The Mythology of Motivation

One of the most perturbing paradigms to arise from the apex of the digital age comes from the likes of an ideology deceptively innocuous in theory. To many, it is elusive — a resource finite in nature — one which cannot be easily harnessed or sustained. To others, it appears to come naturally, presenting itself as readily attainable and easily manipulated.

The science of human motivation is a topic which has been thoroughly researched in the field of psychology; as well as one which is routinely dissected by the media.

Numerous questions surrounding what causes motivation and why some people may appear more motivated than others continue to puzzle many. Though the current research continues to be expanded upon almost daily, preliminary studies into human motivation provide key insight into the psychological principals which underlie such phenomenon. Early history in the study of motivation can be traced back to the groundbreaking work of psychologist Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y of human motivation — as well as Dr. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

McGregor’s Theory X of motivation operates under the assumption that most individuals lack the ability to self-regulate motivation, and as such must be coerced through direction tailored to enforce both encouragement and admonishment as needed.

According to Theory X, the majority of people dislike work and require direction, as such supervision mitigates their responsibility. To put theory in context, workers who aware of the fact that a watchful eye will be in charge of making sure they stay organized and reach their goals are less inclined to heed a sense of self-responsibility in their endeavors.

While such theory is often preferred by workers for its mitigation of responsibility, many also point out that one of the benefits of Theory X’s approach lies in its ability to provide structure. In an article published by the Harvard Business Review, professors John J. Morse and Jay W. Lorse highlight that Theory X is often considered “… the classical school of organization, emphasizing the need for well established lines of authority, clearly defined jobs, and authority equal to responsibility.”

In other words, when people are given a viable roadmap with guidelines for achieving success, they are more likely to take action and expand upon their current skills.

McGregor’s Theory Y of motivation opts for a different approach to the science. In contrast to the principles defined by Theory X, Theory Y operates under the assumption that people are intrinsically motivated by their work and benefit from systems of autonomy and self-governance.

Under the principles of Theory Y, workers benefit more from organizations operating in a pseudo-democratic manner. Such approach allows for self-direction and creativity while simultaneously providing an environment with a clearly defined sense of structure. Variations of both theories are commonly used in modern workplaces, as both approaches provide for flexibility in business modeling.

Both theories’ of motivation, the latter in particular, were heavily influenced by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — a psychological paradigm famously outlined in his 1943 paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation”. According the the pyramid described by Maslow, a person’s motivations in life in any given circumstance are dependent upon their satisfaction(s) of one of the five needs highlighted in the pyramid.

Maslow’s hierarchy described in his paper includes the following (listed from lowest to highest importance):

In Maslow’s theory, a person’s level of motivation is dependent upon the satisfaction of these needs in sequence, as a person cannot achieve overall satisfaction unless each level of the pyramid is fulfilled. For example, a person may not satisfy his need for social belonging if he is suffering from hunger and a lack of basic personal safety in his surroundings. Likewise, a person may not achieve self-acutalization or transcendence if he/she struggles to satisfy their most basic self-esteem needs.

The key thing to grasp here is that motivation is a multifaceted concept, and while providing a history lesson was not my intention, I did so in order to emphasize the various complexities which comprise the science behind the infamous buzzword. Influencers across the web have recently capitalized on the science of motivation — dedicating various blogs, webinars, and social media sites to dispense bite-sized bits of encouragement to their audience.

A recurring mechanism used by motivational platforms in the media is the hyper-emphasis of the last two levels of the Maslow’s pyramid — namely self-esteem and self-transcendence.

Motivational gurus and hype men across the web often tout the importance of quitting your day job — as well as striving to reach your true potential. They argue that 9–5 living is a soul-crushing existence, and if you really want to be successful — you should raise your standards of living. While motivation and encouragement are admirable things to strive for, its scientific meaning has become significantly distorted in recent years.

The primary premise presented to us surrounding the concept of motivation is that through hard work, dedication, and vigor — that we as ordinary beings hold the ability to transform the world around us and our circumstances.

This notion remains inspiring, as it is a truism yielding both admirable and inclusive sentiments. If we believe in ourselves enough, and show up enough times, then we too can share in the splendors of success and fame. However, it is due to this same belief that motivation has been morphed into what can best be described as a sublime mythology routinely exploited by social media.

