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Motivation : It Doesn't Work the Way You Think


 The Quest for Motivation - story of Ghengis Khan


I want to start with a quick story: Do you remember learning about Ghengis Khan in school? Yeah, me neither. I actually learned about him when I taught my kids in our homeschool, and I was intrigued by him. 


I would consider him a human with high motivation. In Mongolia, they have a word that describes creative passion. The word is Temul, and it comes from the root of the name, Temujin - who is also known as Ghenghis Khan. Temujin and Ghengis Khan are the same person. The word Temul has a poetic translation in Mongolian culture, they describe it as “the look in the eye of a horse that is racing where it wants to go, no matter what the rider wants.”


I love that description. I’ve seen that look in a horse’s eye before. It’s a little scary, honestly. Because there is NOTHING that is going to deter that horse from its path. Sometimes a fear will spook the horse into Temul and sometimes, the horse experiences a sensory stimulus that reminds it on the primal level that something bigger is out there and all the horse wants is to break free from what is holding it back to get that thing. Horses are so cool. 


Going back to Ghengis Khan, if you do know about him, you probably know him as a conqueror and a bloodthirsty warlord. But there’s more to the story.


Some things you might not know about him:

  • The Mongolian Empire was the first in history that we know of to practice religious tolerance. 
  • The first to promote their entire citizenry to be literate. 
  • They established the first international postal system. 
  • And, it was the second-largest empire in the history of the world, behind only the British Empire. While the British Empire took hundreds of years to establish, Temujin went from being a homeless child to ruling over a vast expanse in just his lifetime. 


He knew suffering, and he wanted to create a better world. 


I personally would never want to be on the other side of Temujin’s passion or get in his way, but of all the things that are said about him, we can all agree that he had temul in spades, that he had motivation. 


Where does passion come from? 

Or desire? Where does desire come from? 

Another word for passion and desire is motivation.


I’ve been busy this summer speaking to youth groups and at the end, I like to leave time for a Q and A session. Lately, there’s been a theme in the questions I get from the teens, and it has to do with motivation, how do you get motivated so you WANT to do things? Lately, they feel low in motivation in general, perhaps as a result of the last couple years with how the pandemic has affected their mental health. 


So my first question to ask them is this: 

Do you know what you want? 


And most of the time, I see the hesitation in their eyes - - I  see the holding back of either not knowing, or not believing they can get what they want. 

And I like to pause for a minute on purpose, and let them really think about that question. 


In order to feel motivated, we have to know what we want.


Then, after they’ve had a minute or two to think about it, I ask them, 

Do you believe you can get what you want, no matter the obstacles?


And I tell them to pay attention to their doubts that bubble up, and to start working with those doubts, that is where their work lies, internally, on the inside, and as they practice working through their doubts, motivation will start to increase. 


I’m just planting seeds in their young, beautiful minds with showing them the bigger picture. And so I want to do the same for you today, and go deeper on what this looks like. 


First, we have to understand some basics about the human brain. I’m going to talk about the brain in a way you haven’t heard before. 


And I found these ideas from Zoe Chance, an award winning teacher and researcher at Yale University. 


She describes what she calls the:


Gator Brain 


As in Alligators. Did you know there exists in the world a place called Gatorland? It’s in Orlando, Florida and guests go there who want to hold a baby alligator, or watch them wrestle and play, or  - - and this is a no for me, take a zipline over the marsh where Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was filmed - - you can zip over live alligators who are lurking in the marshes beneath you. 


But how this relates to the brain, where alligators get super interesting is when in Gatorland, you can go with a guide into a restricted area to feed the gators on the beach, and there isn’t a barrier of any sort between you and the alligators. 


The gators in the park are trained, but they’re not tame by any means. Zoe Chance, who visited Gatorland and describes it in her book, Influence is Your Superpower, talks about how she could tell the alligators were dangerous to each other and had missing pieces and parts of their bodies on full display from previous encounters with each other. 


