Extrinsic motivation is fickle and unreliable. Here’s how to find it within.
I was once like you. I know exactly how you feel.
You have this vague idea of a dream in the back of your mind, but you’ve yet to really do anything about it. Either you’ve done nothing, you’re just at the beginning, or you’ve worked at improving your life in fits, starts, and stops sporadically.
You’re waiting for some magical moment of inspiration. You want to feel permanently fired up like you feel when you read stuff like this, watch videos with motivational background music, and listen to the latest productivity podcasts.
But it never seems to last. Often, self-improvement seems like a crapshoot. Often, it is a crapshoot. Take it from someone who’s used it and been through the process. I preface almost everything I write with the notion that getting self-improvement to work at all is difficult. And it takes an immense amount of “positive brainwashing” to get there.
I’ll readily admit that. But some people do figure it out. I figured it out. I started in a place where ever taking action during my lifetime didn’t seem at all likely, but I managed to do it.
Now, motivated is my default state. I don’t need an extra push to accomplish new goals.
You can certainly get there, but the odds? Well, it depends. For some, it will click at some point. For others, it never will. This is the cold reality of life. If you want a shot at even reaching this point, you have to understand the most important fact about motivation.
You Don’t Need More “Motivation”
You don’t need motivation, per se. In reality, feeling fired up doesn’t really do much. I’ve been to highly motivational and aspirational self-help seminars. You feel really, really, really good… while you’re there.
You feel motivated. But what happens the minute you step back into real life? Let’s just say you don’t find yourself jumping up and down constantly chanting. It’s weird. Like, inspiration and motivation work, but they also don’t work. Rather, they work up to a point.
Inspiration helps you take action, but the action itself creates what you’d consider motivation. You’re motivated because you’re working hard. You don’t get motivation to work hard, but you also kind of do, a little bit.
There are better words than motivation to describe what you need. You need clarity.
You need to find a direction to move in and move in that direction. Most, importantly, you need momentum.
If you get those three things — clarity, direction, and momentum, you’re most of the way there. Motivation is a bit of a nebulous term that doesn’t mean much, but get the “big three” right and you’ll have “motivation.”
How to Develop Mental Clarity
Clarity means you develop a high enough level of awareness to understand what must be done. Think of something like a mid-life crisis. Whether or not you do something about your epiphany, you have one. You’ll often have these little flashes, epiphanies, and sudden realizations. Those “What the hell am I doing with my life?” kind of moments.
But, hell, often those aren’t enough! Usually, the mid-life crisis ends with someone buying a corvette, getting divorced, or some other typical BS that just changes the goalposts.
I’m writing this minutes after giving a talk about using your inevitable death as motivation. It was rousing, inspiring, and may have provided people with a glimpse of clarity. But even with the best delivery, it’s hard to get messages like that tostick.
Is there a perfect remedy you can use to reach a sustained level of clarity? No. But just do it anyway. Who cares if it’s cheesy? This is your life. The cheesy and fuzzy cliches of life become deadly accurate and painfully true over a long-enough timescale. Having this clarity is worth repeatedly failing and fighting for.
That clarity can mentally move you in the direction you need to go. Granted, you don’t necessarily need to know exactly what to do next, but when you have clarity about your own life, you’ll be ready to move in a direction.
Most of the blog posts I write and videos I shoot are about unlearning harmful concepts, narratives, and societal scripts.
With that process of removal, often what’s left is the answer you already know. But you need to do some unlearning to see the answer fully.
The answer basically boils down to the following truths:
- You are completely responsible for your life, regardless of outside circumstances
- You’re primarily limited by your mind. Almost solely. Your problems, perceived barriers, and obstacles are psychological.
- You realize that if you continue to live the way you’re living right now, you’re not going to get the outcomes you want and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.
Clarity just means you’ve hammered the information home enough where it becomes extremely clear to you that you have to act.
You understand the direness of the situation so much that taking action seems to be an inevitable outcome. Granted, some people never get there, but this is the first step. If you do that, do this next.
How to Find Direction
Just pick something and work on it, will you? There is no secret sauce to avoid bumping your head against the wall more times than you can count and making a ton of mistakes while trying to get some path or project off the ground.
