top of page

Means and Ends in Managing Motivation.

Mastering an art, a skill, or a situation requires a certain quality of drive or motivation. It doesn't matter if it is the combination of sounds on a DJ's mixing deck, the technical movement required in elite competitive sport, the artistic perfection of dance, leading in a complex environment or improving the quality of your life, getting good at the tiny little elements of the process requires continued focus and energy. For some, this is depleting and for others, they seem to tap into a source of sustainable internal energy that keeps them chipping away, sometimes slowly and often surely, after all, it can take a lifetime to become an overnight success.

Understanding our drivers becomes the critical bedrock on which we succeed or fail. They are particularly important if our mastery endeavours put us on a direct path to potential setbacks and sometimes excruciating emotions. Such setbacks could include facing barriers to progress, like making the cut at an audition or reaching the benchmark time which means you can represent your country at a worldwide event. Developing mastery begins with an acute self-awareness that connects us to our natural affiliations without the "pro" ing and "con" ing of life's pragmatics and the opinions of others. Imagine how many great performers simply would not have flourished had they played it safe and conventional. How many talents would have been and are lost when aspiring performers listen to the "wise" advice of the mainstream telling them "there's no money in that" or "the chances of you succeeding are tiny and futile"? Of course, talent and potential can also be lost to our fears. Staying the course, when other avenues seem easier or more comfortable, is often what separates those who succeed from those who don't and to stay the course, healthy motivation to keep chipping away towards a goal is key.

So what is it that we are looking for when it comes to healthy motivation?

The importance of existential purpose has long been debated among philosophers and is primarily a product of the social constraints of when and where we happen to be born. I'm rather sceptical that we each have one true calling and sit, more so, in the camp of doing what we feel attuned to, what interests us, and what feeds our curiosity, while also recognising that society may constrain us to a certain extent because money is important to be able to live well too. Empirical evidence points to the benefits of developing an intrinsic or inner sense of drive as the most healthy and fruitful energising force we can work with but this isn't the only thing that drives us in a healthy way.

Recently scholars have been debating the difference between "content-based" intrinsic motivation or, put more plainly, inner drive based on specific tasks or outcomes which can be categorised as originating naturally from within us (e.g., striving for belonging or personal growth) and "structurally-based" intrinsic motivation which focuses on the structure of the relationship between a process and a goal and is less concerned with content. For example, the goal of running outdoors could be to enjoy running outdoors which creates a close or even fused relationship between the process and the goal. Running is the process and the goal, the means and the end collide and answering "Why am I doing this?" becomes difficult. This can be contrasted with a goal of losing weight and choosing running outdoors as a key process to reach that goal. Here, running is the means and losing weight is the end. In this situation, intrinsic motivation may be reduced because the means and the end may be too far from one another (or may not even be a process which guarantees goal achievement).

According to the structural approach, where intrinsic motivation is high the means and the ends collide or are pretty close to each other. It, then, is important to reflect on goal-setting processes and recognise how much time to spend focusing on the desired outcomes and how much time immersing in the process because sometimes the means and the end are going to be far apart, and can be experienced as further apart following a set back. Focusing on the process as inherently satisfying may be key in these moments, regardless of the content of the task at hand. Furthermore, there is less emphasis on "intrinsic" content, but rather a recognition that goals and processes can be both extrinsic and intrinsic and the content may be less important than we first thought.

The important point is to recognise the distance between the goal and the daily "grind" that gets you there. If you need a telescope to connect the two a change of focus ( and maybe not goal) may be in order.

I hope you can think about your progress, and motivation and connect the means to the ends in a helpful way.

bottom of page