When you’re visiting, you have the opportunity of feeding the alligators, you are given a bucket of raw meat, and then you toss the morsels to them. They sit there as if statues on the beach as they are fed. 


Alligators have what is called a “bite zone,” which is the sweet spot between their nose and tail. 


If you throw the meat outside of the bitezone, the alligator doesn’t even flinch. It doesn’t even try to catch the morsel of meat. And none of the other alligators move either. 


But if you throw the meat directly toward one of their mouths, the alligator you aimed for will snap it up so fast, you can hardly see what happens.


The other gators don’t even move though. Not even a twitch. They’re just motionless. If you miss your mark by even a small amount, the gators let the meat land in the sand and sit there until a bird flies down to take it. 


Here’s the takeaway: Gators have evolved for maximum efficiency. Their bodies weigh up to half a ton, but require only a walnut size of a brain to operate, and so gators need little food to survive. They can go up to three years without eating at all. They don’t waste physical or mental energy. They ignore everything except immediate threats or easy opportunities. And these instincts drive their behavior by a few simple questions:

  • Will it harm me? 
  • Will it help me?
  • Is it simple?


The rest is instinct and autopilot. 


This is similar to processes in the human brain. 


Now, we’re much more sophisticated in how we handle things like impulse control, procrastination, and other things, and we like to think of ourselves as rational and highly evolved who make conscious decisions versus beings who just run on primal instincts. 


But the truth is, we all have a gator portion of our brain running behind the scenes. And our gator brains are part of a two system process of how motivation works. 


Gators have only a one system process for motivation. Survival.


But humans have a two part system for motivation. Survival, which drives more than we realize, and rational consciousness, which is a fancy way of saying - we have an internal Judge and Jury inside our brains.


This second system, the Judge - is what most of us want to think we use more than our Gator brain. 


But since it requires a lot of energy, concentration, effort and practice to develop and employ the Judge system of our brains, most of us rely on the Gator portion. 


Think about habits, for example. 


The Judge will say, it’s time to develop a new habit. The Judge will plan and dream, and imagine, and get to work for a little while to implement the new habit. 


But if the Judge gets tired, and it often does, because it takes a lot of energy to employ the Judge, then the Gator kicks in and says, things like:

  • This is hard. Can’t we just go back to such and such.
  • This is taking too long. I just want to warm myself on this sandy beach. 
  • I’m going to wait until the food morsel is thrown into my bite zone just right, forget this work for it habit nonsense. Haha


Humans are so complex with both of these systems running simultaneously. There are some behaviors that fall into Gator territory that we need some awareness around if we want to make change happen. Like emotions, for example. Emotions are Gator territory. And surprisingly, so are a lot of other behaviors over time; like reading, your times tables, for me - - playing the piano, riding a bicycle, cooking without a recipe, cutting an onion. I don’t have to think about those things at all. I just do them and think about other things. That’s how we know the brain has relegated things to Gatorland, when they operate on autopilot. 


The Judge however, requires concentration. And generating effort. So anything that includes planning, strategy, learning something new, putting Ikea furniture together, debating politics, navigating a heated debate, writing a song, calculus. You cannot multitask when you are in Judge mode. 


And for most of us, this will kill motivation before we even begin. 

Because our Gator brains get so comfortable in the warm sand, it’s hard to get the Gator to venture into new territory. 


So, one of the main reasons why I titled this episode, Motivation doesn’t work the way you think, is because so much of the brain’s activity is happening below the level of conscious awareness. And what this means is, motivation is not a goal of your brain to generate, unless your survival is being threatened. 


But how do you convince your brain that calculus is necessary for your survival? I actually have a really good persuasive essay I’ve written just for fun for the day when my kids ask me why math matters - - but I won’t share that here and now - - just me being proactive and wanting a ready answer for those questions that come up in parenting when kids are grappling with motivation to do things they don’t see the point in. 


