Examining Motivation and Reflecting on Why We Do The Things We Do

I once heard someone say that, “Most people don’t even know why they do the things they do.”

This concept struck a chord with me, and I incorporated the idea into an entry I wrote early last year on motivation, titled: A More Fluid Look at Life and Going Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy, saying: 

The truth is, most people don’t even know why they believe the things they do, and even fewer know why they do the things they do.

Today I feel as if this was almost a prescient notion, given that, in hindsight, I don’t really feel I knew myself well enough back then to know the undercurrents of my beliefs and actions – nor did I know how interrelated the two were; in fact, looking back, I have to practically examine the contents of my unconscious in order to understand my thoughts and actions, as I see now that I had falsely attributed many of my behaviors to others – as victims of their circumstance, and thus themselves, are wont to do.

In short, I had my reasons but they were more rationalization than justification or cause. However, this makes sense to me given what I have since learned about myself and human nature in general – insofar as I am capable of understanding my own ideas and applying other’s models to my behavior.

Because, as I have learned, behavior is the only true marker of a person’s motivations. And as anyone who has dated the wrong person can tell you, what people say and what people do can be as different as night and day, but if we are honest, we must admit that this applies to ourselves as well; although, we prefer to think otherwise – just as guiltier parties are apt to do [1].

We all unconsciously maintain internal consistency regardless of the consequence, and as neuroscience research has shown, cognitive dissonance reduction happens almost instantly, as we immediately alter our internal preferences to rationalize our choices and actions. Meaning, we think we know why we do the things we do, but in actuality we confuse rationalization for motivation. Of course, we are not impartial audiences to ourselves, so while our behavior may confound others, we always end up making sense of the things we do – even if this means placing the blame on factors that have no causative correlation to our choices.

An example of this kind of automatic cognitive dissonance reduction is found in the Aesop’s Fable of The Fox and The Grapes, in which the fox, unable to reach the grapes he desired, declares: “I didn’t want those grapes, they were sour anyway.”

Unfortunately for humans, it’s much more complex than sour grapes but nonetheless, we frequently justify our actions in ways that absolve us of personal responsibility, thus removing the burden of logic from our actions, making cognitive dissonance reduction very simple.

Yes, it’s your partners fault you were unfaithful (shakes head).

Yup, it was Obama’s fault.

So, essentially, given that actions are the only reliable markers of motivation, we must look beyond excuses or rationalizations and examine our current and past actions in themselves to understand ourselves; for anything else is an attempt to reason through analogy rather than first principles, which lead to the true reasons we do the things we do: our beliefs.

Or rather, I should say, our underlying beliefs, because, again, most people don’t even know why they believe the things they do.

I know because I was one of these people. And it wasn’t that I only let others down, no – I let myself down just as much, if not more (As, at a certain point others adopt more realistic expectations of you than you yourself have). I couldn’t tell you how many times I have told myself I was going to do something, and despite it being the right thing and even the optimal thing for my happiness, I simply did otherwise. It wasn’t that I was lying to myself, no – I believed I was going to do the thing – it was that I was fooling myself; I was attempting to live according to a set of beliefs that didn’t align with who I was, which my underlying beliefs were the determining factor of.

Here I am reminded of one of my absolute favorite quotes – again, something that has grown profoundly deeper in meaning to me since it first struck me:

“We all commit our crimes. The thing is to not lie about them – to try to understand what you have done, why you have done it. That way, you can begin to forgive yourself. That’s very important. If you don’t forgive yourself you’ll never be able to forgive anybody else and you’ll go on committing the same crimes forever.”

– James Baldwin, Another Country

Story of my life. And the story for all of us who have been our own worst enemies in life. The story for all of us.

And this is partly why I am writing: so I can understand why I have done what I have done, without lying about it – without fooling myself any longer.

The other reason I am writing this tonight is because this year I looked back on the past few years of my life and I felt very confused as to why I had not been more successful. I had, without a doubt, all the tools at my disposal to achieve the things I wanted. I even worked myself ragged to do so; however, I never did the things I knew I needed to do in order to succeed. I simply kept them just out of arm’s length from myself, piling on a never-ending list of tasks and projects that would prevent me from putting the rubber to the road.

