I’ve been working on a project for the past couple of months.
(No, I won’t tell you what it is. Yes, you’ll find out soon. Unless you’re a newsletter subscriber, in which case you already know — shh!)
Working on my secret project been teaching me about motivation. I’ve been discovering how much more easily I learn a new skill when I’m working on something I care about.
I mean, that makes sense, right? But knowing something intellectually and experiencing it personally and with awareness are two completely different animals.
A Tale of Two Projects
Over the summer, I started a free intro-level programming class online. I’ve been interested in exploring programming languages for a while, so I thought I’d give it a try. The material was interesting, the course was nicely structured and presented, and the homework was challenging without being impossible. And yet, from the beginning, I had to force myself to sit and watch the video lessons. I fidgeted as the minutes dragged by. I started skipping homework problems. Eventually, halfway through, I quit.
Yesterday, I opened up a new piece of software for the very first time. Playing around with it interests me, but more than that, I need to learn to use it in order to finish this project of mine. With no one to teach me and no course to follow, I jumped in and started messing with things, searching for tips online when I got stuck and occasionally swearing in frustration. Much later, I looked around and realized several hours had passed. I hadn’t even noticed the time flying by. I’d been so absorbed in the learning process I’d totally forgotten to do a couple of other things I had to get done. And I’d been thoroughly enjoying myself.
So what’s the difference? I want to learn both the programming language and the software program. In the former case, someone else had already laid out a course of study for me, so logic suggests I should have preferred this nice smooth path to hacking through the jungle on my own.
And yet, the opposite was true. Huh?
The Motivation Formula
The more I pay attention to what I enjoy learning and what I don’t, the more I realize I have to have a personally significant reason for diving into a particular skill. It’s not enough to have an intellectual interest. There has to be an emotional desire driving my learning.
So for me, I think my motivation formula looks something like this:
Motivation = What + How + Why
What I’ll be learning and how I’ll be learning it are obviously important — I wouldn’t get very far without either. They can come from my logical, intellectual side. But why I’m doing it is what keeps me moving forward. That has to come from my heart. A mentally-imposed why is no why at all.
Rowing with Both Oars
I think we often forget about the the why, the heart. It’s more emotional, more tempermental, less trustworthy than the steady, rational mind. It’s harder to plan in advance. So we discount it and rely on our minds instead.
But it’s really hard for me to find that deep, inspiring, energizing motivation that makes learning so amazingly fun and productive without the spark that comes from the heart. I have to be invested in what I’m doing. I have to see why I’m learning what I’m learning in the first place. I have to know how it applies to something I care about. When I can make that connection, I’m floored by the difference.
Heart and mind are like the two oars that row our motivational boat — drop one, and you’ll just go in unproductive circles. But if you can get them in sync, you’ll go far. (You were wondering where that strange post title tied in, weren’t you?)
I’ve written about how to find your why elsewhere, so I won’t repeat myself here. But I think we (myself included) need to actually do it more often. It’s easy to get stuck in someone else’s why: coworkers, parents, friends, teachers, society. When you opt for another person’s why, you don’t have to think. You can just drift along.
But if you want to live a life that’s meaningful to you, that why is crucial for anything you undertake. It puts what you’re working toward in your own terms instead of someone else’s. It makes what you’re doing yours, gives you a stake in whether you succeed or fail. And that is a very powerful thing.
What’s your motivation formula? Does having a why driving your actions make a difference for you?