While it may seem obvious to develop good reasons for why you want to do whatever it is you want to do that you know you should, but aren’t feeling motivated to do, it’s misleading to think that all you need is to have good reasons. 


Actually, humans need something completely different than good reasons to do things. Good reasons help, but the Gator will 95% take over - - according to researchers, once the Judge gets tired. 


And the Judge tires very quickly. 


So that’s good to know why you don’t feel motivated more than you wish you would, right? 


It means you are normal. 

It means nothing is wrong with you if you don’t feel motivated. 

It makes sense why you don’t feel motivated. 

The Gator brain is happy and why mess with that?

Your brain is doing what it was designed to do. Conserve energy. 


If we don’t need good reasons to inspire motivation, then what do we need instead?


Two things: 


  • Appeal to the Gator;
  • Make it easy to say yes;
  • After you’ve done those two things, if you still want to craft some great reasons to help motivate yourself, go for it. But not before you’ve done the first two. 


Let’s talk about how: 


I’ll use the context of learning to play the piano as an example, since that is in my area of expertise. 


Since learning to play an instrument will require employing the Judge portion of the brain, we have to appeal to the Gator first. This means we have to make it as easy as possible. 


The foundational principle in understanding motivation, and generating it enough to change behavior is this: People will take the path of least resistance. Ease is the single best predictor of behavior. 

So - how can you make sitting at the piano easier? 

Make sure you aren’t hungry. 

Make sure you do it when you aren’t generally tired. 


Start with simple exercises that feel a little mindless, but rewarding enough. This is partly why the Suzuki piano method is brilliant, every student begins with the twinkles, an easy melody, and they build from there in fun rhythm patterns. Whenever I see a student start to tune out in a lesson because their concentration juice is running out, I pivot fast as the teacher and have them play an easy, mindless song or exercise that gets them back into happy, sunbathing, beach loving Gator brain. And we rest there for a while until I can tell  they’re ready to concentrate again. 


Over time, the brain develops a greater capacity to concentrate. It learns to concentrate for longer periods. And so work with the Gator brain in the beginning and make it as easy as possible for yourself. This is brain science. 


The Next step, is to make it easy to say yes to yourself: Do you want to practice? No. But, how can you make it so you’ll want to say yes? 


I learned this mom technique from Spencer W. Kimball, he was the President of my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and he was a pianist, a musician. He used to play for parties with a band, he had his own ensemble and loved music. In his biography that his sons wrote about him, they say that his mom always gave him a choice about practicing piano. He could either practice piano, or go work outside in the fields. Haha


She was making it easy for him to decide. 


I call this “clean bargaining” in parenting, and I employ this magical tool whenever possible in my own parenting strategy. 


President Kimball didn’t want to be in the hot sun, so he chose to practice piano instead. 


I did this with my own children too, where it was easier to practice their instrument, than say, mow the lawn, or do some weeding. It’s easier to sit and make music than push a lawn mower. Or vacuum, or unload, load the dishwasher and scrub the kitchen floor. My goal was to teach them they had choices in how they spent their time. It’s fine if they didn’t want to practice, but if not, then they needed to do this other task instead. And the other task wasn’t easier, it would require more effort. Pretty soon, my kids were consistently choosing to practice their instruments because it was easier than the other choice. 


I was employing the bedrock principle of motivation in this parenting strategy. Make it easy. Or at least, perceived ease, right? 


Same with my boys swimming on a swim team. We’ve made it the easy choice because the alternative is - - yard work. Not in a punishment kind of way, but more in a - - hey, this work needs to get done too, so if you aren’t going to do swim workout, then I have this other work to do. Either way, you aren’t going to just be sitting around during this time block. 


I work with myself like this too. In my health and wellness goals. So in the thinking it sounds like: 

  • Hey, you don’t have to go run the trails while son is at swim workout. You can go home and do laundry instead. You can choose brain. . . 


This is a mental brain hack I use for myself to keep myself motivated, since laundry is super boring to me. I’d much rather walk on the foothill trails of the mountains and take pictures of the wildflowers, haha, than do laundry. 


