Cursed Motivation

Posted: 2021-08-27

A question I often see asked is one along the lines of

How do I motivate myself do (something)

… where something may be eat healthier, go to the gym, work on some project, study hard, &c.

This idea of motivation is interesting. I think it in part comes from the school system, where teachers and parents often talk about motivating the children to study, perhaps with some sort of reward system. I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly who introduced the idea, but my hunch is based on never seeing the particular usage of the word in a book printed before the late 20th century.

What we seem to mean by the word is that feeling of excitement for a task that compels us to do it. But in practice, motivation is a fair weather friend at best. Motivation goes away the first hint of an obstacle. The eye of the tiger screeches to a halt and your montage is replaced by the harsh reality that work is still work. As a means to compelling yourself (or someone else) to follow through on something, it’s a disasterously useless tool. It is however a very useful money-making tool. There is an entire industry dedicated to selling useless motivation. Motivational speekers, motivational books, motivational posters. But it is, to be perfectly clear, snake oil they are selling.

Moving beyond the assumption that motivation will be the solution, there is a second problem with the question being asked. The asker sees himself as two people, when in reality, he is one person with two sets of wants, the short-term wants, and long-term wants; wants that he doesn’t understand are in conflict and doesn’t know to weigh against each other.

We can characterize the short-term wants as those wants that reflect on what we want to experience. These are the wants of motivation, of craving, of fear, of anxiety. Long term wants on the other hand are wants of what sort of person we want to be. These are existential wants, of ideals, of morals.

This is not a modern problem. Saint Augustine, living some 1600 years ago, famously declared

Give me chastity, but not just yet.

This disparity between what we actually do, and how we think we ought to act, is one humans seem to have rediscovered in regular intervals. Modern economists and behavioral scientists talk of the value-action gap, the moral philosophers of antiquity talk of moral incontinence. It’s arguably different words for the same thing.

A part of the problem is understanding. As mentioned, it seems oddly popular to view yourself as two different people. All that does is breed a sense of helplessness and a feeling of not being in control. But as much as you can raise your arm on the command of your will, you are in control now and always. This appearance of a lack of control is a mirage brought on by refusing to acknowledge your vacillating goals and unclear ambitions.

The superior approach, I think, is to reflect on your actions, and to build an understanding of things as they are in contrast to what they promise they will be. For example, many of the things we crave only seem a good idea in the future, but seem a bad idea in the past. Alcohol is perhaps the best example of this effect, but even beyond things that cause a literal hangover, this is a common pattern. The opposite pattern of appearances can be found in things that seem like chores. Going to the gym on a rainy day, cleaning your house, going to the dentist: Few look forward to these things, but fewer still regret having done them. Should we really trust these questionable promises of the future in the face of what the past teaches us again and again?

This practice of reflection also needs to extend to long-term wants. Are they actually things we want, or things we think others will be impressed by? Fulfilling other peoples’ goals isn’t necessarily fulfilling your own. The reason we compel ourselves to follow through with these long-term wants is because it is what we want. If we take resolute steps in the wrong direction, if we follow through on what we don’t want, we’re off than having wandered aimlessly and not followed through on anything. We also need to be brutally honest with ourselves about the reasons why we do (or avoid) some things for this to work.

As a closing note, I’ll mention self-esteem, as a highly related topic people seem to have all manner of strange ideas about. They think they need to go to the gym and get buff in order to get self-esteem; they do, and improve their self-esteem, but it was following through on that long-term want, rather than shifting physical appearance, that improved their self-esteem. It is in the name, self-esteem. You build regard for yourself by doing the things you think you should do. You lose it by doing things you think you shouldn’t do.