What about them?

In address, reflection on June 24, 2012 at 12:00

Yesterday, we saw that answering your “why” may be an important step to decide what you are going to do next. If you are anything like me, chances are it’s difficult for you too. Did you know different people have quite different answers to it?

Together, we recalled our mutual acquaintance who sees a sense of duty: he believes that despite the insignificance of the individual in the grand scheme of things, each one of us has a duty to leave a trace onto the future: artistic, intellectual, affective, supportive, you name it. In turn, his drive forward is provided by his mission to maximize the extant of this trace over time and space. This drive is in turn secured, in that the motivation lies purely within.

I also told you of the idealistic type who overlays his senses with a model of what reality “should be.” For him, his dream is sufficiently strong and conflicting with his senses that he has set upon himself to reconcile them. Yet his strategy is not to adapt his dreams; rather, to work continuously, to the best of his ability, to shift reality towards his ideals. As this is bound to never succeed, his drive is also secured as long as he maintains his dream alive.

We also both know of a number of peers who have founded their own family. Regardless of one’s motivation prior to giving birth, the apparition of one’s child into existence tends to change one’s drive fundamentally to align it to the child’s well-being. This process is both moral, as a feature of society who can only strive as long as it self-reproduces and thus structurally conditions future parents to care, and chemical: children release hormones which influence the metabolism of their caregivers to the point of influencing their psychology too. This drive is secured as long as the family bond persists: the child is alive, dependent, and no externality breaks the equilibrium. Even when the child stays alive and without the threat of externalities, this drive is thus unsecured: a child eventually matures and releases the parent of their duty. Unless the parent then produce another child, they are then bound to seek new motivations to move forward.

These are the three different perspectives we mentioned incidentally during our conversation. As you  understand, I have myself sought what the drive of other people looks like, so as to learn how to recognize a satisfying answer to “why” when I find one. So far, I have found the following “essential” components to individual drive, which can be combined:

Most people don’t have the luxury of choice. They will do anything that “pays” for shelter, safety and food on a regular basis. Anyone who has survival as a component of their drive would not even understand our questioning and the purpose of our conversation. Conversely, anyone that does not recognize survival as an obvious component of their inner motivation belongs to an extremely small, privileged part of humankind. Yet this component should be considered weak because it is metastable: it depends on the precariousness of one’s existence, which the human condition is preprogrammed to fight arduously. Even small external changes could cause an immense improvement of one’s basic condition and dissipate this component. You know of the consequences of a destitute person becoming somewhat successful: unless a followup motivation arises, they become lazy and decadent.
faith and duty.
This is the main component in the first scenario we discussed previously. Despite it being essentially delusional, as long as the faith is deeply ingrained in an individual’s identity it is also the safest motivation, impervious to most externalities and to the passing of time. I suspect that only identity-changing traumas, for example the loss of a loved one as a clear direct consequence of one’s faith-mandated decisions, is able to unseat this component.
After a person has been wronged, anger may drive them to seek revenge. For identity-altering wrongs, such as traumatic abuse, the anger will then be deep-seated and able to power a long-lasting motivation to move forward and achieve, as a continuous active fight against the persisting memory of one’s position as a victim. Tragic as it be, I have seen this component present more often than I would like for this world; it is as strong and persistent as the intensity of the causative trauma. Hopefully for the person, time and experience eases the pain and mellows the anger; however the scarring process also cancels out from one’s existence this motivation to move forward.
After a person has been wronger, or under the perceived risk of being wronged, fear may drive them to seek refuge. The more the sentiment is ingrained, the more the person will continuously move forward and distract themselves as a figurative means to avoid the memory of their position as a victim. This one is as tragic as rage above, and equally prevalent. More tragically so, it does not tend to dissipate over time and instead tends to incrementally strengthen the feeling of dread, because continuous flight forward tends to isolate an individual socially. As a component for motivation, it is thus relatively secure, although I would never wish anyone to use it.

Although my choice to decompose motivation along these four components may seem to you somewhat arbitrary, you should not be too surprised to learn that others before me have also recognized them through independent processes.

During his study of psychology, Abraham Maslow has recognized survival as the prime objective of human existence; an observation he later codified as the basis of his well-known pyramid. Even if the hierarchical nature of his pyramid was later debated, some consensus still exists about what constitute fundamental human needs. Were these to be threatened in any way, you would find an easy drive forward in the necessity to safeguard them.

The effectiveness of faith and duty in “getting things done” is so obviously confirmed by millennia of history that you probably don’t need further explanation as to how their position above is justified by third parties. It’s just unfortunate that when faith and duty drive a less intelligent human, suffering and misery of others tend to come as a consequence. Oh well.

Finally, the biological mechanisms of the fight or flight response to stress are now well-understood. It should thus come to no surprise to you that a deep, prolonged psychological stress would yield a deep, prolonged response at the psychological level and that I could recognize this mechanism as a potential strong component of the drive that animates us.

You may also complain that these four components are somewhat too abstract and do not reflect the peculiarities of individual personalities.  You may be right, although anecdotally I am still able so far to project the drive of the people I come by along these axes. Interestingly, I found some striking correlations: it seems to me that successful professors and charismatic politicians tend to be motivated by faith and duty, and that most  people in senior roles who appear stuck in the middle of the social ladder despite being intelligent are actually inefficiently dealing with their inner demons, ie. either motivated by rage or fear.

In any case, if you can find other components to motivations or contradicting anecdotes, I would be excited to hear your story.

  1. […] to move forward, and we mulled over the question of “why.” Yesterday, I presented you the four-base model I had used so far to recognize the drive in other […]

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