See what I’m doing here with giving myself choices? 

This is a great little tool to help work with the Gator brain and generate motivation. 

I give my brain choices, and choose the easier option. 


Ease makes people happy. And trying to make someone (or yourself) generate effort can really stir up a lot of rebellion. 


There’s always an exchange going on in the Gator brain. An exchange calculation of whether the effort is worth it. 


You’re probably using Gator brain all the time in the following scenarios: 

  • When  buy it from Amazon?
  • When you use Uber versus hail a Taxi?
  • When you use Google maps versus  write the address down and dead reckon your way, 


The brain will more often than not, choose the easier option when given a choice.


If you want your kids to learn a new thing, make it as easy as possible for them. 

If you want to do something new that requires effort, make it as easy as possible for yourself. 

Want to go running in the morning? Lay out your exercise clothes and shoes the night before. 

Want to eat healthy but don’t want to shop, cook, do dishes? Order a meal service that would cost the same as the groceries plus the time and effort. 


Make it as easy as possible for the Gator brain. 


Okay, now, let’s talk about the emotion of apathy. Let’s say you notice a lot of apathy come up whenever you try and set a new goal or maybe you notice it in your child. 


It’s important to know that you aren’t broken if you feel the emotion of apathy. It’s just Gator brain whose grown really comfortable on the sandy beach waiting for the food morsels to land at the right spot at the right time. 


Sometimes, my students will ask me: 


How do I Stop Feeling Apathetic?


I tell them that the goal isn’t to stop feeling apathetic. That apathy is a human emotion, and that they’re going to feel it. So the goal is to learn how to work with it. 


Tip One: Remind yourself that because you’ve felt motivation before, it’s possible to feel it again.

I ask them to recall the last time they felt motivation, what were they doing, describe the scene to me in detail, what was going on, what does motivation feel like?

I have them close their eyes sometimes and really tap into the emotion in their bodies, the energy or the buzz, and I have them describe it to me. 


Then I help them understand that because they know how it feels, they can feel it again. It wasn’t a fluke, a one time thing. They just had a lot of thinking, maybe even a whole story of how fun and rewarding it was to be doing that thing. Identify the emotion and believe that it’s possible to feel it again, if you want to. 


Tip Two: Know you can feel apathetic and take action anyway.

Since you’re already feeling the emotion of apathy, allow yourself to feel the emotion and take action towards something you want, anyway. 


When we take action, I really believe humans are designed to take action first, and the good feelings come later. Not always, but in many, many cases. 


So - if a client says, “I’m not passionate about my work anymore. I want to find my spark again.” What I teach them is that passion is not something that is created from outside of us. The job itself isn’t what generates passion. Instead, we work on learning the skill of creating passion in the current job first, before quitting and finding another job.


Same with a marriage. When we do relationship work, clients will say they want to feel more passion in their relationship, it feels kind of stale lately, how to get the spark back?


When we fell in love with our spouses, we felt excited, and we had a whole story in our minds of the happiness that person would create for us. Sometimes, couples rewrite that story, over time, without being aware. We have an expectation that our spouse will make us happy. But it’s our own job to make ourselves happy first, to nurture the story of our partner in such a way that generates passion and love and motivation inside of us. In the beginning, it happens almost without effort. It seems like it happens spontaneously. But this isn’t the case. We just aren’t aware of all the thoughts driving our love story.


The effortless passion comes from the Gator brain. At some point, we’ll have to employ the Judge portion of our brain, and generate effort to create the emotion on purpose. 


I help my students do this by having them

#1 - do a thought download. Write down everything you are thinking about the thing that you are feeling apathetic about. Their job, their marriage, whatever it might be. It can take as little as five minutes. Seeing the thoughts on paper without judging yourself, just let yourself be petty and write it all down. 

Then #2 - ask yourself how those thoughts make you feel? So an example, you might feel discontent. You might feel dread. 

