Changing Motivations

Around ManilaCoachingForeign Service Life
July 31, 2010

If you’ll think back to mid-July we talked a bit about Getting Ready to Be Ready.  The act of writing that post was very freeing in and of itself and I noticed an immediate shift in my resistance afterward.  It seemed, in giving myself full permission to not be ready, that I actually altered my readiness to act!  Let’s just say it’s been a very productive few weeks (despite being impacted by a flu bug)…

That shift from paralysis to action got me thinking a lot about motivation.  I realized that with motivation there are really two common forces that compel us into action.  Quite simply, we either seek to AVOID PAIN or GAIN PLEASURE.  While gaining pleasure is more satisfying in the long run, I’ve noticed in my own life experience that avoiding pain seems to provide greater motivation.

I have ample examples in the past of fear-based motivation enabling me to achieve great things in my life.  In fact, I would go to great extremes to prevent myself from failing, disappointing others, causing shame, etc.  If my anxiety decided to get in on the game, then I may go so far as to conclude that I must achieve this certain thing (ex: get a certain job, fix a problem at work, find a new renter) or PERISH.  These nasty thought chains always had me thinking I was just one mis-step from complete destruction (my therapist later helped me see how irrational those lines of thinking were).  Suffice to say, anxiety was a powerful motivator and I achieved some near-miraculous things during those first 25 years because of it!  Too bad it wasn’t a very healthy existence…

Fast forward to the present…. There has been a chain of events over the past 5 years that has essentially eliminated fear-based motivation in my life.  These events include:

  • Pulling myself out of depression and discovering my own resilience (translation: I now know I am never going to perish)
  • Getting married and no longer feeling like I am on my own in the world
  • Joining the Foreign Service and feeling the security of having an invisible safety net (translation: Nick’s job will be guaranteed once he gets tenured in 2 years; our health care, housing and security will always be taken care of)

It’s easy to make the assumption that removing fear-based motivation is a good thing.  However, it really seems to be contributing to my recent paralysis because without those irrational fears to drive me, I’m forced to find a replacement.  And that shift to pleasure-based motivation feels a bit more elusive in nature.

In my opinion, pleasure-based motivation is ultimately rooted in living out one’s life purpose.  Yet despite being immensely satisfying, there is often still an element of pain under the surface.  For example, the Mothers who started MADD found their purpose in educating people about the negative impact of drunk driving.  While their cause may be an extension of their life’s purpose, it was still bourne out of the pain of losing their children to a drunk driving accident.

For me, I sense that the pain under the surface is a fear of “dying a spiritual death” from NOT accepting this calling.  And so the larger question becomes:

Why am I going to be willing to fail?

I don’t have the answers yet on this one, so I’d love to hear what this brought up for you.  In your life, are you more motivated by avoiding pain or gaining pleasure?  Have you ever tried to consciously alter your motivations?

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