Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

23.22 Motivation and Passion 2

Let’s begin with a little rant shall we? Perhaps you’ll be incentivized to read the whole post.

We all experience words and expressions in common usage which rub against our notions of proper English, never mind Fowler’s. (Or maybe not, maybe it’s just the writer in me.) A word or phrase that irritates every time we hear it, to the point of distraction, until scar tissue provides its own protection, or the irritating word or phrase suddenly has dropped out of favour, only to be replaced by something else likely to cause a rash. Take ‘impact’ as a verb: ‘she was impacted by that decision’; impact is a noun, for god’s sake, not a verb. It’s enough to make one’s skin crawl; just try conjugating that verb in the present tense. Affect is a perfectly good verb for the purpose; ‘impact’ is just a clumsy attempt at more dramatic effect.

(Go ahead, I’m sure you’re already thinking of words that irritate you.)

‘We’ve got your back’ is a touching phrase but when a Gen X prime minister (trying to sound like Gen Y, or even Zed) uses the expression in every other press release or announcement, well, I begin to have doubts. And when the texting generation with its increasingly compressed vocabulary starts taking words out of the expression, well, hope for effective language is threatened. Worse, when marketing departments start loading their product ads with the current vernacular I almost want to vomit. ‘We got you.’ (Got it?)

(Okay, here’s another modernism I just heard on CBC radio: ‘gunna’! ‘You’re gunna need a full orchestra for that.’ (At least we’re hearing less and less of ‘she went’, and, ‘I was, like,’.))

When it comes to motivation, my blood curdles every time I hear the word, incentivize. Do those would-be behaviour modification practitioners in Marketing Departments really believe human beings are little more than conditioned rats? Companies are going to throw in some ‘swag’ to ‘incentivize’ me buy their product. Really? As soon as I hear the word incentivize, I’m so thoroughly turned off I’ll probably never buy their damn product, unless I forget.

Motivation comes from within. No-one is actually motivated (incentivized?!) by some external force – moved maybe, but not motivated. My decision to take some action or other comes from some unmet need. If the need isn’t strong enough to prompt me to act, I won’t. Or maybe I will substitute some other need and act on it, sex, say, rather than eat. Abraham Maslow suggested, in his Hierarchy of Needs model, wrongly, that lower-level needs, need to be satisfied before a person will be motivated to satisfy higher level needs. In fact the literature is full of examples of people being motivated to pursue multiple needs at multiple levels simultaneously. Moreover it has been shown that if higher level needs are not being fulfilled it will take more, much more, satisfaction of lower-level needs to compensate for the unmet needs: I’m not getting enough love, so I’ll take more money, a lot more. And as Lennon & McCartney reminded us, money can’t buy me love.

And maybe the reverse is true: if I’ve got love, I don’t need for money (well, to a point).

Not only that, when lower-level needs are fully satisfied, the subject may not be motivated to pursue higher level needs, content to just linger [malinger?] at basic needs, or rudimentary psychological needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I got to thinking about all this a few months ago when I was struggling with the R0 manuscript for my latest novel. I had produced about 90,000 words but I was getting bogged down with unraveling the intricacies of the plot, constantly going back to previous sections to refresh the logic of it; reading sections that sounded too mechanical, not fresh and fluid; sleepless nights still threshing the mess in my mind. I was feeling like abandoning the project. But that felt like such a waste of all that effort, and so, ignoring the escalation of commitment fallacy (‘If you find you yourself in a hole, stop digging’), I poured in more time and effort. And yet wondered why I started this thing in the first place. Who/what was ‘incentivizing’ me to do it?

It certainly wasn’t Physiological or Safety Needs (or their surrogate, money); I knew selling my books would never bring in much mullah to meet those needs. I must have had enough of that already, though my bank account keeps sending me other information which I ignore.

Belonginess and love needs may have played a role (I’m never sure there’s ever enough of that); and Esteem Needs. (Hmmm. If I wrote a good book maybe people will love it, and I will feel valued and loved as a result.)

Despite those likely factors that normally motivated me, I still felt stuck, frustrated, impotent. I was bogged down in a project I never wanted in the first place! I blamed my readers for luring me down this rabbit hole. I never intended to write a sequel to The Treasure of Stella Bay, but I was baited by well-intentioned readers – ‘What happens to Alex next?’.

So what is this mysterious process that prompts a person to act, or perhaps even more to the point, get moving again when they get stuck?

I taught organization behaviour as an adjunct professor at Carleton University for ten years. Not sure what motivated me then to accept the assignment but I can tell you I learned a lot about motivation theory. (If you think you know a lot about something, try teaching it and discover how little you actually knew.)

But from Maslow, and likely a host of other theorists, I had an inkling why I agreed to teach that course: Self-esteem needs. And a need sufficiently strong as to overtake the fear of failure and the pain of having to do a lot of work. The person who cajoled me into teaching that course didn’t use a carrot (fees were $2500 for the course, 40 hours of classroom work, which of course is at least 80 hours of total effort, or $31.25/hr, maybe) and she certainly didn’t use a stick, unless it was the proverbial psychological kind. So, if Physiological and Safety needs were not the motivators to teach that course, it must have been Psychological – the obligations that are derived from the need for friendship and belongingness. At least, the first time. Persisting – teaching the course again for nine more years – must have been fueled by Esteem needs – prestige and feeling of accomplishment. Possibly even Self-Actualization.

Writing my first book – The Dynamics of Management – came about in part because of teaching Organization Behaviour at Carleton; here I was, a pseudo-academic, maybe I should confirm it by writing an academic book!

Then a couple of memoirs to confirm my writing ability, and sense of humour, and satisfy those pesky Esteem Needs. And so, I became an author. 

Now, five books and two manuals later, (‘Alex Choice’ will be my tenth endeavour) I keep on writing, those Esteem Needs still not fully met (are they ever?). I consider abandoning this painful unfulfilling business but instead I keep on digging, despite the self-doubt. I take some solace in knowing that almost all writers suffer similarly. But is a constant need for approbation the only thing driving me? And when I get stuck, why do I persist? Surely there are other ways to satisfy that unmet need. I already know that going to the fridge or pantry for yet another diversionary snack is not going to do the trick.

I knew (but there’s a difference between knowing, and knowing!) that Maslow’s theory, while the best known, was not the last word. I believed, long ago, that Frederick Herzberg was onto something when he said that people are motivated by the work itself. This notion may be simply a manifestation of Maslow’s Esteem Need (sense of accomplishment), even Self-Actualization, but the work itself becomes the practical vehicle for realization of the Need. It is more than Descartes proof of existence: It’s not just ‘I think, therefore I am’, it’s ‘I do, therefore I am’. We are not just human beings, we are human doings. And when we are not doing something that feels purposeful and generates a sense of accomplishment, human beings suffer from ennui and depression. 

‘Doing’ also gives us opportunity to engage our talents and abilities, become totally immersed in the work, and enter a state of ‘flow’, to use Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term.

So, when struggling with R0 of my latest book – Alex’ Choice – what did I do? I opened the file on my computer, perused some of the passages, fell into editing mode, which allowed the creativity muse to resume her place in my mind, and four hours later, tired from the effort, or finally surrendering to the persistent calls for attention from my asawa, I would retire for the day. Another 1500 words had been produced at least and I was that much closer to my goal – the completed first draft of my opus. And a mild sense of accomplishment, even if only temporary. 

I wasn’t ‘incentivized’. I just got back to work.

Next edition we’ll take a look at motivation’s longer term relative, passion.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

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