Then #3, I like to have my clients picture in their mind’s eye what kind of job they imagine themselves happy in: and they usually can describe it. I have them describe how that job will make them feel. They say, excited, or lit up, or alive. As they describe the feeling to me, how it happens to them in their body, I’ve heard things like, “my heart is glowing and big,” or “there’s this warm light in my forehead,” or my “my legs want to jump, I feel like I could float,” those are all things I’ve heard clients say, then I ask them

#4 - what thoughts are you thinking?

‘ I could do this all day.’ haha they quote Captain America 

‘ my work is making so and so’s life so much better.’

‘ I see how my work is making a difference.’


And that is the start of some good things. 

Next, we bridge the gap in the thinking of where they currently are, and work towards writing a new story in how they’re thinking about their current situation. 


This exercise is very powerful. 


I want to take a minute and speak to, I’ll call this section, motivation thought errors, or Myths about motivation:


  • Some people have it more than others. . . maybe? If so, it’s only because they’ve practiced it more, and it’s not because they have something special that you don’t have. 
  • If i don’t feel it, something must be wrong with me. Again, I don’t think this is true either. Sometimes the brain’s ability to generate serotonin and happy chemicals can go haywire, but which comes first? Researchers are trying to answer that question still, and the answers vary so widely, if this is something that a client is dealing with, it’s important to take action when feeling apathetic versus feeling apathetic and not take action. Either way - - the emotion is there, but by taking action, you are teaching the brain that generating effort is still possible, you don’t have to feel like it in order to do it. I actually find this deeply comforting. 
  • If I don’t feel it, something must be wrong with the thing I want. Not necessarily. I call this a thought error, because I’ve seen clients make decisions to stop pursuing a goal or a dream or an intention when during the process, it doesn’t seem as important as it did in the beginning. There will be times when it’s okay to call it quits, or pivot, But we don’t want to do it from the thought error that the thing you want has lost its appeal. Like pursuing a degree in adulthood for example. You’re motivated in the beginning, but in the messy middle, you start to second guess if you really want that degree. Totally normal, but don’t make the decision based on a lack of the motivation feeling. Let’s dig deeper. 
  • Motivation is a mood. Yes and No. I love the mood or feeling of motivation. But I also think it is a mental construct, meaning the story I tell myself that is driving the emotion. It’s both. I get to feel the mood of motivation after I take action. I don’t wait to take action when I’m feeling in the mood. If so, I’ll be waiting around a long time. So this can be a thought error that really shuts us down if we don’t understand the true nature of what motivation is. It is a feeling that is generated AFTER we take action, and it gathers momentum based on the actions we take. And along the way, as we’re taking action, our brains are constructing meaning as to why the thing we’re doing matters. Not the other way around. We can’t wait around for the meaning to present itself. The meaning will come along the way. 
  • People are lucky, the ones who are motivated. No. It is not something that some people just have and you missed the boat. If you think this way, then you’ll be in a fixed mindset and tell yourself that you’re not like those people. The truth is, they have Gator brains too. They’ve learned to increase the Judge portion of their brains, and you’re learning, you haven’t learned as much as they have yet, but you know you can, you are capable. 
  • We can only feel it if we know everything is going to work out the way we want it to. This one is a big one. I’ll only do it if I know it will be worth it. I’ll only prepare for the debate tournament if I know I’ll win and do well. I’ll only apply to colleges if I know I have a chance at scholarships. We’re missing the point sometimes in our thinking, because it isn’t about landing the prize at the end of the effort. It’s more about the person we become along the way as we increase our capacity to grow and learn. 

Tip Three: We have to generate our own definition of what makes something worth it that doesn’t rely on anything outside of us. 


If you can Make it all about what will make you personally proud of yourself, no matter the outside forces that could come into play and no matter the outcome, then your motivation will never run dry. 


