About Polly Chester

Polly is a thinker, writer and social worker with passions for human rights, caring for the environment, social justice, social policy, epistemology, philosophy and psychology

The true value of motivation

Approx Reading Time-14Motivation is a term frequently linked with value. Harnessing it, we can climb mountains. However, the concept is devoid of value, and completely misunderstood.


Because I eat a shitload of baked goods, occasionally drink gallons of shiraz and refrain from posting selfies of me in my active wear and/or engaging in fitness related activities, many people don’t know I’m a closet fitness fanatic. It’s rare that I make it to the gym less than six times per week and currently I’m the strongest and fittest that I have ever been.

Whilst the gym is my panacea, I understand that many struggle to motivate themselves to exercise for reasons including but not limited the gym being a rather intimidating place. As level-headed as one tries to be, it’s super hard not to compare yourself to others in those spaces because there’s nothing to look at other than bodies. It’s easy enough to be swept up in a maelstrom of self-flagellation over the state of your own imperfections; despite overwhelming evidence that hardly anybody (arguably, nobody) thinks that their body is perfect.

One recent Saturday morning, prior to getting out of bed for coffee and spin class, a Girls Gone Strong article called Why Motivation Is Overrated caught my eye and made me sit bolt upright:

Motivation is a funny thing. Some days you’re on fire, smashing every single thing you wanted to achieve for the day. Other times it’s all you can do not to just lie down on the floor and stay there. Something most of us have missed is that motivation is an emotion. In the same way that you’re not happy or angry all the time, none of us are motivated all the time. It’s just not possible to experience an emotion at all times, every day.

Motivation is an emotion, you say? That it’s overrated? I think they must be confusing it with something else. Bear with me for a moment whilst I adjust my monocle and prepare to deliver a rant from my lofty academic perch.

Motivation is a living phenomenon, unique in every incarnation. To write it off as a fickle emotional state is a waste of a wondrous social construction.

Motivation is not an emotion like happiness or sadness; it is mistakenly assumed as being laden with value. But I totally get why people think that it is. It wasn’t long ago that I too had jettisoned the concept of motivation due to the assumptions I’d made about it. The word conjured up frightening images of motivational speakers, maniacally pedalling the laws of attraction and the value positive thinking in the delivery style and presence of Tony Robbins (*shudder*).

Don’t get bogged down in it. Motivation isn’t synonymous with cutting the word “impossible” out of your life, or having an unhealthy obsession with hoping and dreaming, or being the master of your own destiny (ICYMI, for some time now, the concept of free will has been contested by scarily smart academics). As a stand-alone concept, the term “motivation” is a malleable, alive and devoid of value; it’s simply a word that describes neutral, resting potential for activity. It is only once you begin to look at the quality of the conditions underpinning motivation that begins to emulate meaning.

In 1985, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci developed an approach to human motivation called Self Determination Theory, which can add some colour, structure and life to misunderstood concept of motivation. In order to take motivation from a neutral state to a meaningful one, you must understand that its quality is determined by the presence or absence of three conditions: relatedness, competence and autonomy. Relatedness is determined by the extent to which something fits with our own way of being in the world; competence is about the degree to which we feel we can achieve something, and autonomy is about the development of a personally meaningful rationale that prompts the integration of something into your life.

It’s very interesting to run the following experiment with yourself:

  1. Think of an activity – any activity: sport, sex, dish washing, smoking; you name it.
  2. Think about how related, competent and autonomous you feel in relation to that activity.
  3. Reflect on how closely your level of enthusiasm is entwined with those conditions.
  4. Allow your mind to be blown by the complexity of the underpinnings of your motivation – and you’ve only just scratched the surface.

It’s waaaaaaay beyond the scope of this article for me to say all I want to about Self-Determination Theory – I’ll save that for my upcoming Masters thesis. What I can and will conclusively say is whilst it’s a very complex theory, it is also highly applicable, and I have experienced overwhelming benefits from using it as a tool for understanding my own and others’ behaviour.

Also on The Big Smoke

I opened up a thread on my Facebook page last month, with the headline: “Excuse me everyone! In your words, I would love to know: What is ‘motivation’?”

The responses were overwhelming in their humour, complexity and diversity. Here were a few of my favourites:

“The dread of being the only Mum to not produce Masterchef-worthy goodies for the cupcake stall at the school P&C fundraiser *bakes furiously*”

“The mental wood that keeps the physical fire burning”

“To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women (Conan The Barbarian)”

“The impulse beneath action”

“Motivation is an itchy soul”

“…motivation arises when a need greater than mine is perceived i.e. responsibility for the interests of a child/children/group. Motivation to act also sparked when there is a threat to the personal/collective good – that’s when *higher purpose* may develop it’s own motivation momentum… Some of my greatest motivations have arisen (a) at early stages of falling in love (b) from the amazing unforgettable natural high after having a baby…well, after each of three truly amazing babies!”

Motivation is not merely an emotion; it is a living phenomenon that is unique in every incarnation. To write it off as though it were a fickle emotional state is a waste of a wondrous social construction.

With assumptions removed, it’s a super interesting facilitator for increasing self-knowledge and awareness. And what, pray tell, is the benefit of this increased awareness?

“With awareness, we have the space of choice” (Joseph Goldstein)


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