Meta Motivation

Today’s post is the result of a psychological rabbit hole, inspired by my recent director-ish stint for the children’s musical at my church. The head director asked me to come in and work with the small cast of kids that had speaking parts during the show, and I learned a lot about motivation while working with the kids.

First, working with non-experts really makes you think about your own skill set. I’ve been doing stage work for most of my life, and studied it formally for a year in college, so I know a thing or two about acting. But, 3rd-5th grade kids are a different ballgame. They require detailed direction for any movement (called “blocking” in the theater world) or interaction on stage (usually something like “character development” in the theater world). Thus, when I am about to move toward another actor, extend my hand to an actor, or walk across the stage, I usually try to think of a good reason why I’m doing that. Kids do these same actions “because I said so”. But in reality, “because I said so” is a terrible reason to do something on stage! Kinda similar to life and business, eh?

Take, for example, the motivation behind having one of the kids bend down to tie his shoe. It’s pretty obvious on the surface, because there’s a line that states, “Hey kid, stand up” in the script. Thus, for the kid to stand up, he must be doing something other than standing immediately prior to that line. Ah, we’ll have him bend down! Ok, why is he bending down… we can’t just tell him to bend down for no good reason (the line isn’t a strong enough reason, it’s akin to “because I said so”). AH, we’ll make him tie his shoe, it’s a perfect reason for a kid to be bending down! So, we tell the child actor to pretend to tie his shoe, so that the next line makes sense. He then proceeds to mime tying his shoe, which looks silly, because there’s no motivation for him to take this action, as his shoe is not untied. So, down the rabbit hole, why would he bend down to tie his shoe if it’s not untied? By this stage, I’ve made up a whole scenario about how his shoe frequently comes untied, he looks down and notices that it is about to come untied, so he bends down to preempt the untied shoelace by knotting it firmly, and now he’s bending down to knot his shoelace when he’s asked to stand up. Now, it makes sense, falls into place, and looks natural, right?  I’ve drilled down to the motivation behind the motivation.

This same logic applies to our academic pursuits and corporate ascent. Think about it: what’s your motivation for doing well in school? Getting a good job. What’s your motivation for getting a good job? Making lots of money. And your motivation for making lots of money? Financial security and material goods. And the motivation for those two things? Freedom and happiness. There it is! So, if freedom and happiness are the motivation for the motivation, how do we know that the actions resulting from the motivation are correct?

Now we’ve gone down the rabbit hole of factors for life satisfaction, and what we’ve been primed to believe. For most people, a solid day’s work with measurable results will bring a feeling of accomplishment, and a hearty meal will complete the feeling of satisfaction. The definition of a”solid day’s work” and “measurable results” are points of debate, but the underlying desire for success is pretty concrete. I guess I’m just in the mood to contemplate the meta motivation today. Are you just getting more credentials because someone told you to? Are you going in to work everyday because there’s a line in some imaginary life script that says, “Ashley went into work at 8:03 am”, and you need to make that line make sense? Just like the kids, we sometimes start doing exactly what we’re told, when in fact, it makes no sense until we drill down to the very bottom.