Motivation is the feeling that makes us want to do something. It usually gets a pretty good reputation among personal development fans—they motivate each other to aim for the stars, and listen to motivational speakers on their commute to work.
Despite this universal love affair with motivation, I’ve learned that not all motivation is useful. Sometimes, the things we feel motivated to do are counterproductive, or even self-sabotaging.
Motivation has two parts: there’s the action you feel compelled to take, and there’s the motive behind the action. Why do you want to do it? What will the result be? Which of your needs will be satisfied by this result?
Usually, when somebody refers to a “bad” motive, they’re talking about something they consider immoral, and “bad” is equitable to “unfair” or “mean”. We’re all familiar with such motives, as we’ve all succumbed to the urge to do things we know are wrong.
Today, I want to discuss a different category of “bad” motives. They’re not inherently immoral, but they’re based on a fundamentally flawed view of the world influenced by the anxieties of the mind, in which danger lurks around every corner. I call these “negative” motives.
If a positive motive makes your pursue something that makes you happy, a negative one pushes you to escape from some form of unhappiness. Renowed author Tony Robbins explains that these two options account for everything we do—every motive is either attraction to positive feelings, or repulsion from negative feelings. They can both be useful to inspire action, but the former is much more effective for many reasons.
Positive vs. Negative
While experiencing positive motivation…
you strive for something you want
you focus on a positive goal that gives you energy and excitement
you perform actions that feel worthwhile
you answer to yourself, and work for your own sake
you act in accordance with your values (because you’re the boss)
you enjoy thinking about your goal and telling others about it
you achieve a result you’re proud of
When experiencing negative motivation, you…
you strive to avoid something you’re afraid of
you focus on fear, making you worried and unproductive
you perform actions that feel pointless (e.g. endlessly fleeing from pain)
you work to satisfy the needs of your fear
you may act against your values, if your fear compels you to
you become easily bored and discouraged
you try not to think about your goal (the source of your fear) and keep it secret from others
you achieve nothing—when your goal is to avoid something, the best case scenario is that NOTHING happens
It's easy to see why positive motivation is the better choice for inspiring sustained action.
The Only Thing to Fear is Fear Itself... Actually Though
You might think negative motivation is necessary when we DO have something to fear, and you'd technically be right. But fear is an outdated concept, an obsolete tool designed to help humans in a different era.
In the past, humans feared things that put their lives in danger: predators, disease, starvation, etc. Nowadays, we fear things that put our egos in danger, like making less money than our neighbors, or being embarrassed in front of our peers.
In the land of sabertooth tigers and warring tribes, your chances of survival increase the more scared you are, because fear leads to caution. The cavemen who anticipated the most threats survived the longest and reproduced the most, passing on their pro-fear genes.
This natural selection explains the overactive “fear machine” in each of our heads today. Unfortunately, it's almost completely useless in today’s society.
Ditching the Fear Machine
It’s unrealistic to think we can turn off the fear-producing part of our brain overnight. But we can learn to recognize fear for what it is: meaningless noise produced by our brain.
As we learn this skill of recognition, our brain will continue to create fear signals, even in the goofiest scenarios….
“Oh my God, is that your ex on the other side of this crowded room...? CODE RED, ALL HOPE IS LOST—RUN!”
–Your stupid brain
On the bright side, we can learn to live with this fear without letting it affect our actions. By doing so, we turn fear into a harmless annoyance, rather than a negative influence that sabotages our decisions and distracts us from achieving our goals.
Starting today, make it your intention to develop an automatic response to fear, consisting of:
feeling its presence in your body,
identifying the emotional response you have to it, and then
ignoring the negative motivation it feeds you.
With this understanding of the fear mechanism, and these strategies for counteracting it, you can quit negatively-motivated behaviors cold turkey, and replace them with their positive counterparts. It’s all a matter of self-awareness.
Your positive motivation is not only far more effective at inspiring action, but it will inspire the actions that are actually important to you. The results of your positive motivation are the physical manifestation of your values, ideals, and passions—they’ll take you where you need to go.