F*** the Myth of Motivation


One of the lowest insults we deal our own egos is “unmotivated.” I’ve noticed its infectious, self-inflicted use among artists who have worked for a long time. I’ve also heard it around “pre-work” artists—those who’ve been seized with the spark, but who have yet to make The Thing. The motivation crisis is different for each place on the path, but it is as toxic as it is ubiquitous. I think of it as a self-degrading myth of a “self-starter” culture; we have to give it up. We have to demolish the notion that we must become different people in order to do better work.

I am not the first to recognize that “motivation” in its most basic sense is a faulty concept when applied to our prerogative to get things done. One can already read articles and studies about why “motivation” will not help you change your exercise or eating habits. But the concept also has a caustic effect on our artistic brains. It worms into our consciousness so insidiously that we carry it like heartbreak. We convince ourselves that our uncompleted projects are due to an innate paucity of ethics, or at least of willpower. We are sure we are deeply flawed.

We already possess motivation. If you’ve been struck with the idea, been in front of the canvas, tried and re-tried chord progressions, or rushed to jot a storyline on a notecard, you’ve been motivated. Inspiration, the elegant cousin of motivation, grants rare visits like an angel. We spontaneously balloon with potential, take that first step with the paintbrush or flute—we are motivated—and then? The indeterminate and sometimes extreme pause after the motivation is the era or place in which artists (pros and amateurs alike) flounder.

It is in this perceived dearth that we fall victim to two injurious misconceptions: One, that motivation is a nameable “personality trait;” and two, that we must have it to complete our work.

When we look at other people’s successes, we spuriously believe that they are inexplicably endowed with motivation. How is it that every day they go to the gym, write two new drafts, compose for six hours,Motivation1 and make five prints, all while cooking vegan-colorful Instagram-able meals? They must be motivated. They must possess a quality that we mysteriously lack. But they do not. What we witness in these other people is not motivation; it’s most likely our own fantastical projection or momentum.

People do not come out of the womb motivated. A barrage of genetic, social, and chance factors collage behavioral and belief systems for each of us, and for some it is simple to build a routine that includes things that appear to require motivation. For others, we catch ourselves identifying with misguided characterizations like “works best under pressure.” This is a kind of defeatist claim of physical principle as personality trait—it’s almost like saying, “cooks best when hot.”

My own work method seems deleterious to pace and sanity; I usually start from page one when I revise a play. This is not graceful or fun, but starting over and over again is my only familiar escape route from a hazardous draft. I was recently rewriting a piece I’d been commissioned to do years ago, and someone asked me why I’d start with a blank slate after so much work. He said, “I don’t know how you could still be so motivated.” I wasn’t motivated. I do not possess an inherent hard-worker personality trait. I am not a self-starter, a multi-tasker, or anything else that might be listed in a job description for a position that pays money. I am not even (usually) a perfectionist. Maybe what I am has nothing to do with the fact that what I was working on wasn’t quite right, and there was no reason for me not to fix it. I was simply stepping out of my own way. Far from a state of awe, I trusted a comfortable habit to let The Thing be the best it could be, even if it wasn’t the best Thing that was made in all of history, or all of late March 2015.

Even if I were to wear a “motivated” disguise while I did my creative work, I would still be deeply lacking in other regions of being. I do not wash dishes in a timely manner or update my devices. Whatever power cleans my kitchen does not pay my bills. Whatever strength finally fixes my bookshelf does not respond to my voicemails. “Motivation” is not one trait, not one thing. We can feel free to stop searching for it.

And when it does strike? Use it—but don’t trust its flashbulbs to light the way. As William Somerset Maugham famously said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Many hitch motivation to outcomes: reward or punishment, carrot or stick, health or death. We believe and even proselytize that by thinking about the benefits or risks we can motivate ourselves to act (or to not act), when in reality this almost never works. If it did, none of us would drink, smoke, date a person who was unkind to us, go for several weeks without exercise, or eat low-quality meat. Science can show the smoker the cigarette’s carcinogens, but the smoker can still smoke. The teacher can tell the student that her art is immaculate and promising, but the student can still watch Netflix and eat leftovers in bed. We can’t motivate ourselves to eat only greens by looking at magazine models. We can’t motivate ourselves out of our patterns.

We do not, it seems, inherently behave in our own best self-interest. Our brain chemistry betrays our rationality with feelings. We might know that the painting is stellar, that the story is fascinating, or even that our Pulitzer is imminent, but we can still escape making Motivation2The Thing. Because our imprecise emotional leanings make most of our choices, we do not always use our rational brains to act in accordance with our grandest plans. I know I usually don’t.

So what’s the trick? How do we align our big dreams with our daily efforts?

What we can and must find is an unassailable methodology, airtight and repeatable—a this-reality approach to our other-worldly ideas. I’m not sure how to do that, but it is somewhere in the step-by-step; it is in an updated belief system, a set of priorities. It is probably the opposite of the illusory feeling of being motivated.

There is no sermon or book or Upworthy video that can give us this sustained motivation or instantaneously establish an enlightened routine. We have to relinquish that notion. These things may tempt the touch of the Angel Inspiration, but they are not vaccinations for our “laziness.” We will continue to choose to not do the things we must do—over and over again.