In hindsight, my first inclination was that I simply lacked the confidence in myself to succeed. But this was not true; although, my lack of success had no doubt brought that fear to life somewhat, as failure does nothing to foster one’s confidence. On this note, I see that it was more a lack of trust in myself than it was confidence – but still, that alone did not explain my failure to succeed, as I trusted in myself enough to bet on myself. Still, there was something missing.

Then, about three weeks ago, I watched a video a friend sent me, from e-entrepreneur Peter Voogd:

There’s a lot of good stuff in this video, but what struck me was:

“Motivation is not a discipline thing, it’s really understanding how bad you want something. If you want it bad enough, you will find a way to be motivated. If you are not motivated, you don’t want it bad enough.”

This made something click for me.

I had had previously created a moderately significant level of business success in my early and mid twenties, so I knew what that felt like – not just the success, which was it’s own reward, but the drive, which was almost like a drug. I knew what it felt like to be so excited to wake up in the morning and to work until I absolutely had to force myself to stop and use the restroom. There was no question back when I was twenty-three, of whether I was motivated or not. I was fucking on. I had an almost sexual, impulsive, unstoppable drive to work and to succeed.

Of course, at the time, I was largely motivated to show an ex-girlfriend I hadn’t gotten over that she was a fucking idiot for X, Y, and Z. Long story short: I got her back once I succeeded, and – poof – my motivation was gone.

A year and some change later, and she was too.

I’m not here to write my biography, but this is my story. So, onward I go.

Two years later, I would fall in love again.

In short, this love and I shared different values on material things and ambition and she did a lot to bring me down to earth, which helped shape me into the man I am today; unfortunately, however, I see now that I had adopted and shaped my outward beliefs in a manner that really was not authentic to me, but, rather, were designed to conform to her wants and my want to make her happy.

Yeah, I learned that lesson the hard way.

Today, a year and some change out of that relationship, which would span three of the more difficult years of my life (Due to my own bullshit), I once again am looking to get back in touch with the kind of motivating forces that lead me to work so hard that I nearly burst my bladder. That is how bad I want to succeed again today. But I know, the desire has to be authentic.

From 27 to 30, I tried telling myself I just wanted self-actualization.

I tried fitting my beliefs into Maslow’s model, as if I were an altruistic saint in waiting, ready to become the perfect version of myself.

But what happens when what you think you want isn’t what you want?

What happens when you are fucking lying to yourself about who you are?

As it says in Matthew 6:25: No man can be faithful to two masters.

“Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

But I tried.

Although, however hard we may try, the soul cannot betray itself.

Period.

The next big thing in my personal growth happened last summer as I was going through the breakup with Bunny, when I ended up with a severe cause of MRSA, which brought me to a place where I was pretty sure I would die [2]. Thank G-d I did not [3].

In the wake of my recovery, I had what you may call an identity crisis, or a kind of re-evaluating of my life, as often happens to those who brush up against their mortality.

It was following this when, I took a large sheet of paper, and on the top half, wrote: What Am I, and on the bottom: What Do I Pretend to Be?

The result looked like this:

What Am I?

  • a writer
  • a hippie
  • a dreamer
  • an introvert
  • a lover
  • bookish

 What Do I Pretend to Be?

  • a success
  • an extrovert
  • a startup guy
  • happy / social / cool

Following this, I rejected all of the things I listed under the bottom half – not realizing at the time they were a healthy part of my ego and persona. This, however, was in a sense good because I got to spend a lot of time cultivating and nourishing the introverted-bookish-writer-hippie-lover-dreamer aspects of my soul, which I had repressed in an effort to feed my ego / persona.

I spent a considerable amount of time being alone, writing, snorkeling, journaling on the beach at sunset, and kind of just withdrawing into myself in the wake of such a tumultuous period (End of a three year relationship coupled with blood-poisoning).

