On Motivation: From Laziness to Engagement

A few years ago, I thought I was lazy. I just didn’t feel like doing things. I procrastinated and wallowed and immersed myself in swamps of sighs. That affected pretty much all aspects of my life, including my work and my writing. Then my therapist just said to me: ‘Laziness? I don’t know what that is.’ And that was so enlightening. What is laziness? Not wanting to work? Not wanting to be bothered? Lack of energy? Well, work, as McGregor told us long ago, is as natural to adults as playing is to children. When we’re out of work we are frequently depressed, we feel low self-esteem, we feel useless and worthless. So what is laziness if not demotivation?

Some time back I worked as a business consultant and worked with a myriad of organizations. I stumbled naturally upon what I call the School of Motivation in these companies. What is the ‘School of Motivation’? It’s that way of thought that argues leaders should ‘motivate’ their employees. They should do it by being positive and encouraging, and promoting all kinds of ‘motivating’ events – ‘team building’ events, as many call them. The expectation is that people will feel happy and engaged and part of something great. I’ve seen companies paying millions of euros creating all kinds of these events, from parties for thousands of people to tree-climbing and paintball weekends. Supposedly, people will come to work on Monday feeling appreciated and… wait for it… motivated. I wouldn’t say all this is complete bullshit but it is way overrated. As far as I’m concerned, if a leader or an organization must ‘motivate’ their employees to work, or work better, then something is already very wrong.

As we worked with dozens of companies and groups, my colleague Carlos Pina and I slowly developed a theory on the subject. For us, Motivation to invest work and effort in any task depends on three basic things. We call it the Motivation Triangle.

First of all, Motivation depends on a sense of Meaning. If the task or goal has Meaning to us, if it feels important to us, if it fulfills us, if it makes us happy and proud, then we will feel motivated to work for it. This meaning can be something as pragmatic as having a paycheck or feeding our children, or something material. I worked with a restaurant chain who said some employees came to work to pay for the tires of their motorcycle and as soon as they’d done that, they’d simply disappear. But this may not be enough. The consultants I hired for my team always had a talk with me at the beginning of their contracts about what were their goals as they came to work for me. Some would say they wanted to learn, some wanted a step up in their careers, some wanted stability. Whatever it was I made sure I and the organization would help them in their goals before I asked them to help us in our goals. But there are also people who are looking for fulfillment – a sense of pride and joy in their work. Or to belong to a company that stands for something. Or work for the community.

You would be surprised by the number of people who work in organizations who will get depressed if you ask them where they see themselves in five years. They get depressed because they don’t like their lives and they suddenly understand these will not change for the better. They just go through the motions every day not knowing how to do something else. How would these people be motivated?

As far as writing is concerned, you can always ask yourself why are you writing this or that book, why are you writing this or that story – what does it mean to you? Or why are you writing at all?

A second pillar of the Motivation Triangle is Participation. This means you must feel your actions, your effort, your work will influence the outcome. You would be surprised how many people in organizations feel their work and their opinions and their investment counts for nothing. It could be nobody pays attention to them, or that the task they execute seems worthless, but it could also be a persistent sense of failure – as if whatever they do they will never succeed, they will never achieve their personal goal, that thing that gives Meaning to their effort. Maybe they even tried once, but people demeaned them, or they failed to have an impact. Or something needed much more effort than firstly estimated. So, they give up and become thoughtless machines, doing the bare minimum every day.

This also happens in writing. People in general underestimate the time and effort needed to put in writing the wonderful things they imagined in their heads. They underestimate the difficulties of communication and how to render to the readers the feeling they have. So they give up. Or they wallow and procrastinate endlessly.

Connected to these two concepts in the Motivation Triangle comes the third pillar: Confidence/Trust. In Portuguese, the word ‘Confiança’ entails both these concepts – we have the same word for Confidence and for Trust. Confidence is part of what allows for Participation: the feeling that you matter, that you can do what must be done, that you will be able to succeed. But many times, that only happens when you trust the ones around you, and/or your organization. For you to be motivated you must feel that the system around you is not boycotting you. That the people you need are trustworthy and will in fact help you. That you are not constantly fighting obstacles that don’t need to be there. That others will do what they have to do for everything to work for everyone.

Years ago, I read a book by Howard Gardner on the development of genius. He analyzed the lives of the likes of Einstein, Freud, Picasso, et.al. He concluded these geniuses wouldn’t have been able to change the world if not for the people around them. Through the difficult years when they developed their wonderful skills, they wouldn’t have succeeded if not for the emotional support they got. And we all need this emotional support, but also, many times, logistical support to handle our children or our elderly parents, financial support to handle our obligations, political support to promote our ideas in an organization – whatever. We are not islands, and we definitely need others if we are to achieve all our potential. And for that we need to trust as well as to have confidence.

These are the three pillars of the Motivation Triangle: Meaning, Participation and Confidence/Trust. They work in organizations and in other areas of our lives, as in writing. There’s no point in artificially ‘motivating’ others. Each of us must motivate ourselves as we discover what moves us and what makes us tic. We can help each other, we can understand one another, and support one another, but we cannot ‘motivate’ others. The kind of motivation that comes with grand speeches and ‘let’s go get them’ rants is very short-lived and shallow.

Bruno_Martins_Soares_K (1)Each of the novels I wrote became more consistent and easier to write once I found their Meaning. THE ALEX 9 SAGA, for instance, is about finding a family when it seems impossible. So it’s about Family. And THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES is about Sacrifice and Endurance – about how ‘getting going’ is sometimes the only thing you can do. Understanding your theme and your message is central to good writing, in my view.

And I also always tried to get better and improve my writing. Sometimes I read what I write, and I have to remind myself that what I don’t like I can actually change. I am the damn writer, after all. It’s what I do that makes a difference. And I can always do better.

Finally, I need to feel I’m any good. And for that, I engage with others. I listen to others’ opinions. I ask for help and depend on people I trust. That allows me to go on and build my resilience.

And that’s my two cents for now. See you around the next campfire, my friends.