What is Your Motivation?

I read somewhere about ships not being meant to stay in harbor, where they’re safe. We’re meant to get out and explore the world! But as with so many things, there’s a flip side to that thought. I really like debating myself sometimes!

The fictional Captain Ramius was my first exposure to this actual historical event, but he wasn’t the first to speak of it:

“When he reached the New World, Cortés burned his ships. As a result his men were well motivated.”

Historical inaccuracies aside (it wasn’t immediately upon arrival but rather during the greater Spanish conquest of Mexico, and he scuttled the ships; he didn’t burn them), Cortés did intentionally create this point of no return for the men involved. Those who wanted to retreat to Cuba were given no choice but to march onward in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. This is a rather dramatic implementation of an Imposed point of no return. Captain Ramius notifying Soviet high command of his intention to defect was similarly bold.

Whether on a personal journey or assigned a task, we are all familiar with the need for motivation to complete a task at some point in our lives. Motivation to continue that New Year’s resolution to go to the gym, completing a project for school, handling a situation at work, eating healthy, mowing the lawn, making that call we’ve been putting off, etc. etc. etc. We might be experiencing that right now in this time of social distancing just to stick to a routine… or to change one.

This quote always makes me specifically ponder how people pursue their own personal journeys. The decision to change your major, or your career. The choice to ask that guy out… or leave your wife of 30 years. It could be to uproot your entire established life to go walk the Camino de Santiago or to live your best life; one which could potentially forever alter the image you’ve built for yourself. Sometimes we try to delay these potentially life-changing decisions or avoid them completely. (Some decisions might not even be as negatively life-altering as we think they might be.) Generally the decision is made, though, because we’ve already acknowledged that a positive outcome will result from making that decision. It might be painful or challenging, but the resulting outcome is somehow needed.

But if we’ve already acknowledged the positive reason to change… why do we add another reward? Running a 5k is for the positive benefit to your health, yet we might reward ourselves with a fancy dinner after completing the run. Painting the trim on the house improves the curb appeal and resale value, but we might celebrate the completion with movie night or buying a new video game. Furthering your education in order to increase earning power or for personal enjoyment rewarded with a vacation.

But these are positive rewards or motivations to complete a task. Captain Ramius and Cortés both inflicted quite negative motivating factors onto their crews. The application of certain death as a motivator is likely used in fewer circumstances but probably when the potential of failure is more dire. Still, imposing negative consequences upon failure of a task can be a motivator for less dire situations. You might buy a treadmill to encourage yourself to run more, so if you don’t do it you’ve wasted a bunch of money. Usage of the swear jar is a common one to change a habit for the better as well. That’s similar to the noble donation to a charity of choice if you fail but I always found it sad that a charitable cause would be “punished” if you succeed.

Obviously for most of us, the carrot is the more common motivator to complete something. But sometimes that negative consequence of a stick is a better driver than the thought of a reward. I think weighing these motivators and comparing them to each other depends highly on the task at hand as well as the impact if success is not met. I can tell you, it’s taken me nearly two weeks to find the motivation to finish this post! A glass of wine will be my reward for finishing the writing the night before I post it. And I’ve got a homemade peanut butter cup awaiting me when I finally pick up my French lessons which have been pushed aside since my trip to Europe last year.

So what is that thing that you need motivation to do? Whether you have a leftover New Year’s Resolution that got tossed aside or a newly found desire to improve yourself or the environment around you, there are probably many people in a similar boat these days. Now how are you going to motivate yourself to succeed? Are you going to apply positive reinforcement and rewards or are you going to burn the ships?

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