You Can’t Motivate Anyone

Before my career switch to marketing, I spent many years teaching private French Horn lessons. I can with some degree of authority that there is no more painful hell than the sixth-hour teaching when an 11-year-old boy walks into the room with the universal sheepish smile of “I didn’t practice.”

Not once. In an entire week.

The next 30-minutes would usually be spent like this:

Minutes 0 – 10: Listen to why he didn’t practice. Usual suspects included sports, family activities, and “forgot.”

Minutes 10 – 12: Look through the music folder for the copy of music I assigned.

Minutes 12 – 13: Uncrumple said music.

Minutes 14 – 20: Give an honest attempt at faking way through the piece.

Minutes 21 – 29: Practice the music.

Minute 30: Swear next week will be different.

Repeat next week.

This was unbearable and it felt horrible. I was a teacher. I was accepting good money to make a student better. I knew I could teach French horn, but it wasn’t worth anything if I couldn’t teach the desire to improve.

Fast forward to January of 2012 when, like many Americans, I decided I should start the new year with a resolution to be in better shape and signed up for a gym membership.

The gym is a research lab for motivation. Everyone who is there chose to be there. They are busy adults who could have found endless excuses to be anywhere else, but the didn’t. At least for the month of January.

Observing from my treadmill, I felt that there were only three types of people at the gym.

Attainers: These were people who had a goal they wanted to see through: Lose a couple pounds, lift X weight, get a six-pack.

Avoiders: This audience has an anti-goal. I don’t want to die young. I don’t want to be fat. The goal is equally as real as it is for attainers, but it is one of avoidance.

Enjoyers: People who fall into this group are there because they like it. Maybe it is the runners high or the culture of the gym, but they find it therapeutic to put in their time.

Not all motivation is created equally. Attainers (depending on the strength of their goal) will be motivated through the completion of their goal. Then they will need a new one.

Avoiders motivation is directly related to how real the threat is and how long the habit that put them in the negative state is. For example, one person might have had a car injury and is working on getting mobility back. They are avoiding the inability to walk, and there is no habit to overcome to get to the gym — their motivation will be much higher than someone who is at the gym to lose weight. Not only does the latter person have to tap into their motivation reserves to practice the new habit, but they also have to tap into their reserves to avoid the habits that got them in that situation in the first place.

Enjoyers have found unlimited motivation. For them, going to the gym has transcended a reason and it has become part of their identity. They are likely known as “runners” or “athletes.” Their social circles include other enjoyers.

But one thing is true for all these groups. They own the reason.

You can’t motivate anyone, you can only help them find their own motivation.

This is true for any environment, be it the practice room at a middle school of the cubicle of a Fortune 500 company. Motivation is owned by the individual and it is the role of the teacher/manager to help build an environment that keeps that motivation alive.

Now, we are all of these groups. We move fluidly between them. Ideally, we nurture an avoider to an achiever and finally to an enjoyer. Progress is the fuel. But it’s important to identify where someone is initially so you can create the environment that begins their journey.

So, while resolutions are top of mind, I’m curious to hear — what is your resolution and what bucket of motivation do you think you fit into?

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