Opinion Piece: The Motivation Myth

I am not going to write about an original idea or new theory in this post. Maybe though, I can tell you an idea in a way that you can relate to my story, and use this information for yourself. In the interest of saving time, as I know we are all busy, I’ll provide the useful information upfront. “Screw motivation, what you need is discipline”, attributed to Zbynek Drab (http://www.wisdomination.com/screw-motivation-what-you-need-is-discipline/) And “Motivation is a myth”, thoughts of Ali Abdaal (http://www.wisdomination.com/screw-motivation-what-you-need-is-discipline/), or the book The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win by Jeff Haden.

These two ideas: first, that motivation isn’t what you need and the second, that motivation is a myth both point to the development of a specific skill, discipline. I thought I had developed the skill of discipline while in the military. I was so confident in that thought I marketed the idea on all of the items I developed to show myself to the world. Resume? Check, there is the word discipline. College applications? Check, I used the word discipline three different times to describe myself. I also used to it say what I could contribute to an organization. LinkedIn skills? Check. Yet, when it came time to struggle through the confusion that comes with studying hard things, I was coming up short. I came up short when studying because I was confusing my inconsistent feelings of motivation for actually having the skill of discipline.

It is surprisingly easy to confuse the two, especially if you are or were in the military. As an example, my family and friends would tell me, “wow Lyndsea, you are so discipline, you get up early in the morning and get things done.” When they told me that, I believed it. The problem is, I wasn’t getting up early in the morning to get things done because I was disciplined, I was doing it because I was motivated by fear. Fear is a very powerful tool. It is a tool that the military uses all the time to “teach” people to become disciplined. You show up fifteen minutes early, to the fifteen minutes early, not out of discipline but because you are motivated by the fear of the consequences of being late. At least that was what I came to understand about myself. All the times I thought I was being disciplined, I had really just cultivated my motivation that came from fear.

When Ali Abdaal describes motivation as, “waiting until you feel like doing something before doing it” and discipline as doing something regardless of how you feel about, he hits on a fundamental difference that I didn’t understand. What I thought was my “skill of discipline” was really just my “motivation to not get in trouble”. For me, and maybe for you, the experience of being enlisted in the military can be encompassed as a long stretch of being extremely motivated to not get in trouble. I would do so many things, that seemed like discipline, just to avoid getting “called out” by someone higher up in my Chain of Command. I would put in the effort to have “attention to detail” not because of an intrinsic desire to do well, but due to the extrinsic fear of negative consequences. That my friends, was not discipline, that was my motivation of fear, which in my case was very strong.

The reason I think this topic is important is that, for me, one of the biggest changes I had to overcome when getting out of the military was the realization that no one was watching. And maybe, more importantly, there was no one there to hold me accountable. In the “real world,” no one yells at you if you turn in poorly done work. No one embarrasses you in front of the group if you are late and hold everyone up from starting training. Most of the time, no lives are at risk, and there is no one there to force the motivation of fear into your awareness. It is important to consider that what you thought was discipline might have been motivation. What I needed to succeed is to cultivate a new understanding of the discipline and start implementing it into my life. While recognizing that the consequences of your actions will most likely no longer result in the extreme losses we could experience in the military, it’s still important to think of results. What will cultivating a new version of discipline allow you to do? What will removing the word motivation from your vocabulary do for your understanding of what it means to “feel like” doing a hard task?It’s my hope that you have an easier time than I did learning to cultivate discipline out here in the real world. It isn’t always easy, but it is certainly worth the effort. Luckily you aren’t alone in on this path. If you’re interested in learning more I recommend the book Atomic Habits by James Clear and the Podcast episode https://www.notoverthinking.com/episodes/010-why-do-we-struggle-with-motivation, to get started.