“I want to get my ducks in a row first.” Screw those ducks.
My goodness, you beautiful little neurotic creature you. “But what if I pick the wrong thing and waste my time?” You’ll have learned a valuable lesson and you’ll at least know. You’ll at least never have to wonder what could’ve been.
Yes, it’s scary. But if you spend six months on something and it gets no traction, oh well, it gets no traction. If your business fails, you can always go get a job. And it will probably work out to a degree if you just try hard. To a degree. You don’t have to change the world.
The dreams I love are the ones involving the cute little grey-haired shop owner in a small town. They’re not rich, they’re not changing the world, they’re not making a dent in the universe, but they’re doing their little thing well, they’re extremely proud of themselves, their work is a place to place their soul, and they’re happy. I want you to have your version of that.
I chose writing. Actually, like I’ve said many times before, a friend asked me to write for his website. But I stuck with it.
Now, I didn’t know all the intricacies of building a writing career. I didn’t know exactly which books I was going to put out. Hell, at that point, I hadn’t even considered creating a book.
But, I did make the decision that I was going to take my sudden level of clarity and put my efforts into writing… something. Quickly, it became clear that I was going to be writing for the foreseeable future.
You want to pick some project, path, avenue, lane, niche to go into. Something.
I’m telling you. Picking something and merely sticking with it for 90 days to six months will get you about 80 per cent of the way there. If you want to write, write daily for 90 days. If you want to create a YouTube channel, commit to shooting a certain number of videos per week for 90 days.
Starting a side project or business? Just pick a model and stick with it.
You don’t need to have a perfect life plan. Yes, pick a direction, but it doesn’t really matter where the direction is as long as its forwards. We all jump sideways — shift departments “Oooh, 5% raise, better office,” move to a new city but remain the same person, play musical chairs with co-dependent romantic partners, shuffling the same deck of cards over and over again playing a rigged game.
No, play a new game. Forward. Then, get this and keep it.
How to Gain and Maintain Momentum
Getting to the six-month mark should get you to some sort of sustainable level.
Six months in, I had no books out, made zero money, had a very small audience, etc, but I figured I could get things to ‘pop’ down the road.
Making it to six months is basically your barrier to entry. After that, you have a bunch of new things to learn. But you’ll learn them. I heard something insightful from business expert Ramit Sethi once. He said something along the lines of
“Once you develop a new skill, you have it forever.”
Each time you collect a new skill, you add it to your reservoir. This builds confidence. Take YouTube for example. About 5 months ago, I started shooting videos from my webcam.
Take a look at the little habits and skills I’ve learned over the past 5 months of shooting videos:
- How to format my page, create playlists, and add featured videos
- How to research keywords to add to the video description and tags
- Basic video editing skills using basic software
- How to add little engagement tricks into my video
- How to add links to my videos and end screens to share new videos
- 4k video editing with an upgraded camera
- Adding graphics, music, captions, and calls to action in my videos
I didn’t wait until I felt like a YouTube expert before I started shooting videos. I just got started. Then I developed skills.
Now, I have momentum. Starting my YouTube channel was easy and I had zero anxiety about whether or not it would work out because now, I have a macro level of momentum. Since my entire life has momentum, taking on new and interesting projects isn’t as hard.
Get to this point, and the fun really begins.
Do You Want to Build a Snow… ball?
Work on projects long enough, work on yourself long enough, and one day you’ll look back at everything you’ve done. You won’t believe you did it. Then the snowball effect kicks in.
One day, you’ll reach a point in your life-path-career-business-thingy where you’ll no longer need any inspiration. Your own efforts are your inspiration. And then you’ll actually increase your pace instead of resting.
You think you want to reach an end-point. You think you want to arrive. No, you want to build a massive snowball and just…keep building it.
What are we all really doing here, anyway? Who knows the true meaning of life? To me, creating momentum in a direction you genuinely enjoy and continuing to do so forever is the closest thing to happiness and meaning I can think of. If you have a better answer, let me know.
You can’t see it now. But years from now, you will have gone from being an anxiety-ridden doubt-filled “aspiring whatchamacallit” to a productivity savant.
The rest of your life will be your personal playground to create amazing stuff and shape reality in whatever way you see fit.
Zero motivation required.