About Motivation


The more I find about what motivates people the less I feel that I understand the topic. And the thing is that when you work in the software industry you kinda have to dig in into this topic. Or at least this is what so many smart people write and talk about when discussing the prerequisite of successful teams and individuals.

Lately, I have the feeling that I understand two things related to this topic: the deeper reasons that motivates us to do something and two silent killers of motivation.

Status Quo Slaves

What do I mean by “deeper reasons”? I don’t think that people are motivated by money or fame or power or anything like this. At a superficial level yes, they are motivated by these things. But once you go beyond the surface what is left is this:
– People are motivated by their need to preserve a status quo*
– People are motivated by their need to get into a status quo**

At any given time we are motivated by one of these two basic needs and during our life we get from one state to another state over and over again. Simplified example: suppose you want to become a CEO. You are going to work hard to reach that goal – motivated to reach a status quo. Once you become a CEO most likely you are going to work hard to keep the title – motivated to preserve the status quo. After some years you get through some personal crisis and discover that you should do your share of helping the unfortunates of the world (baby seals, orphans, tropical forests, poor people in Africa, you get the picture). And the cycle goes on and on.

If this is true then it has an interesting implication: it means that an individual who’s motivated to reach a status quo is going to work harder, he’s going to give it all compared to his baseline, where the baseline is the effort to preserve a state that he had already achieved.

A second implication is that your growth, the changes that make you (hopefully) a better person happen when you are in the pursuing state – this is where you work hard and uncover unknown ground and you adjust. When you reach the summit, you most likely drop on the ground and just admire the surroundings.

I think that knowing in what phase you or your colleagues or your prospective new hire are, is quite helpful to better understand what drives a given person and what he’s willing to put out.

Motivation’s Silent Killers

Regardless of how strong your motivation is or how big or important the end goal is there are two things that can kill it sooner or later:
– Lack of progress
– Lack of grand vision

The bigger the vision of the thing you are working on the bigger the effort and motivation you have. Compare these two hypothetical situations:
– Working in a group who set out the goal to cure cancer
– Working in a group who’s goal is to add one extra millimetre of chocolate coating on biscuits

Suppose I want to learn to swim. After one week of lessons I’m not able to swim. No problem, I will continue to do it no matter what. Except that actually it matters: after 2 months of hard work and 4 different coaches if I’m not able to swim probably I have to accept at least one thing: swimming is not for me and it is time to move on.

When we feel that we don’t progress despite of our best intentions and effort something breaks inside of us and we feel the urgency to stop doing whatever we were doing and try something else. Probably it doesn’t matter how big the goal is. Lack of progress is killing the hope…

This is it. I only made it so far. If you think that I’m out of my mind I’d like to hear your comments.

* Constant change or the unknown make us uncomfortable. This is why we fight so hard to maintain a status quo – it is the familiar “thing” and we can handle it.
** When you realise that in order to be happy or healthy you need to change something, and the stress of not changing that thing is getting bigger than the stress resulted from leaving the known grounds you move into pursuing a new status quo.

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