How do you like to be motivated? Do you choose your motivation, or do you wait for some other cue?

This is what I’ve been learning about myself for the last 20-odd years. I’ve been learning what motivates me, and for the sake of my kids, what motivates them.

There are people who believe that they can motivate other people with fear. Then there are people who believe that they can motivate other people with money. And still, there are people who believe that they can motivate other people with pleasure.

I have tried all of them. I have researched motivation based on fear, money and pleasure, and I’ve found them all wanting. From the published studies I’ve read to my experience as a team member at work, to being a husband and father at home, I see one common denominator: skills.

I have been exposed to punishment and reward during my childhood. I tended to get punished more than the reward as my dad seemed to think he was building my character. He was, but I have a fair amount of evidence that some of the skills I learned then to survive childhood don’t serve me very well into adulthood. The one skill that did serve me well is a work ethic that keeps me gainfully employed, but lacking interpersonal skills required to find a mate and have kids.

I spent many years in the 12-step culture and learned tons from them. What I learned from them were skills. I can honestly say that none of the people I met in program were motivated by money. They were motivated by skills. They were moved to see that the collective wisdom of their group actually works.

This is why we have schools. We have schools so that our collective wisdom will be used to teach the basic skills we need to function in a society and then to move on to higher order thinking, like being of service to others. We know that reading, writing and math skills tend to lead to civilized people.

So it would seem appropriate then to test this idea out. Are you motivated by fear? Are you motivated by pleasure? Are you motivated by pain? It is fair to say that we can train ourselves to be motivated by any stimulus. Just like Pavlov motivated his animals with a bell. Lucky for us that human beings can often choose their stimulus.

I’ve tried motivating myself by negative consequences. Didn’t work. I’ve tried motivating myself with fear, that didn’t work, either. I’ve tried motivating myself by pleasure, well, how can I get to the Pleasure Dome if I don’t have the skills required to get in? I have seen very positive results by learning new skills and using them.

We are built to learn skills and use them. When we are born, we are a clean slate. We can learn anything. Whether or not what we learn from our caregivers will help us to survive the demands of our environment, well, that’s another question. If you’re reading this now, you learned enough from your parents to survive up to this point.

I know from my own experience teaching my kids how to live, that they are motivated by skills. They like to try their skills out. They like to experiment. Everything we do requires a skill. Some skills like breathing, are built into our DNA. Other skills, we must learn from our environment.

For my kids, I let them learn from the environment as much as possible. I want my kids to know the natural consequences of their actions. I would rather let them learn the natural consequences of their actions than to punish them for mistakes and misdeeds. I don’t want to be the consequence of their actions, for if I am the consequence of their actions, then I must think for them, too. I have enough on my plate without even trying to think for someone else.

I do this for everyone around me. Far be it for me to tell other people what to do, because I’ve found that no one likes to be told what to do. So when I see someone has made a mistake, I offer guidance or advice, and I do not give it without their consent. If they say “No thanks” and there is negligible or zero impact on me, I let them carry on.

I have also found that I am motivated by skills. I experienced intense pleasure upon learning how to ride a bike. I was not motivated by fear, pleasure or money to learn how to ride a bike. My kids learned how to eat, go potty, talk, and read without any carrots, sticks or fear. My wife and I were just facilitators and models. My kids did the rest.

The fact that we’re motivated by skills and skills alone is plainly evident by my experience with kids. We’re built to learn skills and apply them to the tasks before us. We get the juice from our brains when we learn a new skill, apply it to a task, and master it.

If we’re lucky, and the people around us are enlightened somewhat, we learn to choose our motivation. We learn to learn. We learn to choose what we want to learn, and we learn to take notice of what works for us and what doesn’t. If we’re lucky, we have parents that let us grow up with permission to make mistakes and recover from them. Recovering from mistakes provides serious motivation for learning new skills, too.

If we’re really lucky, we have parents that collaborate with us while we learn new skills, apply them, allow us to make mistakes, and collaborate with us to recover from our mistakes, until we can do it ourselves. Music to my ears? “I got this, Daddy.”

I can watch TV or I can read. I can go for a walk, or eat popcorn and watch the sun traverse the sky. I can go to college or I can hang out at the bar. I can get married or remain alone. I can live or die. I can choose my stimulus and motivation, but I must choose.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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