Have you ever had a big career, weight loss, or personal goal that no matter what you did you just couldn’t seem to motivate yourself to actually take action on?
It seemed like a good idea at first. You really did want to start that business, learn to speak Japanese, or lose those 30 pounds.
From time to time you put a little effort into it, but six months–or worse, maybe even years down the road–you still have nothing meaningful to show for your effort. Meanwhile you’ve been beating yourself up over your lack of progress and self discipline.
Why does this happen? You know you wanted to achieve the goal. But where is this ephemeral motivation that never seems to possess you or drive you forward?
Before we go any further though, let’s be clear. When we talk about motivation, we are talking about what it takes to accomplish the big things and make major life changes. We’re not talking about procrastinating on making breakfast because you can’t find the “motivation” to fry some eggs. In fact it feels a bit weird to even use the word motivation in that context.
We also need to separate out vague feelings of “wanting to do something” from real motivation that lights the fire behind your eyes and makes you unstoppable. With real motivation you can move mountains and achieve superhuman feats. Just “wanting to do something” is merely wishful thinking that won’t get you anywhere but a pleasant daydream.
When it comes down to it, there are really only two types of motivation. I call them “The Rock Bottom Turnaround” and “Falling in Love with an Idea.” These are the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum. In other words, they are the biggest carrot and the biggest stick.
Why do we need not just any carrot or any stick, but the biggest carrot and the biggest stick? Because for major life changes nothing less will do. When we are cruising along in our comfort zones, small carrots and small sticks are powerless against the status quo.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these in turn.
The Rock Bottom Turnaround
Often by the time we go looking for a solution to our problems it’s because we have already let them get so bad that they’ve blown up in our face and now it’s time to do or die.
If this is you, don’t feel bad. It happens to us all. Governments are also notorious for not even trying to fix situations until they’ve blown up in our faces–2008 financial crisis anyone?
In fact, most, if not all, self-help gurus speak to the rock bottom turnaround motivation for the very reason that most people are seeking answers once they’ve hit rock bottom. Tony Robbins, the most famous self-help guru of all time, tells the story of hitting rock bottom as a broke high-school student living out of his car.
We’re used to hearing stories of drug addicts who turn themselves around after hitting rock bottom and experiencing a country music song string of misfortunes like their wife leaving, losing their kids, their house and truck get repossessed, and to top it all off even their dog runs away.
However, there are also other ways of hitting rock bottom. We’ve all heard the infamous breakup line, “I just don’t want to be another year older and still in this relationship.” Or if you’re overweight and the doctor tells you that you either need to lose weight or you’ll die.
You might also experience hitting rock bottom at your job. Though it isn’t absolutely terrible, you are not particularly happy in your current job and interested in finding a new job. Six months go by and maybe you’ve submitted a resume or two on Monster.com that didn’t even get so much as a rejection letter in response, but you haven’t really gotten anywhere yet. Then maybe something happens like you get stiffed on a bonus check or your boss chews you out over something that wasn’t your fault and that’s the last straw. Come hell or high-water you are getting out of that job.
However you get there, you reach a point where in the infamous words from the 1976 movie Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Until you actually hit rock bottom a tiny piece of your mind sabotages you. It tells you that things aren’t all bad. It gives you just enough hope that things will get better to keep you placated. And ultimately it prevents you from taking action.
It takes your back being against the wall and the loss of all hope in the status quo to find the determination to lose the weight, start the new business, leave the abusive spouse, or pursue the unpursued dream.
But… what if you don’t want to hit rock bottom? I mean.. most of us don’t live lives that are really all that bad. Your version of the status quo might be a fairly comfortable, though unsatisfying, middle-management job. Deliberately orchestrating some catastrophe in your life in order to hit rock bottom and find some motivation just isn’t a great way to go about doing things.
The rock bottom turnaround is a great motivational style if you do happen to hit rock bottom, and you should absolutely take advantage of it when it arises. As politicians say, “never miss an opportunity presented by a crisis.”
However, you should never actively try to hit rock bottom. There is a much better way.
Falling in Love with an Idea
I was watching a video once about meeting women in bars and clubs. The speaker was saying you need to be playful, banter, and have a “cocky funny” style of humor. At the time I was thinking, “oh god, do you really have to do all that?” when as if reading my mind he said, “and by the way, the guys who are really good at this don’t see it as a chore that they have to do to meet women, they really enjoy flirting and bantering and that’s why they are the best at it.”