The main problem surrounding our culture’s obsession surrounding motivation lies in its oversimplification. The process of transforming one’s life is often described as “simple”, with its roadmap often being boiled down to a matter of fixing routine habituations — zeroing in on key choices we make everyday which work to hinder our progress.

While conclusions such as these can best be summed up as the byproducts of the lucrative self-help industry, as well as widespread myths and inaccuracies perpetuated by way of prevalent “pop psychology” tropes — it creates in effect an exclusive version of success in contradiction with its message of universal self-agency.

According to the mythology put forth by motivation, our inability to sacrifice daily comforts — or suppress our most innately human desires for the pursuit of something greater — means we aren’t committed enough to see our goals through.

If we were truly driven, if we truly had the pathological obsession to achieve that which we envision for ourselves, we’d be up at 4am — we wouldn’t sleep more than five hours — we’d be willing to neglect every aspect of our life in order to delegate all of our resources to the “grind” — for the sake of achieving the dream.

The problem with the 24/7 grind-time primetime lifestyle is that it inevitably becomes an exercise in futility. In reality, success is sold to us in a scintillating veneer of human endeavor and sacrifice — one that often romanticizes the process of getting there.

Everyday we are presented with a new young face chosen to be poster child for the idea of overnight success — an individual thrust from obscurity into the sublime happenstance of celebrity. Every year we are bombarded with images such as Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” list, and headlines such as “25 Actors/Actresses Who Broke Through Before 25”.

While these success stories can motivate us, and serve as a reminder of the elasticity of personal circumstance, they should be approached with careful reservation. That twenty-five year old billionaire rocking a ebullient smile across Forbes magazine likely had to sacrifice a lot more than sleep, and likely remembers points during the journey where success was nowhere to be found, as well as points during which the grind made things more uncertain rather than clear.

The truth is I wish I could live my life in such a black and white manner — guided by truisms — vindicated by tales of success and adulation — however, I myself know that life is much more complicated than people will readily admit.

Nothing in life is ever that simple, nor should we ever expect it to be. The truth is no matter how many times you wake up before dawn, how many inspirational quotes you emblazon on your home screen, or how many self-help gurus you fanaticize over, life will always happen, and when it does its messy.

A single mother working three jobs to support her family does not need to be told to work harder.

A father with debilitating depression and anxiety does not need to be told to see the bright side of things.

An immigrant family escaping oppression in pursuit of the American Dream need not be told they need to understand the value of hard work.

The truth of the matter is — some people have real problems — and while self-reflection and introspection are a necessary part of the process — when a twenty-something year old influencer admonishes his followers on social media for not taking advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given — it becomes a matter of hypocrisy and privilege rather than insight.

Real progress — real change for that matter — is about getting to work. Its about establishing a pattern of consistency while also taking daily strides to expand our already limited comfort zone. It takes a heathy balance of discipline and compassion for ourselves during the process. Don’t get me wrong — success, hard-work, and self-improvement are admirable things to strive for, however, if done the wrong way — such aspirations can ultimately lead to self-destruction.

Though I mostly dread the preachy, smug-like disposition of self-help gurus, one motivational speaker sums up motivation quite nicely. In the wise words of Mel Robbins — the truth is, “…motivation is bullshit, and you’re never gonna feel like it.”

Knowing that fact alone is liberating and should compel you to formulate your own version of success and means of motivating yourself. Finding your path in life isn’t a montage in a Sylvester Stallone flick, its not practice-practice-practice-win, if anything, its more along the lines of lose — lose again — lose harder — damn, I suck — could always try stripping — wait…I think I did it!

Many people prioritize the triumphs of success, when really, the most important part is the journey.

You learn more about yourself in the trenches than you could ever learn on the podium. Growth is supposed to be messy, and most of the time it is uncomfortable, but I guarantee you — you waking up everyday willing to get your ass beat will put you miles ahead of the people scolding you to work harder (most of them probably sleep in secretly anyway). Above all, be kind to yourself — do work your ass off — but be mindful about it — sometimes working smarter, not harder, is the way to go.

The Mythology of Motivation

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