be right)

    Many, many years ago I thought I had this solved. The people I worked with, appeared to be taking the lead on their own…. looked like they were in fact becoming self-motivated…… however it was my mentor at the time who put me right. He gave me some advice which I have valued all trough the years. He said something like this ” You have an uncanny talent of bringing out the best in people, and getting them to do far more then they ever thought they were capable of. So when you think you have caused a person to be self-motivated, step back and look-see how they do on their own, absolutely without you monitoring them……. made me look like a puppeteer sort of, but he was right. Good advice and I don’t recommend people until they prove they can do it on their own, or I say they are excellent if you monitor and supervise them closely.

    So I am still looking. Maybe there just are self-motivated people and people you need to motivate 🙂


  2. Patrick says:

    Years ago I went to a local BMW club meeting with my sister and her husband. The host was a single guy in his late 30s who was independently wealthy via family and didn’t need to work. So he didn’t. He lived in an incredible home and on the surface seemed to have it made. Yet he didn’t sound particularly happy – more lost and floundering without a purpose. That’s always stuck with me as here was someone who had the opportunities to start a business, engage in philanthropy, etc. – He had the freedom to make a choice yet was paralyzed by it.

    I’ve also tried to push people into taking positive steps to change their position – whether it was urging them to go back to school because you’re never too old, or to take the initiative in finding a new job because they weren’t happy in the one they had, etc. Most didn’t take action. In fact, there’s only one person I inspired to go back to school for a journalism degree. She did, became a respected reporter and now works in public affairs.

    Your point about teaching someone to be motivated when they’re not being watched or nudged along is the clincher I believe – and what I hope to dig into. I’m fortunate to have a team that’s pretty self-motivated, but they came into their jobs that way. I’ve also worked with some that were not at all motivated and no amount of coaching seemed to ignite a spark.

    In my own family I see the differences between those motivated and those not at all.

    It makes me think some people are inherently driven and others simply aren’t. To your point, maybe many need to be lead.

    @Jacoutofthebox said today that part of self motivation is the need to believe in yourself. Perhaps it starts there. So I wonder if the unmotivated are because they don’t believe in their own capabilities to make a difference. So they don’t even take the first step.

  3. CASUDI says:

    In my continuing research to understand the subject at hand, I found this on a NDT website (a post on helping students become motivated learners)

    “Some people are highly motivated by money, others by power, and other by praise. Since teachers are not usually in a position to offer students money or power, the focus here will be on praise. It should also be noted that some people are self-motivated and perform because they like challenge and want to perform. While educators can’t make or teach students to be self-motivated, they can encourage and promote this highly desirable personal trait. Generally, students will show some self-motivation if they (1) know what is expected of them, (2) think the effort is worthwhile, and (3) feel they will benefit through effective performance”

    This was the part that rang my bell …some people are self-motivated and perform because they like challenge …….. as I love to solve problems, overcome not unknown and not insurmountable challenges.

    If I had no confidence in myself, if I did not believe in my own capabilities would it stop me from ever starting, however much I liked a challenge? Somehow I feel there is a “risk” ingredient in here also. To take on a challenge it would seem you have to be comfortable with “risk”, so what does “risk” have to do with self~motivation?


  4. Patrick says:

    The notion of risk and confidence I think are key components to motivation. Just watched the Pursuit of Happyness the other night and that’s case where Chris Gardner was motivated to get out of homelessness and took a huge risk on the unpaid internship. He overcame so many obstacles that would have caused most to give up long before. Yet he persevered and his hard work won the day. All he had was a vision of where he wanted to go. It’s this level of self-motivation that piques my interest.

    It’s interesting how educators can via praise motivate. Chris Gardner clearly didn’t seek the praise but had an inner fortitude that carried him. He had a certain level of confidence. So I think the two go hand in hand – and reveal in varying degrees the motivation of those around us. I really do believe that the more comfortable and easy our lives, the less motivated we might be to take proactive steps to make major changes.

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