Think of something that you’ve put off—something agonizing to you: making a medical appointment? Re-arranging a payment plan? Calling your boss with an upcoming conflict? The moment that you decide to rip off the powerfully sticky Band-Aid is often not a motivated one. Most likely, you did that harrowing task because it was in front of you and you didn’t take the common pause to wince. Did you pick up the bill while waiting for your tea to steep? Did you banish the dirty clothes from the floor and look for the next step toward clarity? For whatever reason, plain or invisible, you got out of your own way. It wasn’t the exigent cause or tormenting consequence that did the heavy lifting. Maybe it wasn’t even on purpose; maybe it wasn’t even heavy lifting.

This un-functionality is recognizable in the ways we work (or don’t) on The Thing we actually care to make. We can stand in our own way forever. We don’t put ourselves in the right place at the right time or become accountable in immediate ways; there are meals to eat and toilets to clean. As Annie Dillard writes in The Writing Life, “No one needs your manuscript; everyone needs shoes more…why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?”

The grim truth of the matter is that there always will be—and should be, I think—something quite technically more important than your creative work. Your work saves no one but you. At least not yet. There will always be a million more reasons not to sit down.

And how to sit? Not by hunting motivation. Not by waking up with a vague sense that you’ve become a person who does not procrastinate.

The story is a common one: it’s 10 a.m. on a morning I’ve promised myself to start working at 6. My partner asks if I want to get breakfast. I have to eat, don’t I? A client emails me. I must respond, right? After several hours and no good sentences, I start hearing that common bully of self-consciousness: all this criminal procrastination! How can I be so unmotivated? Artist friends, this is not a lack of motivation. This is not procrastination or laziness; the toxicity of these labels clots the already shadowed road. (Of course I can be lazy, but this day is not that day). This is the trial of prioritization, and it is infinite. The art that you’re making usually won’t hold you accountable; everything else you have to do will.

I get the choice over and over again to work on my project or to do something else. Sometimes I choose to work on my money-paying endeavors. Sometimes I choose to spend time with a friend in need or on the phone with my mom. Sometimes I choose to get drunk at 3 p.m. and nap before dinner. We make something like thirty-five thousand choices per day. A lot of those choices are arbitrary ones that take us away from our work. It does not benefit us to insult ourselves when we make them. What we can do is limit them.

My writer friend Elissa Bassist, another determined pupil in the school of Getting Out of Your Own Way, enlightened me with her lessons in choice-reduction. If I wake up in my apartment and turn on the coffeemaker and sit down at my drafting table, something will happen. I mustn’t waste choices on what to wear, what time to sit, which project to do.Motivation3 We can expedite our artistic pause by simply sitting in front of a computer or with our instrument. Limit the choices that surround the ritual to clear the path for sitting; this stillness does the strange trick of precipitating momentum. You don’t have to have a spiritual makeover or a visit from the Angel Inspiration to sit down to work. We must stop waiting for the time when the relatives won’t call, that the day job is less stressful, that the shower curtain isn’t moldy to establish this basic invocation. Eventually (long-term eventually), we incorporate that ritual into our belief system. We learn that this ritual, this habit, this work can be a priority. We know for certain that we can make the Thing. We don’t need a special October or a vacation to do it. We give ourselves the opportunity to create right now, and strangely, the impulse—the very thing we were waiting for—follows. We have to sit (or stand) still for this opportunity, and this simple, unmotivated act is how we get out of our own way.

By limiting our choices around the ritual of our work, or establishing a ritual of work, we choose to be accountable to the habit, not to the art. The habit is the repeated opportunity for muses and whimsy. (We tend to think it goes the other way).

It is not about believing in the project; it is about believing that we can wind the making of the Thing into real-world complete-able tasks. We are free to excuse ourselves from the belief that we must depend on a feeling of deliriousness, euphoria, or motivation in order to be mystically steered to our creative state.

Once we know that we can make the Thing, we do make it. The twenty minutes between coffee and departure or the thirty minutes at the airport gate seem more like chances for work when we are in the habit of making opportunities. We recognize when it’s possible to do our work, and it’s not in a far-off valley void of obligation. We are not different people with new outfits and limitless time; we are simply able to see the hour as bountiful.

We live in an era where self-actualization is in vogue. Companies frequently require that their prospective employees identify as “proactive self-starters.” Individualistic dreaming and brazen pursuit of personal goals stand in the front lines of a contemporary vision of success. But I think the fashionable go-getter quality so lauded in offices looks different on artists. We cannot quite exist in a result-oriented pattern of thought. “Getting the job done” does not serve a company or a product. We are in a field where out-loud, tangible, or financial reward comes only after long effort, if it comes at all. For us, there is no use in dwelling on the self-importance of a particular achievement. This is contrary to so much of our cultural imagery and assessment, but it is the only way we can rid ourselves of the burden of searching for motivation. Self-starter ideology encourages us to get to the top, to be the best, to win the prize. But these are the same thoughts that prevent us from doing what comes first: being still. These are the principles that haunt us when we’re waiting for genius to strike; they keep us busy when we need quiet; they keep us looking for answers (like motivation) when we already have them.

We don’t have to change ourselves or focus on some bigger, brighter, more successful future. We have to simply step out of our own way by sitting down. We have to learn how to not stop ourselves from working on the Things we care to create. By reducing the choices around our rituals and focusing on the habit instead of the product, we can’t help but make stuff.

Motivation to do your work can follow the opportunities you grant yourself, but you don’t even need it. Invite it in for a cup of tea, sure, but know it’s going to leave the way it came in—through the door you left open.


Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.

Liza Birkenmeier is a Brooklyn-based playwright. She is a member of the Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater and is currently working on Tragedy in Spades: A Crime Documentary (a play), which will premiere at University Settlement in April 2016. More from this author →