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Figure Out What Drives You
5 Most Common Motivators
Everyone is driven by something.
The dictionary defines the verb drive as “to guide, to control, or to direct.” Like a car by its engine, a golf ball by a club, or a nail by a hammer, you and I are driven by something. And it is our chief duty to figure out what it is.
“A man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder—a waif, a nothing, a no man.” —Thomas Carlyle
Here are what I think are the five most common drivers (in no particular order):
Guilt-driven people are manipulated by memories. They run from regrets and hide behind shame. They allow their past to control their future and unconsciously punish themselves by sabotaging their own ambitions.
There’s a pattern in the Book of Genesis worth pointing out: sin is almost always punished with nomadism. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree, they were banished from paradise. When Cain killed his brother, God said, “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” When the builders of Babel were disrupted, they were dispersed and sent to scatter themselves across the world. The psychological significance of these stories seem to say when you make a mistake and choose to sulk in your shame and guilt, you will spend your future wandering aimlessly.
Not being driven by guilt is not about being free from mistakes—that’s simply impossible. We all make mistakes. We have all been wrongdoers. We are products of our past, but we do not have to be prisoners of it. Purpose is not limited by what has happened.
“Some people move forward eyeing what they can have while others keep looking back on what they had to leave behind. Some are pulled by willed, others are running away from regret.”
Dragging guilt into the present is doing a great disservice to your future.
Resentment & Anger
Maybe you had a terrible misunderstanding. Maybe they crossed a line you swore was unforgivable. Maybe they said something you could never forget.
Whatever may have caused the resentment or anger, holding on to it will always hurt you more than the person you intend to direct it at. As the Buddhists like to say, “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Forgiving is not the same as forgetting; forgiveness is about releasing the pain so you can be given a fresh start. When you are driven by anger, you start rehearsing what has happened over and over in your mind—some internalize it, others “blow up” and become irritable. Both responses are unhelpful.
If you don’t heal what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people who didn’t cut you.
Those who have hurt you in the past, whether intentional or not, cannot continue to hurt you in the present unless you choose to hold on to the pain through resentment. Letting go is for your own sake, because while your offender has probably forgotten about what happened, you continue to stew in your pain. What happened may not be your fault, but choosing to perpetuate the past is completely within your grasp.
It’s easier to identify what repels you than what drives you. Most people are more confident in naming what they don’t want (e.g., “I don’t want debt or illness”) and are more ambiguous towards clearly defining what they do want.
Many people are driven by fear. It can be parenting, past trauma, genetic predisposition, or a combination of these. It can even be evolutionary why people are driven by fear: an animal is always more sensitive to loss than gain. Survival-related losses are, on average, more significant than gains: for example, a loss of health may kill you whereas an equal gain in health may merely increase your momentary chances of survival—gain is good, loss is fatal. This asymmetric pressure in adaptation selects individuals who have greater vigilance in response to change—naturally, those with a heightened sense of fear stay further away from danger. We are loss averse because only the paranoid survived.
A bit of fear may be good for risk management, but too much of it makes you a coward. A coward is someone who fails not because they quit but because they never tried. A great majority of our limitations are in our heads, not our hands. We suffer more in imagination than reality: When we leverage our strengths at the right time, a small act can redefine everything. A single match can burn down a forest. A single quiet realization can dissolve years of pessimism. A single invention can change an industry. You contain more than you lack, so, apply your advantage and seize your moment.
Money can buy happiness but it will never buy fulfilment. Money is great, but no amount will ever be ‘enough’. Money solves problems, but money will only ever solve money-problems. You’ve probably heard of some variation of the adage, “Money can buy medicine but it can’t buy health. Money can buy a house but it can’t buy a home. Money can buy company but it can’t buy you friends, family, and love.” And that’s all true.
Dreams can’t be purchased with currencies other than grit, belief, and diligence. Every mistake, no matter how costly, can bring you incredible profit if you learn from it. The freedom to pursue what you want is true fortune, and doing so without worrying what others think of you is true wealth. The most valuable things in life are not things.
“True fulfillment is bought with earnestness, joy, and compassion. Do anything with love and it will bring a salary of a life worth living.”
A need for approval
Something that prevents many people from knowing what they truly want—what truly drives them—is not distinguishing between wants and oughts.
“I'm just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me.”
— Rollo May
It’s very easy to confuse the expectations of others for your own drivers. Maybe our parents put their dreams on us; many adults are still trying to earn the approval of unappeasable parents, even if it’s out of habit. Maybe our friends said we’re “smart” and should pursue a certain industry. What others expect of us become what we feel like we ought to do. In my experience, it usually takes people one terrible job that they absolutely hate working at to become more aware of what truly drives them.
Unfortunately, those who follow the crowd usually get lost in it. I don’t know all the keys to success (or if there even is a formula), but I’m sure that the key to failure is trying to please everyone. The constant need for validation usually ends in regrets, because conscience is the first to get compromised when attention becomes an addiction. You will surprise yourself with how far you’re willing to betray yourself for a brief round of applause.
Besides, your work must be meaningful to you before it is worthwhile for anyone else anyway—no amount of external approval can make you feel like what you did was truly worthy if you’re not proud of it first (kind of like when mothers fight back shock and hide expressions of confusion when consoling crestfallen young children about how “fantastic” their artwork turned out).
If your “why” doesn’t come from the heart, you have got to dig deeper to discover what drives you. That is what’s going to keep the journey sustainable, fruitful, and, ultimately, fun.
Happy Friday (and share this post with a friend!),
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