An area that I have a deep passion for is motivation. Not so much for the ‘motivational’ content that’s out there on the internet but the mechanics of why people are motivated to reach certain goals and do particular behaviours. Without motivation we would not do anything, we wouldn’t eat, move, love or have a purpose to name a few. We would wither and perish in a very short time indeed. Motivation drives us towards achieving incredible feats, individuals like Roger Bannister running the 4 minute mile, Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb, Edmund Hillary summiting mount Everest and Apple’s vision of innovation. What is it that causes us to want to do the mundane and the amazing?
Without motivation we would not do anything, we wouldn’t eat, move, love… we would wither and perish in a very short time indeed.
When I was at university I had the opportunity to explore motivation and scratch the surface of what makes us tick. I was in my final year and in the process of picking my dissertation topic. Whilst I knew that I wanted to explore motivation in some capacity I wasn’t sure exactly what the basis of my thesis would be. My university was based in the Lake District, just outside of Penrith and with such amazing scenery on the doorstep the campus naturally was filled with kayak, canoe, climbing, fell running and walking enthusiasts. Some were casual participants in these sports and I would say about half of them really pushed themselves in one area or another and tested their limits.
As a walking enthusiast myself, particularly enjoying long distance trails, which would regularly take a weeks investment, I was curious to know what compelled me to go back and find trail after trail. After many trips I was battered, bruised, with blisters all over and I would go back to find the next challenge that I wanted to pursue within a few weeks. I looked around me and saw the same patterns in kayakers and canoeists, going on long journeys or down rapids that were at the top end of their ability. The climbers tackling routes that would absorb a day solid and pushing themselves to the edge of their technical ability. Fell runners running the Bob Graham round and pushing their endurance as far as it would stretch. It seemed I was in similar company, in fact the mentality of the people I was around for 3 years was very different to the characters that I have encountered since. We all wanted to find our limit and then go some more through one medium or another. But the real question that kept coming up in my head was the same, ‘why? Why do we do it? Why did we want to put ourselves in sometimes life threatening circumstances just to see if we could do it?’ My dissertation seemed to be taking form and I started my journey into finding out what motivation really was.
When it comes to motivation there are many layers that make up the resulting behaviour, for example take my passion of long distance walking. The behaviour was to walk the actual trail and the logistics required prior to the expedition. But before you even get to that series of behaviours you have your motivation that gets you there. Your why to your behaviour, the reason you are doing it.
Now, when I first started looking into motivation I followed the path of Ryan and Deci and their theory of self-determination. Self-determination theory states that there are three types of motivation, intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation and amotivation. We can negate amotivation because it means you have no motivation, if you are amotivated then you won’t do it because you have no motivation what so ever. Intrinsic motivation is the motivation that drives us because the reward that we achieve by fulfilling our goal gets something for us that is intangible. It makes us feel good, or proud, or we will be able to experience something. Extrinsic motivation on the other hand is a motivation that is driven by us receiving something in return or we do that behaviour because of someone else. In essence these drivers are causes external to ourselves, for example, winning a medal, getting money, receiving someone else’s affection or to avoid feeling guilty by rebelling against parental figures.
Why did we want to put ourselves in sometimes life threatening circumstances just to see if we could do it?
Apply this theory to a sport like rock climbing. Is this person doing this activity because they want to do it for the experience, or because there is an external need that requires them to do it. Suppose a rock climber starts climbing and does it for the love of the sport, they want to experience it and like how they feel from it. This is an intrinsic motivation that is driving them. Say they get half way up and get stuck somehow as the route is harder than they suspected, they don’t want their partner to think they are incapable so must keep climbing. Now their motivation has switched to an extrinsic motivation as the cause of their action, to keep climbing, has come from how someone else will feel about them.
The interesting thing that I found throughout writing my dissertation was that people were driven mainly by intrinsic motivation for their chosen activity that they pushed themselves in. It wasn’t for proving to someone else that they were better or for an external reward of some kind like money or recognition. They did it for the love of the experience and to be able to accomplish something for them. This group of people who were able to achieve feats beyond what they thought possible were driven by themselves and the choice that they have made to do so.
They did it for the love of the experience and to be able to accomplish something for them.
I invite you to look at how self-determination theory and motivation in general plays a part in your life. It is stated that motivation is contextualised to areas of your life and so you may find you are highly motivated in one area of your life and not another. You may also find that you are intrinsically motivated in one area and extrinsically motivated in another, as is often the case to some degree. Being able to place yourself in how you operate in areas of your life is fundamental to giving yourself self-awareness and allowing you to be objective in strengthening yourself. However, you should be just that, objective. Don’t let yourself be emotionally sucked into areas you perceive yourself to be weak in.
Understand your strengths, understand your weaknesses, play to the former and see how your motivation drives you to make that skill a strength.
There are many motivational theories out there and whilst we’ve focused on only one theory today, I will be writing other pieces in the future on how I view motivation.
If you’re interested in finding out more about self-determination theory, have a look are these articles here (scroll to top of page).
We also talk about motivation in some previous blog posts.