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Human motivation is the most elusive quality of all

Home » Resonance » Human motivation is the most elusive quality of all

The internet is awash with self-help advice. Some of it is good. Evidence based and all that. Here is what’s usually missing, in my view: motivation. Let me explain.

I don’t mean how to get motivated. I don’t mean how to ratchet up your motivation. I mean the opposite. Well almost. Here’s an example:

There’s a small team working on a project. It could be a group of theoretical physicists, interior designers, carpenters, coders, chefs, medical personnel, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, managers, knitters, or soldiers.

At some point it becomes obvious to outsiders that these people are experts. They know their stuff. They work well as a team.

In the modern world we would to learn some of their tricks. Why are they so good as individuals and as a team? We would like to be able to “hack” some of that good stuff. And up to a point, that is possible.

Yet when you get deep into what they are doing, you realize that all those hacks are quite superficial – for two reasons.

First of all, if you know the field yourself you realize their skills are not the same. Take mathematical ability. There are multiple kinds. Leonardo da Vinci was brilliant at geometry but not very good at algebra. On a deeper level, applied mathematics is different from pure math. There are many branches of mathematics, and they require different skill sets.

Plus there is that elusive element – creativity. Most of the fastest problem solvers contribute little that is new to the field. Creativity requires coming up with deeper questions and staying with them, sometimes for years. Pursuing dead ends. Leaving the problem alone and coming back, time and again.

Most lightening-fast intellects don’t have the patience for that. Moreover, as David Epstein explains in his excellent book “Range,” teachers tend to unconsciously prompt their students to go down this path, not that.

It is the same with physics, where math is one of the tools, but not the only one. Einstein wasn’t the best mathematician but he had an instinct for what the mathematical tools said about nature – at least in his early years. Even so, it took him 10 years to complete the theory of special relativity, and another 10 for general relativity. What a plodder!

Back to my main point. Once you know the field yourself, and you appreciate this little team we are discussing, and you understand the blend of skills of each individual, you come to my final question.

What motivates these people?

That is the most important question – and that is the mystery. Because each one is unique and their motivation is unique too.

Society moves ahead based on the insight of a small number of innovators. They are right only some of the time. When they are, the rest of us benefit.

Each one has their own private motivation. When you get to know these people you may understand their skills, or at least some of them. But each one has his or her own private motivation. That’s the real black box.

That’s why they stick it out when experiments go wrong, patients die, the team loses the championship, the new recipe explodes in the oven.

It takes time to get it right. That’s why many innovators have been at it for decades. They are in their forties, fifties, sixties and beyond.

Each has his or her own motivation. It’s the lotus in the mud. It’s hard to find in ourselves and harder to glimpse in others. But it has a purity – a shine of its own. A quiet passion and self-assurance that can’t be faked.

Not to confused with false modesty and similar stuff. You know it when you see it.

You might also enjoy David’s previous post on those who lives on the fringe of society.

Author: David Holt is the editor of Silver Magazine and Editor-In-Chief of HUM@Nmedia, the parent brand for Silver. This is his personal blog for Silver readers.

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