For example, my definition is to take notice of my growth along the way: I find this deeply motivating in the context of 

  • Writing songs. I love doing it just to see if I can write a good song. But if I write them in order to get praise, and I share the song and nobody says anything complimentary about it, if I’m relying on that, then it will be a lot of energy to chase those compliments. And it’s fickle and unreliable. I don’t want that to be my source of motivation. I love it when it happens, but it’s not the main driver. It’s something deeper. It’s the pursuit of the craft of songwriting. I love it. It’s challenging. 
  • Building a business. 
  • Taking care of my yard.
  • Eating healthy and exercising. 
  • My skin care routine
  • Keeping the house neat and tidy
  • Teaching my children true principles
  • And many more. . . .


Notice how none of the actions I take are contingent upon results down the road, or knowing those results ahead of time. I’ve learned to  have faith that my actions will lead to the desired results, but I also know things don’t always go as planned. No matter, I take action anyway because I know that for here and now, it will make me feel proud of myself. That is what motivates me, really tapping into that feeling. 


I’ve noticed the ‘proud of myself’ feeling is unique from person to person. What makes me proud is different from what makes each of my children proud of themselves. 


This is why comparing can be so problematic with motivation. If you are noticing someone else in their “I’m proud of myself energy,” and you want the thing they have that got them there, then be cautious – be careful if you are wanting to look outside of yourself for your answers, because  you’ll feel “less than” if your path to feeling proud of yourself doesn’t work out the way it worked out for the other person you admire. Or - the pursuit will feel hollow and meaningless. 


That’s because it can become so easy to get out of integrity with how to make yourself proud in your own, unique way. Hear me when I say, it won’t look like anyone else's.


We think we’re making it easier for ourselves when we copy someone else’s path, but we’re not.  


Comparing your path to another’s path is a big motivation stealer. 


This year, in my music studio, I’m going to have my students fill out a chart, a sheet of paper where they put an X in a box every time they notice the feeling they are proud of themselves in their practice at the piano. I’m really excited to see them use this. 


I think we adults could benefit from this kind of exercise too. 


Going back to where motivation comes from, 


the two questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you know what you want? What will make you proud of yourself? 
  • Do you believe you can get what you want? Do you believe you can follow through with the small daily actions that will lead, little by little, to the larger goal?


That is our work, to find the doubts that get in the way of those beliefs, and start earning the belief by taking action. Motivation will build as you take action. 


Take note of the progress you make along the way. Keep track. 

Just like little kids when you compliment them for a small task, you are appealing to their Gator brain. 

Appeal to your adult Gator, and give yourself some praise as you take action. 


Here’s what will happen. Your Gator brain will light up and a new neural pathway will start to build. It will take effort to strengthen this pathway in the brain, but as you keep reinforcing it, it will become effortless. 


Sometimes your Gator brain will say things like, “why are doing this again? It was so much easier when we didn’t have to feel frustrated. Let’s go back to that. . . “ 


You just need to remind the Gator that its opinion is noted, and we’re actually going to grow and evolve, it’s time to up-level. Yes, it’s going to take some effort, and it’s going to feel awkward. But we’re learning how to make ourselves proud. Because same-ness is boring. And we’re willing to go through the work to create enough passion in our life that it becomes natural and even effortless. 


That is the process. You can do it with any emotion. I do it with generating motivation. Sometimes I help clients do it with the emotion of confidence. Next month in my coaching program, we’re going to do it with the feeling of self-compassion, something many of us have a hard time with because we’re hard on ourselves and we have a strong inner-critic voice in our heads that likes to remind us morre of our flaws than our strengths. Self-compassion goes hand in hand with motivation. The two go together hand in hand. 


So, that’s what I’ve got for you today.


Work with your Gator brain friend. Know that motivation is something you can generate with practice. And do it because you are more capable than you even know, you are. And motivation is a beautiful emotion to feel, but we also don’t have to feel it in order to take action, we can take action first, and act anyway. I’m here to help you too, that’s what I do! I help women practice how to make themselves proud. And I love what I do. Sign up for the newsletter now



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