Is There Such a Thing As Self-Motivation?

Self-motivationThe short answer to that question is a single two letter word: NO! But before you reject this conclusion, think with me for just a few minutes. Begin with the fact that one of the major themes running through contemporary rhetoric, communication and linguistics as well as in anthropology and psychology is that growth takes place through relationships.

In other words growth and motivation are intersubjective. Intriguing term, meaning that they are not a subjective individual matter, but that life, making sense and motivation are formed and changed through dialog with others. Furthermore, except perhaps for the insane or autistic, making sense is always understanding through your historical and present-day social filters.

Anthropologists and psychologists talk a lot about a person’s needs to develop as an individual and how it happens. Doesn’t each person have to take an active part in life and not just sit around? Doesn’t the individual have to be self-propelled or self-determined? And self-motivated?

Developmental connections
The answer to that question is that each person becomes a more developed and a lot more active individual only as he or she is more fully related to other people. Which is to say that the family, the neighborhood, the community, the church, schools, teachers and friends you grew up with–as well as your work colleagues, mates and partners–have a great deal more impact on your growth and motivation than most of us will ever want to admit.

The fact of the matter, however, is that in our culture and in many organizations growth-promoting relationships are tough to develop–even when you know how to develop them. It’s no wonder that the huge majority of people stop growing after about six years on the job. It’s a built-in dead-end.

Stanford’s Hazel Markus and her colleagues find that rampant individualism, as in our culture and business organizations, can have big, persistent NEGATIVE consequences for personal health. Indeed, where growth relationships are possible the upside for health, productivity, success and motivation is extensive.

Becoming a learning machine
I’ve been fortunate to get to know a number of people who are “learning machines.” They’re very curious, they’re always looking for someone who knows something they don’t–a mentor, a coach, a sponsor–they’re quite willing to be vulnerable. They’ve learned to ask great questions. And, significantly, they provide payback to those that help them.

But the most significant characteristic of their relationships is that they, their colleagues and their culture, have limited the impact of the fears of vulnerability. You can go into some groups and organizations and literally feel the wariness and lack of vulnerability. This deficit undermines relationships and profoundly hinders motivation and development. Of course, from a business perspective you might as well toss the notion of engagement out the window without a culture and relationships where vulnerability is possible and accepted.

A motivational context
So what does an organization look and feel like where motivation, engagement and growth are possible. Nearly thirty years ago Jean Baker Miller identified “five good things” about those kind of relational connections:

  1. Each person feels a greater sense of zest, vitality and energy.
  2. Each person feels more able to take action and does so in the organization.
  3. Each person has a more accurate picture of her/himself and the other person.
  4. Each person feels a greater sense of worth. They’re able to take delight in their contributions.
  5. Each person feels more connected to other persons and exhibits a greater motivation to connect with other people beyond just their significant colleagues.

Collectively, these qualities are characteristic of growth-fostering, motivational and highly engaged people and organizations. So is here such a thing as self-motivation? The answer: somewhere between very, very little–and absolutely none.


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