I have struggled with the idea of motivation throughout my life. I was always told by family and friends that I was capable of great things. "You're so smart," they told me. "You'd be able to do such-and-such if only you'd get motivated." I could get in shape, I could find love, I could learn to program. All I needed was motivation.

That makes it sound so easy. You see people around you all the time who are motivated to do or attain things. They have reached, or are on the road to reaching those goals. You see the guy who is up and on his bicycle at 5am every morning to ride 60 miles. You see the guy who has his laptop out every morning at Starbucks monitoring the world financial markets. You see all kinds of people working hard to get what they want. Just do what they do: wake up in the morning and feel motivated.

I always wanted to be a computer programmer, to one end or another. And though I did genuinely desire to learn the trade, I never possessed the motivation. My friends and family told me to work at it, just keep plugging away, but I couldn't find the motivation. I used to beat myself up about it daily. It drove me mad, almost to tears. I truly wanted to be a programmer. So why, despite the desire, did I lack the motivation?

I tried telling myself I was motivated. I tried the infamous fake-it-till-you-make-it routine. I tried to feel motivated, to generate a sort of synthetic enthusiasm. I slipped in and out of periods of extraordinary effort - not effort toward learning programming, but effort toward getting motivated to learn programming. I even tried forcing myself to learn programming even without feeling motivated. This went on for no less than two decades.

But for some reason, no matter what I tried, I couldn't force it upon myself. It wasn't until after motivation finally struck me of its own accord that I realized desire and effort do not necessarily cultivate motivation.

One morning several months ago, I woke up, bleary-eyed, and gazed around the room, which was a shambles. The night, week, and month leading up to that morning had been a bit of a blur, part of a period of time I would define by its extraordinary lack of effort either to motivate myself or to learn programming. But as I came to my senses that fateful morning, I sensed that a new dawn had broken over the horizon of my life. I was going to get my ducks in a row. I was going to become a grown-up.

I redoubled my efforts as a Junior Programmer at work. I built my own libraries, not because I had to but because I wanted to know how it was done. I built very simple ones at first, of course. But I wanted to learn and grow and optimize and share and contribute. I was motivated. Not a single day has passed since then that I haven't learned something or improved upon something in my coding repertoire. Not a day has passed since that morning that I haven't spent an hour or so of my own free time learning. Sometimes more or less, but my free time is going into this on a daily basis. I am motivated.

Looking back on this motivational renaissance, I have attempted to identify the catalyst that led to the reignition of my passion as a budding programmer. I was somewhat dismayed to find that I couldn't. Perhaps to be more fair, I could speculate as to whether certain conditions in my life had performed a sort of slow-acting emotional catalysis. But I couldn't say in fairness that I did anything to motivate myself. Motivation came to me.

So if you are out there trying to figure out how to motivate yourself to learn programming, get in shape, or whatever it is you want to do, don't give up on the desire. It never hurts to practice or work toward your goals. But if the motivation doesn't come, don't be discouraged. When you are ready, life will let you know.


Ritch said...

I think writing maybe up your alley one day Steve. That was quite poignant. It's funny, I think our lives are mirror images or each other. When I started engineering there wasn't anything that I didn't want to get my hands on and learn. Two decades later I find that engineering on the highest of levels has turned into glorified paper pushing with the occasional equation or math to check. It promises so much in the beginning and for a while it delivered. I can still remember the first time something I designed did something (this case it was stop a plane). I was so happy. Now I just hear of the failures more than the triumphs. Good for you and I hope that your thirst grows. I need to find where mine has gone.

Aric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aric said...

Poignant indeed.
I'm glad to hear that you got your groove Steve. I was half hoping that you had found some silver bullet, or some key insight that I've overlooked, but alas, it's not that easy.

This reminds me of a ted talk about motivation: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html