The Truth about Motivation
What if you were offered three elixirs promising to transform your everyday experiences? Imagine you suddenly understood the real reason dieting doesn’t work and what does. Imagine you grasped why you tear your hair out each month to submit expense reports on time and how to meet those deadlines while not losing your hair. Imagine discovering peace of mind.
What if you were told these magic potions could help you generate the positive energy you need to achieve your goals, promote your mental and physical health, experience well-being, be more creative, improve your work performance, and fuel work passion? The only caveat is that the three elixirs must be used in unison—each potion by itself is beneficial, but real magic happens when you combine them. Would you be intrigued enough to explore the possibilities?
The three scientific truths at the heart of mastering your motivation are like the three elixirs. Using them in combination could transform the way you approach goals and live your life. These three scientific truths are not a magic cure-all that is too good to be true; they are backed up by empirical research and testimonials from people with firsthand experience. Frankly, the three scientific truths to master your motivation are even better than elixirs because they work
like magic but are real, don’t cost a fortune, and won’t cause harmful side effects. Their discovery represents one of the greatest breakthroughs in motivation science.
Three Scientific Truths
Are you lazy? Do you think most people are basically lazy? Do you enjoy being disengaged at work? Do you think millions of people worldwide enjoy being disengaged? Is that why we need to be prodded, bribed, praised, and pushed into doing what we’re tasked to do? If managers did not hold us accountable for achieving our goals, do you think we would slack off? If you answer any of these questions yes, maybe your basic beliefs about human motivation need updating.
You have a natural yearning to thrive—thriving is your human nature. Being bored or disengaged isn’t thriving. Being lazy isn’t thriving. Resenting hard work isn’t thriving. The truth is, no one wants to be bored, disengaged, or lazy. At our core, we don’t resent hard work. We welcome productive and meaningful work, even when it’s hard. We appreciate meaningful challenges. We even want to be accountable—we just don’t like being held accountable! We want to contribute, feel fulfilled, and grow and learn every day. We long to thrive.
Recognizing our nature to thrive leads to a critical question: How do I thrive? Now, thanks to groundbreaking research, we know the answer. And, it’s different than what we’ve been led to believe. Thriving doesn’t depend on money, power, or status. Thriving doesn’t come from promotions, perks, or driving for results. Thriving certainly doesn’t happen through pressure,
tension, or fear—or even willpower or discipline. Thriving requires Choice, Connection, and Competence.
Motivation is the energy to act. Choice, connection, and competence generate the high-quality motivation (energy) you need to thrive. Your high-quality motivation—and the energy to achieve your goals and find meaning in their pursuit—depends on creating choice, connection, and competence.
Our need for choice, connection, and competence has been verified scientifically, and I think you’ll resonate personally with the definition and description of each scientific truth.
1. First scientific truth: you need to create choice. You have an innate need to perceive you have choices, recognize and feel you have options within boundaries, and have a sense of control over what is happening at any time: “I am the source of my behavior.” When you don’t create choice, your energy is diminished, and you are less likely to achieve your goals.
2. Second scientific truth: you need to create connection.
You have an innate need to feel a sense of belonging and genuine connection to others without concerns about ulterior motives, pursue goals aligned to meaningful values and a noble purpose, and contribute to something greater than yourself. When you don’t create connection, your energy is compromised, and even if you
achieve your goals, you are less likely to find the experience meaningful or worth repeating.
3. Third scientific truth: you need to create competence. You have an innate need to feel effective at managing everyday situations, demonstrate skill over time, and feel a sense of growth and learning every day. When you don’t create competence, your energy is blocked, and your frustration at not being able to meet challenges or make progress puts achieving long-term goals at risk.
The evidence supporting the three scientific truths at the center of your motivation is compelling, but all you need to do is look around you. Notice that when you create choice, connection, and competence, you feel a sense of well-being, are in a flow state, or experience deep-seated peace. On the flip side, observe that when one or more of the three truths are diminished, you feel pressure, tension, stress, loneliness, pride, superiority, despair, fear, anger, or frustration.
The Three Truths—Everywhere You Look
Have you ever bought a new car and then noticed every car on the road that looks like yours? This phenomenon is called reticular activation—a function of your brain that filters information. Your reticular activating system is at work when you are in a noisy room, someone mentions your name, and you snap to attention. You can use reticular activation to confirm the power of creating choice, connection, and competence.
Through reticular activation, you will probably see children through new eyes. A baby grabbing a spoon to feed himself—even when he can’t find his mouth—is creating choice. A two-year-old who’s talking to you when you’re not looking at her creates connection by grabbing your face and turning it so she can see your eyes. A toddler learning to walk creates competence when he gets up after he falls, without crying—expressing his joy of learning something new and exciting.
You can also recognize how creating choice, connection, and competence plays a role when you are moved emotionally by a movie, book, or news story. In 2011, I teared up while watching a CNN interview of fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai. She had gained fame in Pakistan by speaking out for her rights. She claimed her right to play, sing, and go to the market. But her voice was loudest for her right to education, which was forbidden to females by the Taliban. She explained how her people needed her and how, by speaking out, she could make a difference, especially to young girls who she felt had the right to learn. My reticular activating system went on high alert: Malala was clearly articulating her need to create choice (to choose her own path), connection (to make a difference in the world), and competence (to learn, grow, and be educated).
A year later, Malala was shot in the head by a terrorist to silence her voice. But she didn’t die. Her story, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, is an eloquent expression of our need for choice, connection, and competence. In 2014, she became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize. As an international advocate for children standing up for their rights, finding meaning in their lives, and making education a priority, Malala continues to inspire millions to create choice, connection, and competence.
The Three Truths—Gone Missing
Has someone ever tripped your trigger, pushing all the right buttons, and you didn’t handle it well? Unfortunately, my story—how I failed to self-regulate and eroded any chance of creating choice, connection, and competence—may sound too familiar.
A director of sales, whom we will call Stacy because that’s her real name, asked me to consult as a subject-matter expert (SME) with a potential new client. We’ll call the potential client Diane, which isn’t her real name. Stacy scheduled a one-hour call for 2:00 p.m. the following Wednesday. I prepared diligently, as I don’t take being an SME lightly. I studied the notes Stacy sent me. I reviewed information about the organization from a variety of sources, including its website and latest annual report. I took the time to generate thoughtful ideas to discuss.
Stacy and I were on the call early to be sure we were prepared. At 2:10 p.m., Stacy pinged Diane to see if there was a problem or misunderstanding about the time. We were about to give up when a beep-beep announced Diane was finally joining the call. Stacy graciously greeted Diane: “Diane, I am so glad you could make the call today. As you know, I invited Susan Fowler, our subject-matter expert on motivation and engagement, to discuss ideas with you. She’s read the notes from our previous meeting and done her homework, but first, let me introduce you and clarify your expectations for today.”
Before Stacy could complete her introduction, Diane interrupted: “Stacy, I don’t have time for this. I have a hard stop at 2:30. Besides, I have changed my mind. I’ve decided to go in a different direction.”
I was stunned—not just at Diane’s sudden change in direction but at her rude behavior. I didn’t know what to say in
that moment, but it didn’t matter because Diane launched into what she was thinking and what she wanted to do. None of it made any sense to me. I had questions and concerns, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and we were coming up on her 2:30 p.m. hard stop. That’s when I noticed a physiological disturbance
. I use this term to describe my body’s reaction to a highly emotional experience. The disturbance started in my gut. As I got more frustrated with Diane, I could feel the negative energy rise into my chest. My frustration grew into anger, and as the roiling energy reached my face, I coul...