Three Things You Need to Stay Motivated to Do Anything

According to recent research, there are three key factors to achieving success in nearly anything we do: autonomy, value, and competence.  In an article written by Daisy Yuhas of the magazine Scientific American Mind (“So You Want To Be A Genius”), research has determined that these factors improve a person’s determination to succeed.  They essentially breakdown in this way:

Autonomy – this is the sense we have of control of, and the decision to engage in, an activity in the first place.  By willingly investing effort into the activity we are much more likely to complete it because it is something we want to do rather than something we have to do.  When we want to do something we tend to have much more energy and devotion to doing it, and thus are more likely to complete it.

Value – this is a factor we assign to things that we find important and/or meaningful.  In the creative life, we want to believe in the value of our creation, and in maintaining this value we naturally want to complete the work and share it with others.  Without a sense of value in doing something there is no reason to do it, and thus the work becomes tedious by virtue of it’s pointlessness, and lacking a motivating factor, including the faith that we will find meaning in the end, the project is most likely to fail.

Competence – this is the sense that we, the individual artist, have the skills and ability to do the thing at hand.  Without this sense of competence there is an eventual frustration when we are faced with difficult hurdles in the process.  The adage “whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right” fits here.  If the creative mind does not believe in, or at least have a sense of, its own competence, then the project is likely to fail for a lack of confidence regardless of the potential of the idea, the artist, or both.

For the beginner the challenge of competence is perhaps the most acute.  Competence feeds both autonomy and value because without a sense of competence there can be no faith in the value of the work, and without a sense of value there is little to no sense of autonomy.  We humans cannot control and manage the things we are incompetent in, and because of that we must focus first of all on building our competence, and our confidence, before we can hope to infuse meaning (value) and authority (autonomy) into our work.

And how does one gain competence in a skill?  For the writer there are only two avenues: reading and writing.  When I began composing my current novel I had to return to the old books I knew, the old motivators that led to the creation of the ideas that were in my head. But my current work is science fiction while my genre background was previously fantasy and horror. Even more distant, I have spent the last decade-and-a-half engaged in literary ventures. I had to turn to science fiction as a newbie just to begin to get an idea of what I was trying to write, and how it should be written. My sense of competence was low. Because of an established sense of autonomy, however – a sense garnered through other writing and teaching successes, not to mention the wisdom that comes with age – I had the confidence in my ability that many others lack as they set out to try something new. From there I built competence through reading, and continue to do so through revision of what I hope will be a most excellent piece of adventure fiction that is also meaningful to the reader. If you are struggling with any or perhaps all of the above, I urge you to work first on competence. The rest will follow quite naturally.

So where do you sit in the realm of autonomy, value, and competence? Do you struggle with one or more of these aspect(s)? Sound off here with your thoughts and questions.


11 comments on “Three Things You Need to Stay Motivated to Do Anything

  1. stuffytales says:

    My son’s high school follows this research and it always surprises me that other schools aren’t doing the same. I think I’m currently on the very low end of value, autonomy, and competence with my writing!

    • emperort says:

      Yes, I think there is a lot that could be added to learning experience of a lot of our youth here in the U.S. As for your writing, I am curious what you mean. Would you mind sharing a little more of your thoughts.

      • stuffytales says:

        I am in the beginnings stages of writing and have only recently begun to read a lot so I feel very low in competence, which is where I should be. I haven’t found what I like to write about most which makes me feel low on autonomy and value but in reality I do have complete autonomy – I can write what I want, when I want. I agree with what you said about starting with competence; as my competence improves I expect to find my writing to have more value.

      • emperort says:

        Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. In my experience our competence comes upon us quietly – like water coming to a boil. As long as we keep the heat on high the water will get there. Best wishes for your ongoing progress, in reading and writing both. Let us know how it’s going if you get a moment here and there.

      • Thank you for inspiring me!

  2. R.L. Myers says:

    Thanks, Ty! I love this post!

  3. Great post, T. Motivation is something I have struggled with, often oscillating between an onerous schedule/pace to burned-out slug speed.

    I think I initially was attracted to writing as a creative outlet in large part because of the autonomy — particularly the independent aspect of that concept. I’m not sure I thought too much about value, though perhaps I did in abstract ways. I agree that competence comes with research (reading) and practice (writing), and I recall being frustrated with my shortcomings as a storyteller in the early days.

    Presently, I’m confident in my abilities (due to years of practice and dedication). Value, on the other hand, can be very subjective, and I find myself focused on aspects beyond my immediate control. After all, the writing process can be autonomous, but the publishing process isn’t necessarily. Lack of progress in soliciting novels and short stories sometimes causes me to question the value in the sacrifice we writers make for our craft.

    Yes, I want people to enjoy my stories…but at what cost?

    “Value” is a tricky word, and when it comes to motivation, I suspect that I should focus on what value writing (and my attempts to publish) brings to me, personally. External goals are good and healthy, but at the end of the day, I should write because I find joy in it — not solely the potential for (professional) success down the road.

    Thanks for listening. 🙂

    • emperort says:

      Always happy for the exchange, David. I think you and I are on the same plane here and are asking the same questions of ourselves. I, too, feel the sense of autonomy, well-earned via my education, teaching experience, and meager trail of works written. The term “value” for me has more to do with the quality or universality of the piece, and less to do with it’s market value. The general public can be fickle about what they value, so we must find value for ourselves in the things we create. I do believe that if we write what we like that our audience will follow. As much as we might think we’re odd in our tastes, there are plenty of readers who will appreciate what we say if we’re completely honest with ourselves.

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