What is Motivation?

What is Motivation?

Carrots, Sticks, and the Elusive X-Factor…Why Is True Greatness Rare?

"It is human nature to find great toil in the mundane, to yearn for the novel when faced with the known; for without a helping hand we must rely on true desire, a trait, which few own"

"The halls of immortality are reserved for those who do not need the pre-game pep-talk"

The above quotes are my originals, and I penned them on a swimming workout in an attempt to help motivate our women for a challenging practice back in October. Swimming can be a grueling sport, and requires an incredible amount of motivation and desire to be successful. Consider the following -

1. Swimming is foreign sport to the body. Water is a medium that we have long since forgotten, and our brains must learn to reconnect to the feel of the water. Land sports, while challenging in their own right, are at least played on a medium that is known to the brain, and if one can run fast and has agility for example, there is an immediate carryover to several land activities.

2. Breathing is obstructed, breathing is challenging, and in many cases, breathing is either not allowed or certainly not preferred. Ouch!

3. Communication with coaches and teammates is rare. Consider a long aerobic set where your head is underwater for a majority of the workout; you don't have that teammate running next to you to keep you going, you don't have the coach on the track yelling out splits as you run by, and you don't see the applause or hoopla from teammates after a big hit or from draining that long three.

While my point today is not to debate which sport is "harder" or requires more motivation to achieve greatness, I do submit to you that swimming is unlike any other sport in that regard, and surely even the lay swim types must appreciate the three aforementioned characteristics. In the pool you are alone with your thoughts, a scary thing in its own right for the majority of athletes (and people in general, for that matter), and with nothing but the feel of the water and the black line to keep you company. Underwater speakers and the like only create a diversion of sorts, you are still alone with yourself, encapsulated in an icy, unforgiving world where even the simplest of human needs, breathing, is a challenge that must be overcome.

And thus, we need high levels of motivation and desire to achieve greatness in this sport. Swimming, and swimming fast at a high level, is not for the unmotivated. It is not for the weak-minded, and it is certainly not for those who lack a true desire to achieve mastery. And so my thoughts today focus on motivation itself, not just in swimming, but in life in general, for certainly the deep thoughts about motivation and its origins reach far beyond the sport of swimming; what is this elusive motivation, and where does she hide?

And what is motivation in the first place? How can we define it? From whence came this great driver of human achievement throughout time immemorial? Why is it that some burn with an intense desire to excel in great and worthy endeavors and some do not? Why is it that some are considered lazy, unmotivated, and sluggish, while some are considered hard workers, industrious, perhaps even diligent? Is it that the lazy have just not been inspired, or do they truly lack the motivation to achieve at a high level? And how can we define high level achievement? Is it possible to define high levels of achievement in subjective fields? Surely it must be, but how?

Motivation...why is it that some simply work harder or smarter than others? And better yet, why do some work harder, AND smarter? The Giants throughout history need no introduction; why is it that they simply put in more time and energy into achieving mastery? Why? Why were they more motivated to do so, and how can we harness that power in our lives today?

Why is it, for example, that Warren Buffett read every book on investing in the Omaha public library by the time he was 12? Why is it that John Coltrane practiced the saxophone for 8 hours a day until his lips bled all over the reeds? Why do some athletes put in more deliberate, focused practice time than others? What drove Michael Jordan? Tiger Woods? What pushed Michael Phelps to jump into freezing cold pools in the dead of Baltimore winters for years and years to become the greatest swimmer of all time? Surely there must be a reason that we humans are willing to risk life, limb, and mental sanity to test the cognitive and physical limits of the body. Why do we do it? What drives us?

What is desire? What is motivation? Can these attributes be measured with a clever psychology test? Are they physiological processes that we might one day discover under a microscope or through fancy brain mapping techniques? Is motivation a genetic trait? Could it be that some are instinctively driven to push on, while others may be more genetically prone to idleness? What if motivation were a result of nurture alone, and we had our parents (or lack thereof) to thank or blame for our success or failure in terms of motivational prowess, as though if only our parents had raised us differently, we would be more motivated to achieve? Perhaps motivation and desire are more chemical in nature?  Is testosterone a major driver of motivation in both men and women? If so, would it help to explain why people are more motivated to excel when they sleep well and testosterone levels are elevated?

I have more questions today than I have answers. As a professional coach, finding motivated and highly driven student-athletes is part of the job description, and yes, some people are much more motivated and have a higher level of desire to achieve greatness than others. It is the dream of every coach to find the extremely talented athletes that combine said talent with the motivation, desire, and the work ethic to match. Certainly professors, business owners, or others doing the hiring and managing of employees feel the same. We all desire talented people with high levels of motivation to join our team, business, school, organization, etc.. When we do find those people we cherish them, for if professionals, they may at any point move on to a different organization or company, and if student-athletes, certainly graduation is a finale for most, as the professional swimmer is rare.

We know that both positive and negative reinforcement can affect motivation in myriad of ways, and the concept of carrots and sticks has been used throughout time to bring out higher levels of motivation in various populations, from soldiers and athletes to employees and children alike. Imagine for example if the aforementioned challenging swim practice had a million dollar cash prize (tax free of course) attached to its successful completion. I do believe we would see a far greater number of student-athletes complete the workout. As for sticks...if anyone remembers the movie Office Space...a great many work just hard enough not to get fired.

But for true greatness, carrot and sticks only go so far. What motivates the millionaires and billionaires of the world to keep pushing on? At that level, certainly more money isn't a driving factor for their continued Excellence. What motivates athletes who have already achieved greatness to continue their quest for more and better? And for musicians? Writers? CEO's and other business types? What drives them further? Again, carrots and sticks only go so far, and elite level Excellence, desire, and continued motivation touch on a core component of human nature that transcends reward and punishment.

Enter, the "X-Factor." I know not how to describe the X-Factor, but I know it when I see it. To echo the 1990's alternative rock band Cake in their hit song "The Distance"

"No trophy, no flowers, no flashbulbs, no wine,                                                                           he's haunted by something he cannot define"

The "X-Factor" is that haunting, the inner voice that has driven the Giants throughout history to achieve unparalleled Excellence in their respective fields, with or without the fame, monetary gain, or status that might come with achieving said Excellence. In short, true motivation and desire marches to the beat of a different drummer, and quite literally in many cases the greats have been haunted by something they could not define. No amount or intensity of carrots or sticks could phase these types, for the Giants of the past and of today are certainly not driven by such trivial matters. Perhaps some of them have been crazy, perhaps some of them have been mad. Perhaps some have actually been the victims of a psychological disorder (van Gogh comes to mind), but in most cases, we are simply left to wonder as to what drove these minds as we cannot pinpoint the origin of their greatness. 

And thus life continues, and some people choose (or are driven) to achieve Excellence, while some lie there in slumber, refusing to consider the ant as Solomon reminds us in Proverbs 6: 6-11 - 

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest - and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man. 

Are we the ant or the sluggard? Why do we have ants and sluggards to begin with? What drives us? Why are some more driven than others? Why are some extremely motivated and some are not? My thoughts today leave me with more questions than answers, but one thing I know for sure: We must cherish true motivation and desire when we find it, for it certainly is rare! 



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