Motivation for Smart People (Sans Chest Pounding)

July 25th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

Do you ever feel there’s a greater being inside of you just bursting to get out?  You can feel its presence sometimes, can’t you?  It’s the voice that encourages you to really make something of your life.  When you act congruently with that voice, it’s like you’re a whole new person.  You feel like a god in a human body.  You’re bold and courageous.  You’re strong.  You’re unstoppable.

But then reality sets in, and soon those moments are history.  Where did that powerful voice go?  Were you merely suffering from delusions of grandeur?

It isn’t hard to temporarily put yourself into an emotional state of power.  Just go to any Tony Robbins’ concert seminar, and he’ll have you dancing in the aisles feeling totally motivated.  Put on your favorite fast-tempo music, stand tall, breathe strong, chest out, shoulders back.  Strut around like a superhero.  Shout, “Yes!”  Pound your chest a few times for good measure.  You’ll look like a dolt, but this does actually work.

But then you go home, and the emotional motivation fades away.  Your great ideas now seem impractical.  How many times have you been temporarily inspired with an idea like, “I want to start my own business,” and then a week later it’s forgotten?  You come up with inspiring ideas when you’re motivated, but you fail to maintain that level of motivation through the action phase.

So how do you reach the point of high motivation and stay there?

Emotional motivation

Tony Robbins says the key to motivation is state management.  This means conditioning yourself to feel a certain way via techniques like anchoring (connecting an emotion to a physical trigger).  When Tony pounds his chest while speaking, he’s firing off anchors he previously conditioned.  The downside is that you need to keep firing off these anchors as well as periodically reconditioning them to keep your motivation up.  That means lots and lots of chest pounding.

As another motivational method, Tony suggests writing down the pleasure you associate to a task as well as the pain of not doing it.  Again the idea here is to stir up your emotions, so you’ll be motivated to take action.  This type of motivation is usually short-lived, even when the emotions involved are very intense.

I studied and practiced these kinds of emotional motivation techniques extensively during my 20s.  In the long run, I didn’t find them particularly effective.  My intellect saw right through all the chest pounding.  The logical part of my mind was ultimately dissatisfied with attempts to induce motivation through emotional manipulation.

Have you ever seen one of those rah-rah motivational speakers?  If the speaker is good, s/he will have an emotional effect on you and get you to feel motivated.  But within a day or two, that emotional boost fades away, and you’re back to normal.  You can listen to hundreds of motivational speakers and experience an emotional yo-yo effect, but it doesn’t last.  I think this is especially common with technically minded people.  We’re accustomed to thinking with our heads.  We’re still emotional creatures on some level, but our emotional B.S. detectors periodically scrub our minds free of anything that doesn’t satisfy our logic.

Intellectual motivation

I used to get frustrated when my emotional conditioning fizzled out after a while.  Eventually I realized that being guided by intellect, not emotion, wasn’t such a bad thing after all.  I just had to learn to use my mind as an effective motivational tool.  I stopped using emotional motivation techniques and decided to see if I could motivate myself intellectually.  I figured that if I wasn’t feeling motivated to go after a particular goal, maybe there was a logical reason for it.  Perhaps I just wasn’t taking my logic far enough to see it.

I noted that when I had strong intellectual reasons for doing something, I usually didn’t have trouble taking action.  I’m motivated to exercise regularly because doing so is intelligent and reasonable.  I don’t need to emotionally pump myself up to go to the gym.  I just go.

But when my mind thinks a goal is wrong on some level, I usually feel blocked.  I eventually realized that this was my mind’s way of telling me the goal was a mistake to begin with.

Sometimes a goal seems to make sense on one level, but when you look further upstream, it becomes clear the goal is ill advised.  Suppose you work in sales, and you set a goal to increase your income by 20% by becoming a more effective salesperson.  That seems like a reasonable and intelligent goal.  But maybe you’re surprised to find yourself encountering all sorts of internal blocks when you try to pursue it.  You should feel motivated, but you just don’t.  The problem may be that on a deeper level, your mind knows you don’t want to be working in sales at all.  You really want to be a musician.  So no matter how hard you push yourself in your sales career, it will always be a motivational dead end.  You’ll never convince your mind to give up on your more important dream of being a musician.

When you set goals that are too small and too timid, you suffer a perpetual lack of motivation.  Try all the emotional conditioning techniques you want, but you’re wasting your time.  Deep down you already know the truth.  You just need to summon the courage to acknowledge your true desires.  Then you’ll have to deal with the self-doubt and fear that’s been making you think too small.  There’s no getting around that if you want to experience lasting motivation.  Ironically, the real key to motivation is to set goals that scare you.

I recommend working through these kinds of blocks in your journal.  Type a question like, “Why am I feeling unmotivated to achieve this goal?”  Then type whatever answer comes to mind.  You’ll often find that the source of your block is that you’re thinking too small.  You’re letting fears, excuses, and limiting beliefs hold you back.  Your subconscious mind knows you’re settling, so it won’t provide any motivational fuel until you step up, face your fears, and acknowledge your heart’s desire.  Once you finally decide to face your fears and drop the excuses, then you’ll find your motivation turning on full blast.

When I use this process myself, I uncover new goals that seem unreasonably big.  I admit that I want them, but I feel incapable of achieving them.  However, when I finally step up and set goals that lie outside my comfort zone, somehow I end up feeling very motivated, and I summon all sorts of unexpected resources to help me.

Was it unreasonable to set a web traffic goal of reaching a million monthly visitors without spending any money on marketing?  I originally thought so, but I privately set that goal before I ever launched this site because it inspired me.  More reasonable traffic goals had no motivational effect on me.  Now that I’ve achieved that goal, my next traffic goal is to reach 10 million visitors a month.  Is that unreasonable?  Probably.  But somehow it’s very motivating to me.

It seems counter-intuitive that motivation may be highest when setting goals that lie outside your comfort zone, but I’ve seen this pattern too many times to discount it.   Perhaps we have to set big, hairy, audacious goals in order to feel truly motivated.  Maybe little goals just aren’t enough to trigger the release of motivational energy.  If we think a goal is too easy, we won’t commit all our internal resources.  It’s only when we set unreasonable goals that all our internal resources come online, including motivation and drive.

When I set a goal that’s big enough and challenging enough, I never need to pump myself up with emotional rah-rah.  I feel motivated to pursue the goal because my intellect is fully behind it.  I just find myself doing what needs to be done.  No chest pounding required.


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