Layers of Motivation


Motivation is multilayered. Some layers may cause tears.

In the movie Shrek, there is a great speech where Shrek explains to Donkey that Ogres are like onions, because they both have layers.  What the world sees on the surface is not always what’s going on inside.  Motivation is like an onion, you have to keep peeling back the layers.  As things get tougher – motivation comes from a deeper, denser and sometimes more pungent place.  Individual motivation is as diverse as our personal experiences and layers of life.

I had my first notable experience with motivational layering in April 2011 while taking on the longest cycling climb in the world, the Haleakala Crater climb in Maui.  I had done only 3 outside rides in the days leading up to the climb after being inside since October, as dictated by Canadian winter.  I had no business taking on this massive feat.  However, I also had no business backing down from the challenge.  I have always declared that failure to try is the greatest failure of all.  And through the grueling challenge, I experienced and discovered these four distinct layers of motivation.

1st Layer: External Motivation.  In my case, this was a new cycling jersey that my husband taunted me with by saying “If you make it to the top, you can get it”.  And so, for the first hour of this 5 hours climb I kept myself fueled on how badly I wanted that jersey and how it would be a great souvenir to have from this trip to Hawaii, this epic athletic challenge and how I would have this great story to tell.  The jersey kept me going for an hour, which is really quite impressive since I could have just bought the jersey no matter what.

I have seen many external motivation tactics work.  Wanting/needing to fit into a certain outfit (wedding dresses are common drivers), setting target purchases/prizes for specific goals (like new clothes or a new piece of gear), and targeted earnings/savings to invest in a specific purchase are all common external motivators.  I’m sure you can list a few that you have used to keep you going.

2nd Layer:  Internal Motivation.  There is something so rewarding from achieving a personal challenge.  This may not be competitive in nature, it may just be a completion goal.  In my case, the internal motivation was completely linked to my identity.  I am not a quitter.  I have prided myself as being a hard worker and someone who sees things through.  I knew that not finishing this challenge would crush my personal sense of self.

Internal motivation is often competitive and I have experienced this myself many times.  Whether you are competing against others or against your personal best, knowing that you laid it all out on the field, that you could not possibly have given it another ounce of effort in play or in practice leading up to the event, is a feeling that leaves no room for regret.  This layer of motivation simply fuels the fire to Best Yourself with every endeavour.  You may not always win, but the internal fire to complete a challenge at your best is very personal.  This is in my opinion, the strongest motivational power we have.

3rd Layer:  Comparative Motivation.  Comparing yourself to others can be either detrimental or more powerful than rocket fuel.  The power is in choosing the right comparisons.  I have done this well and I have done this poorly.  This is not about comparing yourself with an “I wish I was”, “I wish I had” or an “I wish I could” attitude.  This one hit me very unexpectedly, I feel like I was never warned about this.

I am fortunate enough to have witnessed and experienced a lot of heartbreak, challenge and suffering in my life.  I use the term fortunate because I truly feel that challenge creates strength and the closer you are to a crisis, the more personal power you develop.  In the case of comparative motivation, some of the strongest people I know did not choose to take on a challenge.  It presented itself, uninvited.  Stage 3 breast cancer.  A stillborn child at 36 weeks.  Spinal cord injury resulting in paralysis – followed by a (successful) determination to walk again.

These individuals and their circumstances created a comparative motivation that would drive anyone to not give up.  They have been forced to face much worse, day after day, and they didn’t choose their challenges.  Comparing you challenges to theirs will motivate you to work harder, in respect and in honour of those who have had no choice.

If you don’t know anyone who inspires you at this level, get involved in the journeys of those who are taking on uninvited challenges.  Building supportive and encouraging relationships with people battling these wars will expose you to the strongest human will, the will to live.  These relationships will forever change you both.

4th Layer: Grit and Perseverance.  This is the point when your brain can no longer build rational thoughts and connections to the outside world.  You have exhausted your external motivators, your sense of self is wavering and you can now only admire and be wholly astonished by those who have battled the wars of life.  And you start to question how you’ll make it.  And then, you start to get angry with yourself.  Your internal voice starts to remind you that if you quit now, you’ll have done all this work for nothing.  Your body is clearly reminding you of the pain that has already been inflicted.  At this point, your primitive instincts kick in and you are solely focused on finishing.  The mental grit and perseverance is a challenge to your physical body to follow-through.  This is truly a neurological challenge of the highest form and will test your maximal limits.  My personal tactic here is to flip the switch on my default mental track: “you will not quit” and put it on repeat.

You may not experience all four layers.  Our personal experiences are very different.  However, creating clarity with your personal external motivators, internal motivators, comparative motivators and individual level of grit and perseverance will equip you to leverage all 4 layers to Best Yourself.  You may just discover more layers… if you do, please share!!


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