Tuesday, October 06, 2009


In therapy yesterday, Gary (my therapist) and I talked about some of the issues I have with work and motivation. He observed that I am very dependent on the opinions of others, have an external locus of control (duh), and also, in an insight that was a bit new to me, that I depend on a lot of external pressure to get things done. I would take that last bit a step further and say that I am sort of fear-dependent.

Most of that is all sort of "well-known facts about Tam."

But he asked me to think this week about what my motivation to change is. If I want to change the patterns of behavior that I exhibit, what is my motivation for that?

And for me this tied into something I've thought about a lot in the past year or so in reference to my childhood, which also relates to what I wrote about, and that is that I was never (as far as I can recall) encouraged, as a child, and (hence?) usually fail to, as an adult, consider positive motivations for anything.

That's not entirely true. I did hear, "You're so smart, you can do anything you want, if you just apply yourself," which of course is a message with its own downsides. But I never heard anything like, "It's good to be an honest person," or, "You should take pride in your work" (or appropriate formulations of those ideas).

What I heard was, "You shouldn't lie. Don't be a liar. People won't ever believe you." Or, "If you don't do your homework you won't get into college." Or, "Nobody is going to hire you looking like that" (with reference to my weight).

This doesn't sound like a big deal, but what I find is that, as an adult, I rarely ever consider positive motivations, and when I do it can be kind of a revelation. I rarely think something like, "I want to get a lot of good work done today" in reference to my job; I generally think something more like, "If I don't get caught up on a lot of this work today I am going to be doomed."

The problem with thinking only in terms of bad consequences is that it then becomes an issue of whether those bad consequences are fearful enough to motivate you. You're kind of continually trying to scare yourself into doing things. Yet, I guess bad consequences haven't actually happened to me so very much (I did get into college; I have worked for over eleven straight years without ever being laid off or fired; I flunked out of Rice but this did not doom me to work at McDonald's), and I'm not naturally all that fearful about things like this, perhaps because of all the empty threats over the course of my life.

I am curious to know how typical or atypical my fear-based motivations are. Like, when Sally thinks about sitting down to study, is she thinking mostly something like, "I want to learn this material and do well in the course," or something more like, "If I don't do this I will flunk my exam and never get into a PhD program"? (Of course, a lot of actions become habitual and don't have thoughts with them. I don't have either fear-based or positive motivations for showering every day; I just do it. Maybe studying is like that for Sally, but surely not everything is.)

I do seem, these days, to have positive motivations towards school. I want to absolutely excel at my courses, not just avoid failing or doing poorly. But the question of whether I can excel in hard classes definitely helps motivate me, and I'm unattracted to studying topics I don't feel that fear about.

So, I don't really know. What is my motivation for wanting to be better?


Edward said...

W.r.t. your job, I think not seeing yourself in relation to how screwed up everything is going to get if you don't do X, Y, and Z is your motivation. It's certainly a healthy part of the motivation I've had to make certain changes in my life over the past few years.

Jack said...

Everyone is motivated in their own personal way, I think. For some inspiration, check out these short videos — http://www.ahamoment.com/pg/voting?moment=pefppcs — about some people who overcame pretty long odds and big obstacles to achieve their goals. Hope you enjoy them. If you do, click and vote for them, as the top vote-getters will be used as aha moment TV commercials next year.


Sally said...

Asking about my study motivations the week before midterms is probably poorly timed for getting at my typical sorts of motivations. (Fears of EPIC FAIL are not entirely missing these days, but "success" also becomes redefined downwards into "not being kicked out of the program" as my first test approaches.)

I think my motivations are generally positive, though. I basically just want to kick ass at certain things. I'd probably want to kick ass at a lot more things except for unmanageable effort/time that would involve. I do want to kick ass at a wider variety of things than, e.g., my sister, who has tended to be much more focused (and hugely successful).

In large part, I blame my parents.

Tam said...

Ed, I don't really understand what you're suggesting here.

Sally, yeah, I had a feeling that you acted more out of a desire to excel than out of some trumped-up fear of failure. I mean, obviously motivation varies depending on whether you are hunting the bear or the bear is hunting you, but...yeah.

Sally said...

BTW, Tam, it has sounded to me like part of your motivation is that you are happier when you are working and bored/unhappy when you are goofing off. This seems to be at least somewhat unrelated to avoiding feelings of being a loser/etc. or fear, but rather seeking out happiness/satisfaction in doing the work itself. My 2 cents.