And in that moment I achieved critical insight. High achievers who are the best of the best at something don’t get there in spite of what they have to do to get results, but because they love doing what it takes to get those results.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, never rolled out of bed and said, “damn it, I hate lifting weights.” He literally described his time in the gym as if he were “cumming” all day long. Every time he went to the gym he was cumming, and his life was awesome because he spent all day every day cumming. As he progressed he found new goals to challenge himself and won a record seven Mr. Olympia titles.
You’ve undoubtedly experienced some version of this before with a hobby. You saw something that looked fun, so you tried it. Before you knew it you were obsessed with it and spent all your time thinking about it, reading about it, and practicing it.
If you love to put together model airplanes, never once did you think to yourself, “gee, I just can’t find the motivation to put together this model airplane that I’ve been saving up to buy for months and anxiously awaiting for 2 weeks to arrive in the mail.” As soon as the box arrived, you disappeared into your plane assembling lair and emerged a week later with your masterpiece.
Most business success stories have idea love motivation in common. Microsoft, for example, started with a couple of college boys messing around in Bill Gates’s garage just seeing what they could make a box of electronics do with some code. The idea grew on itself organically and turned into Microsoft Windows.
You will almost never hear a Fortune 500 business story that starts off like this, “well, I wanted to start a business so I thought up a bunch of ideas that might make money and picked one that seemed like it might work.” Without the love of the idea or product that you are developing it’s all but impossible to weather the storms of starting a company.
In my own life, I always struggled with learning kanji (the pictographic characters) while learning Japanese. It was just such an incredible pain in the ass and there were so many of them. But when fall break came during my study abroad in Japan I suddenly got this idea to see how many kanji I could learn in a week. Before I knew it I was on a bus to the store to buy some make-your-own flash card kits. I spent 12 hours a day for a week straight making flashcards and reviewing them. At the end of the week I’d learned over 600 new kanji and about 1,500 new Japanese words.
The best part is that since I had fallen in love with my own idea it required no “motivating myself” or “psyching myself up.” I actually enjoyed what I was doing and couldn’t wait to get up in the morning to get started.
As I intimated this motivational style doesn’t work particularly well if you sit down and say, “okay, I’d like to start a business” or “I’d like to lose some weight.” You get much better results if you fall in love with the idea of developing a particular product or service, or if you fall in love with the idea of seeing how much weight you can deadlift. The successful business and the weight loss are the result of the idea you’ve fallen in love with and not the idea itself.
If you’re a baker you might fall in love with the idea of owning your own bakery. If you’re a corporate drone who’s lived in the same town all his life, you might fall in love with the idea of running guided tours to exotic locations. If you’ve wanted to get fit, instead of hitting rock bottom by pounding that last box of donuts to tip the scale at 300 lbs, you might fall in love with the idea of deadlifting 500 lbs. Or you might read about the paleo diet and fall in love with the idea of perfecting your food intake and discovering how your body reacts to different foods.
If you’re not head over heels in love with an idea, you won’t pursue it to perfection. It will seem like a chore. Intrinsic love of the idea is the only thing that will keep you pursuing it day in and day out, and the only thing that will allow you to achieve long range goals that require delayed gratification.
Final thoughts on motivation
It goes without saying that it’s better to be motivated by love of an idea than hitting rock bottom whenever possible.
The rock bottom turnaround is a “move away from” motivation. It seeks to take you away from what you don’t want, but it doesn’t necessarily give you a clear direction of where to go instead. Falling in love with an idea is a “move toward” motivation. It takes you to new heights and leads you to the metaphorical promised land.
If neither one of these types of motivation are accessible to you, it’s worth stopping to re-assess whether the goal you have in mind is something you really want or would just be a nice to have. You might decide, for instance, that losing 15 lbs really won’t add that much quality to your life and you can do without, so you can stop feeling bad about your failure to take action on that goal.
There’s no shame in admitting that you’ve been pursuing the wrong goal–even if you’ve been doing it for a long time. We’re talking about your own personal happiness here and it just doesn’t make sense to waste precious life pursuing goals that aren’t a good match for you.
If you’re not about to hit a rock bottom turnaround or you aren’t madly in love with an idea, you’d be better off spending your time on the couch watching TV or doing something else that brings you pleasure. Otherwise all you will accomplish is long periods of no productivity that you beat yourself up over.
You don’t need to worry too much about finding ideas that you fall in love with. They have a way of finding you and propelling you into action before you even know what happened.
Instead, I would encourage you to learn to tell the difference between goals that you really feel inspired by and goals that you merely think you should be inspired by.