In the months that would follow I would slowly and progressively get to know myself again, and in many ways for the first time. And what I came to realize is that I wasn’t just the introverted-bookish-writer-hippie-lover-dreamer – I was, in fact, also the extroverted-successful-happy-social-cool-startup guy. And as I came to see life in and through altered perceptions, my perspective allowed me to see that I could be both, and much more.

Leading me to today where I view my brain as a kind of computer, my consciousness as the software, and my soul as the programmer.

The ego is no longer in charge, although, it’s there. In a word, I am happy. In another, I am whole.

And under this computerized model of cognition, I want everything, because I know anything is possible.

It was a major shock to realize I had created all the bullshit I faced. But it was freeing.

Now that I can see through my own perception, I want to program myself for optimum happiness. And not under some limited model – sorry Maslow [4].

Hence, I have been doing a lot of research on motivation.

I want to program myself to fulfill my potential; however, I know that in order to do that I need to get in touch with my deepest, most burning desires. I also know that what worked in the past is not an option today, for reasons known entirely to me. So I set out to discover what would make my gears turn with the efficiency of a well-serviced timepiece.

And it was in my research that I came across something I thought might help me uncover my underlying beliefs and keys to my motivation, leading me to write tonight.

Previously, in examining human motivation, I’ve looked at Maslow’s Hierarchy, Alderfer’s ERG theory of human motivation, and Manfried Max-Neef’s model; however, while each provided me with insights into myself, none unlocked any major doors for me beyond helping in facilitating my understanding that I can be who I want to be. 

But this was the question I had to answer [who I want to be], which I feel I have; for, I know today what I want to become. And it’s big. It’s the life of my wildest dreams.

Yet, still, I know I need to be completely clear about all the underlying forces that will compel me to achieve the things I want to accomplish in the coming weeks, months, and years.

Admitting to yourself what you want is important; however, I believe that the real key is in knowing why.

There are a lot of people who seriously want to become multi-millionaires or even billionaires; however, I believe the biggest difference between those who actually become wealthy and those who simply let their goals remain unfulfilled is not in potential, but in strength of will; those people who succeed are driven by strong feelings. And I believe that the power to change your life requires a big why.

Returning to my research as it might help me honestly uncover my why, I came across Steven Reiss’ 16 Basic Desires Theory.

But before I get into that, I want to talk briefly about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. This has been a big topic in the business world and the academic study of motivation; however, I think it is flawed, and let me explain why.

Essentially, the idea of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation is the idea that the most powerful motivators are internally oriented, whereas weaker motivators are external. This idea was outlined in the mainstream in Daniel H. Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

In the book, the author writes what many reviewers describe as an almost academically dry summary of why money and other external rewards are not effective in motivating employees (Hmm… hedonic treadmill), but rather, autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the keys to motivating people.

The argument for these so called intrinsic motivators, is that they are stronger driving forces for most people, which is probably true; however, the problem I run up against is that motivation and desire are complex, and thus what may be an extrinsic motivator for one person could be an intrinsic motivator for another. So, the problem with intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation is not so much in the concepts per se, but in how they are understood via example. For instance: money is often listed as the chief extrinsic motivator, while autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the main intrinsic motivators; the problem here is that money may enable a person to achieve the latter, and thus the model fits generalizations and statistical averages more than individuals. I think if you are designing a corporate culture, the ideas of extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards are valuable tools, but if you are designing a life, they are matters of mere semantics.

A better model for me would simply be to categorize motivators as external or internal, i.e., do these come from someone else, or are they my reasons for wanting success. I’ve made the mistake of adopting another’s intrinsic motivators, and it was highly noneffective, as I have told.

What I have begun to ask myself, what I have begin to do, is to admit my innermost, greatest, most authentic desires to myself – something society does not cultivate you to do [5].

But still, it’s not very in-depth; although, the idea of qualifying desire via a an internal vs. external litmus test to determine whether it is an authentic product of yourself or someone else, i.e., a lover, society, your parents, etc., seems to me one of great value [6].

So, what tool do we have less to define, classify, examine, and understand our desires?

