Human beings are motivated by many things. When we’re young, we do our best to avoid the punishment and disappointment of our parents. As we grow up a bit and move through young adolescence, we do what we can to fit in with our peers–to prevent being thought of as uncool and ending up an outsider. Moving into high school and academics beyond, the unwanted wrath of teachers and professors, and the negative consequences of a transcript with letters that come after A and B, keep us on a steady track to completing assignments and scrambling to produce desirable test grades.
Mysteriously absent much of the time is the motivation we inspire in ourselves–intrinsic or self motivation. Parents, peers, professors, embarrassment, advertisements for things you don’t have, your public image, and many more extrinsic forces are powerful and effective at shaping the kinds of things that we do and the people that we are.
Some of these forces pull us forward by their attraction like a carrot on a stick: the allure of a high salary or possessions, prestige and popularity among friends and co-workers, the raw pleasure of sex or a drug. These things aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re quite dangerous when they become the primary or sole motivators of our behavior and decision-making.
Similarly dangerous is the other side of things–the external forces that function like an actual fire under your ass whereby you have no choice but to get up and move. They push, and often without your consent for them to do so. Finding a mediocre job just to pay the bills or cramming for a test just so you can pass and not get kicked out of school would fall into this category. Trying not to disappoint others is the absolute worst push motivation possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s the intimate relationship of a parent or the mostly superficial one of a co-worker: you’ve prioritized someone else’s hopes and expectations without a healthy consideration of your own, and bend over backwards just to keep them seemingly happy. It’s probably not even successful much of the time.
A healthy consideration of yourself should really be the center of whatever you feel compelled to do. Not because of some socially constructed reward like money or popularity, or primal pleasure like a hook-up or something only enjoyable once you’re inebriated. And not because this or that pushes you into making a decision that wasn’t good for your wellbeing. You should move into the next decision or chapter of your life because the center of your being drives you in that direction–you feel the contentment, progress, significance, and jouissance that comes with becoming who you yourself are choosing to be.
To be sure, there is definitely a growing process to this. Early on, we are motivated by trying not to disappoint or put off others, and by the potential of acquiring wealth to have money available for whatever. But over time we need to come to understand that we are most capable of living a flourishing, enjoyable life when we stop being tossed to and fro by the waves of forces outside, and instead live with the overflowing, delighted intentionality from within. What is the next Act you’re going to write in The Play of Your Life?