The Importance of Proper Motivation

by Dan Walsh

I have been improperly motivating myself.

I have grown up with a very strong sense that only those who set and actively work towards their goals will ever accomplish them. Yet, it seems that this operational model has hindered me lately. I can’t shake the feeling that I accomplished more (awards, accolades, etc) in my youth with less resources and less effort, than I have in my adult life. But why?

Case in point: I painted as a hobby during college, sold three painting, and won best in show at a group exhibit. No goal, just success. Buoyed by the plaudits, I decided to pursue art as a career 4 years later after leaving my non-profit job in 2010. I spent three months working towards this end and ultimately failed. Full-time, devoted effort and more than twice as much experience, and I didn’t sell a single painting.

What gives?! I should have been MORE successful with MORE effort, right?

Apparently not, but why? I’ve since realized that I had propelled myself along a trajectory of failure, ultimately resulting in me throwing in the towel. Here’s why: If I pursue an activity as a means toward an end, every day that I do not reach that end – or do not feel as if I’ve come closer to that end – feels like a failure. As long as my goal for painting was financial success, everyday that I painted and did not earn a single cent for my efforts was, in effect, a failure.

It’s important to let that sink in.

In college, I painted for the sake of painting. Everyday I put pigment to canvas was a success because painting was itself the goal. I call this a motivational loop: when an action becomes it’s own affirmation. These are compelling, self-perpetuating, self-rewarding action-goal relationships.

Example of an Incorrect Motivational Loop

Practicing Judo out of a secret desire to one day get mugged and impressively kick some ass. This means that everyday I’m not held up at knife-point makes me feel like Judo is a waste. How ridiculous!

Example of a Correct Motivational Loop

I will practice Judo so that I am a better Judoka. This relationship means that every Judo class is it’s own success as long as I learn something or in SOME way shape or form become better.

If the simple act of modifying my artistic motivation turned something that was once a success into a constant and irritating source of failure, then fixing my motivational loops should put me back on the right track. It seems to be working so far.