Enter: Steven Reiss’ 16 Basic Desires Theory.

From Wiki:

Starting from studies involving more than 6,000 people, Professor Steven Reiss has proposed a theory that found 16 basic desires that guide nearly all human behavior.

The 16 Basic Desires [7].

  • Acceptance, the need for approval
  • Curiosity, the need to learn
  • Eating, the need for food
  • Family, the need to raise children
  • Honor, the need to be loyal to the traditional values of one’s clan/ethnic group
  • Idealism, the need for social justice
  • Independence, the need for individuality
  • Order, the need for organized, stable, predictable environments
  • Physical activity, the need for exercise
  • Power, the need for influence of will
  • Romance, the need for sex and for beauty
  • Saving, the need to collect
  • Social contact, the need for friends (peer relationships)
  • Social status, the need for social standing/importance
  • Tranquility, the need to be safe
  • Vengeance, the need to strike back and to compete

And from Reiss’ website:

What are basic desires?

Basic desires are fundamental psychological impulses that define an adult’s personality. Professor Reiss identified 16 fundamental aspects of motivation which capture what any one individual is striving for and what is really important to him or her….

An example: the desire for Status

‘Status’ shows how much respect an individual pays to people with a social status they consider to be desirable. Those motivated by status aim to identify themselves with a high social standing, and express this in the clothes they wear, the way they behave, the titles they adopt etc.
People with a weak basic desire for status, on the other hand, have an urge for social equality. They respect other people regardless of background, title or other status symbols.

The importance of the basic desires in practice

There are three essential points to bear in mind regarding the practical application of the theory of the 16 basic desires:

  1. Each basic desire can be a performance driver.
  2. Basic desires which are either particularly strong or weak in an individual are equally strong performance drivers.
  3. A basic desire never exists in isolation; the combination of basic desires is important.

The following graphic is also available as a download.

reiss profile

In looking at these, we get a broad scope of containers in which we can understand and classify our desires.

From here, I am going to be using the Reiss model, and making a spreadsheet, listing my own desires under each of the 16 Basic Desires.

What I hope to accomplish in doing this, is a true understanding of my soul’s greatest and most powerful desires.

It’s important to note rule no. 1 from the essential points taken from Reiss’ website, listed above:

  1. Basic desires which are either particularly strong or weak in an individual are equally strong performance drivers.

Revisiting the Reiss example for Status we learn more about how a “weak desire” might function:

People with a weak basic desire for status, on the other hand, have an urge for social equality. They respect other people regardless of background, title or other status symbols.

Again, I am learning here, thinking aloud. This blog might in a sense be seen as my personal cloud computer where I hack my software, which is exactly what I am trying to do.

I’m eager to begin spread-sheeting my desires, as boring as that might sound, but for me it’s a kind of auditing tool, with which I can discover the things that make me tick.

With that said, I am off to open Excel.

If you’ve read this far, here’s a cookie:

7Saturdays

Oh wait, does that not motivate you?

How the fuck am I supposed to know, I don’t even know what motivates me [8].


To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality in fact is.

– C.G. Jung


Footnotes

  1. I have no doubt I too have been someone’s wrong person, as I certainly know I’ve been the guiltier party.
  2. “Just so you know, there is a God.” – One of my attending nurses.
  3. Well, G-d and the three different courses of antibiotics I took.
  4. “I’d rather be whole than good.” – Carl Jung
  5. After all, look at how disparagingly people have come to judge those in recent years who possess great wealth. Note: this is a topic unto itself, but one I have no desire to write on, as I only write about things I am seeking a deeper understanding of.
  6. Perhaps other people know themselves, and the goals and desires they live are 100% authentic, but I somehow doubt it.
  7. Can someone please make a list of The 16 Basic Bitch Desires… (Maslow’s pyramid as starting point… ; )
  8. This is said only partly in jest, but it really is a fascinating thing to me to put together all of this. Because it’s really exciting. I mean, ultimately, it’s about living your dreams while you are alive. At least, that’s what I’m doing. That’s my cookie.
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