The Three Motivators

A while ago I wrote a post on deep work, that seemed to go down well.

So, I thought I’d try another slightly off topic thought. Like deep work, it’s not my idea, just something I find really helpful and you might too.

It’s about motivation, the sources of your motivation and recognising if your motivation is declining or out of balance.

I stole it from an extraordinary person, Matt Mills or just Mills. In truth he may have stolen it himself and you may have already come across the idea.

Mills is the founder of the digital studio Ustwo that achieved monumental success with a game called Monument Valley. I first came across him at the Do Lectures last year and have been listening to his daily podcast ever since then. To be clear he is no Joe Rogan, Mills takes a complete stream of consciousness approach to his podcasting, which some people love and some loathe. I’m in the former camp and crave his restless curiosity and unsettling enthusiasm as a source of new ideas and inspiration. You should try it out.

So, having told you where I stole this thought from, I now want to you to think of this as my idea.

As I said it’s about motivation, about understanding what tends to motivate you to do something and to do something well.

There are three motivations. Comfort, fear and drive. While they don’t all seem that motivating at first sight. I mean how can fear be motivating? But they actually describe why I do anything, and pretty much everything I do. And I find them really helpful in helping to manage my mental wellbeing. And that’s really why I wanted to pass them on.

Comfort is pretty self-explanatory. This is when we are motivated to do something because it is comfortable for us, feels familiar and makes us happy. And clearly the things that are comfortable to you will be very different to the things that are comfortable to someone else. Some forms of comfort may be viscerally comfortable. I am motivated to get up early every morning to read in bed for half an hour, it makes me feel good. I tend read stuff that has nothing to do with my work and I read it propped up in the warmth of my bed. But comfort can also show up in other ways too, things that we are good at often make us feel comfortable, our comfort zones. I love creating briefs because over 30 years I’ve got quite good at it and that activity is a safe and comfortable place to be.

Drive is also reasonably clear. This is motivation derived from getting something you want or mastering something you want to be able to do. Your motivation to achieve these things, is anything but the pursuit of comfort because you have to leave that place in order to have and do the things that you really desire. We often see drive in the form of ambition – a promotion, an award, a pay rise. But it is more than that. Drive leads us to embrace any new challenge beyond which there is something highly valued. This summer I set myself a challenge to swim in cold water once for every year of my life to date. I like wild swimming and it was hardly a chore over the summer swimming in Canadian lakes, off Welsh beaches and in London ponds but I was motivated by a drive to complete the challenge.

Fear is a curious one. It seems very strange to say that we are motivated by fear. And very unhealthy too. But we need to recognise that fear is a powerful and effective motivator. Remember this post is about self-development not leadership, so I am not saying fear is an effective motivator of others. I am saying it can be a damn good motivator of you.

If I am really frank it is often the fear of not doing a good job that motivates me to deliver a presentation, or a pitch as much as it is a drive to meet the challenge. Fear is underrated as a motivator, it is not usually about the fear of something you haven’t done before, it’s about the fear of losing something you have and are good at! I go to the gym regularly not because of any drive whatsoever, but because I fear the consequences of not going.

What seems clear is that a healthy kind of existence is one where all three motivators are in play and to a certain extent in balance. And so, I suggest is that you take a little moment to think about your own balance. Are you currently doing things across your personal and professional life because of comfort, fear or drive?

I say this because a little while ago I realised I was out of balance. That I was motivated almost solely by fear. As I have said this is not all bad, wanting not to fuck up, wanting not to let people down, well they work quite well for me. But what struck me was the absence of drive in my life.

That was one of the reasons that I took up singing. I had never been able to sing but a chance encounter with a singing workshop (again at the Do Lectures) made me want to try and master it. To take on the challenge of singing in a choir and try and get to the point where I could honestly say I could sing. Maybe in time I will find singing a source of comfort but for now, it’s motivated by drive. Facing into this challenge was a great way to reintroduce that sense of drive to my life.

Thinking about what motivates me, what the source of motivation is for everything that I am doing helps me check whether there is the right balance in my life.

Be really honest with yourself. Of all the things that you are doing and getting done at the moment, what is the primary motivator for you? And does your life have a nice balance across the three motivators and in both your personal and professional life? If it is, well done you. If not, perhaps you need to think about bringing your focus to how you can change this.

For more drive you need to seek new challenges (even if its reading twelve biographies in twelve months as I did last year), for more comfort you need to dedicate time to things that you really, really enjoy and not be ashamed about this. For more fear? Well I think that’s about knowing what you are good at and caring enough not to lose it. From the weights you can push in the gym to your unbroken meditation streak to your reputation for doing a great job by those that respect you.

You can listen to an audio version of this post on my podcast here. Like Mills I have adopted a very rough and ready approach to the artform. But its where I first started to think about this idea.

Image of me swimming in Lake Mahood, British Columbia as part of my swim once for every year challenge. Shot with a Pentax K1000 on Fujifilm Superia400.

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