Motivation seems like some kind of magic to me.  It brings you to disturbing philosophical crossroads.  Why do I even want to do anything?  While Socrates may have been correct that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, the examined life can also appear to be not worth living.  How can you create value if there is no such thing as value?  This puts a giant damper on the concept of effectiveness.  Dust in the wind nihilism and all that.  What to do?  I think it’s better to err on the side of assuming value exists and attempting to create it.  It helps greatly to have motivation to do that.

Man, as I wrote this, I definitely realized there’s a dark side to motivation.  Baywatch and pizza dark.  It is definitely a two-or-more-edged sword.

Motivational Factors

hardwired biological impulses

Have you ever felt like you were drowning?  You know what true motivation is.  Have you ever had to hold in two liters of your favorite beverage for many hours?  You know something about motivation.  Ever try holding your hand on a hot burner?  Every try to go even a mere 36 hours without eating?  50 hours without sleeping?  Have you ever not eaten the whole bag of Cheetos (be honest)?  This is the basic stuff that keeps you alive (temporarily at least in the case of the Cheetos) despite whatever metaphysical existential crisis you are having.

adequate pay

If you feel respected and are not struggling to pay the basic bills of life, this will free up a lot of energy to do a better job.  Most people like to do a good job and improve.  I’ve seen people leave jobs when getting paid to do essentially nothing because it bothered them to coast and rot.


When you win, you want to keep winning.  Suppose you played a video game where the first mob always killed you.  You would not play as long as the work years some of you have devoted to WoW.  I guarantee it.


I swear I was going to watch just one episode of Game of Thrones yesterday.  Once I was done with 5/7 episodes, I figured I was “so close”, I might as well finish.  And that’s what I did.  This is the same reason you might get a couple free punches on your Cafe Rio card: endowed progress.  People are distressed far more by unfinished business than unstarted business.  Just one more turn.  It’s only 3 AM.  Plenty of time left to sleep before work tomorrow.

random rewards

So, why do people play slots if, mathematically, they are doomed to lose?  Random rewards.  What are loot drops?  Random rewards.


Sure, you’ll probably do something if you get mad enough.  Problem is, it will probably be something stupid.


Why would anyone drive down to Blockbuster when you can just stream it on Google Play?  What, you’ve never even heard of Blockbuster?   I rest my case.

think of the children

I’ve probably funded an entire Girl Scout troop solely by my purchases of thin mints.

reward and punishment

If you don’t pay your taxes, we’ll put you in jail.  If you do well in school, we’ll give you a scholarship.  Here’s a cookie, a gold star, and a pat on the back.

pride, envy

Another of the seven deadly sins.  It’s interesting that of the seven, only sloth is not a motivator.  So, motivation is great and all, but is it motivating you to do anything good?  Sometimes doing nothing is more constructive than action.  However, the Western world strongly favors action, execution, progress, etc.  And now we have McDonald’s, global warming, nuclear weapons, and potential for an AI singularity.  Go humans!


This is all making me want to watch Fullmetal Alchemist again.  I don’t ever want to be one of the pathetic people on this planet who argues over dividing up their parents’ assets while they’re still alive!  Two words: Menendez Brothers.


I really think the Achilles’ heel of communism is the Chinese proverb “a shared courtyard is never swept.”  People are far more likely to take far better care of stuff they own.

justice, fairness

Everyone likes to see justice–in the affairs of others at least.  I’m not entirely convinced the concept of “fairness” isn’t just envy in disguise.  Or, at least, many people confuse the two.

autonomy, defiance

When you were a kid and your mom told you to put on a jacket or go clean your room, what did you want to do?  Anything but those things.


Looking through current movie rentals, I see a Transformers movies and a Smurfs movie.  Is it the 80s again?  The odds of me watching these?  Almost 100%.


Hmmm, I could wait 2 years and pay 25% of the price of this game.  But then it won’t be new.  Or I could wait 30 years for it to become cool again or at least nostalgic.  Fine.  Fine! I’ll preorder the deluxe mega elite collector’s edition for twice the price, call in sick, and play it at the stoke of midnight on release day.  Damn you novelty, vanity, and sloth–you win again!

insanity, obsession, mania

Yup, you would actually need to be a bit insane to have consistent high levels of motivation.  A sane person would be more balanced.  Your subjective valuation system along some vector must be completely out of whack.  This may give you success (or burnout) along that one vector while destroying the rest of your life via neglect.

motivation is a lie

You know the cake is a lie.  Yet you still play Portal to the end.  The truth is, you don’t need motivation to do anything: you can “just do it” as Nike points out.  If anyone knows how to be effective, it would be the Goddess of Victory.  Anyone who sits around waiting to “be motivated” is sure to fail.

Neutral Factors

excessive pay

Excessive pay does not motivate people to do a better job.  Once people feel secure and not disrespected, all they are going to do is stack up cash to retire or do what they really want to do.  Very few people actually want to work at whatever job they are doing.


You might know exactly how to solve your problem.  Or you might mentally assent to the idea that, say, the wold would be better of if everyone were a vegetarian that polluted less.  Guess what?  You’re still going to drive your SUV with vanity plates down to Wendy’s, order a triple bacon cheeseburger, and get disproportionately mad at someone for screwing up your order.

Demotivational Factors

inadequate pay

What does inadequate, below-market pay say to me?  It says “We disrespect you and your entire lifetime of dedication to your profession.”

fear of loss

So why do people tarry in jobs, relationships, or whatever they don’t like longer than they should?  Because we’re all irrational.  People fear loss at about 2x the rate of valuing an equivalent gain.  This is one of many mental flaws it is valuable to practice overcoming.  Beware of common sense and intuition.

unexpected roadblocks

Nothing takes the wind out of your sails like . . . the wind going out of your sails.


Being on a losing team or working for a losing company is simply demotivating.  Triple that if you don’t feel like you contribute to the failure and are powerless to do anything about it.

lack of energy

You may think that motivation creates energy, but really energy creates motivation.  Or it’s a feedback loop.  Have you ever had so much energy that you just had to do something?  And then once you did something you felt pumped up to do more?  Well, Jolt Cola is back at Dollar General, my friend!  But seriously, there is an action -> energy -> motivation feedback loop.  It is far easier to get that ball rolling via action or practices that create energy than it is to summon motivation directly.


Make a list of all the things you are supposed to do daily, weekly, biweekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, every five years, etc.  Throw in a hundred or so bucket list items.  Now look at it all at once.  If you are not gripped with a paralyzing sense of dread and overwhelm, you probably are not alive.  This is the kind of reality overdose that makes people have nervous breakdowns.  The only cure is to binge watch One Piece in a single sitting (actually, that will kill you in multiple ways).  As usual, prevention is the best cure: Never contemplate all your responsibilities all at once.

ridiculous difficulty

Some things are truly mindbogglingly difficult.  I’m not talking about getting straight A’s in college hard: I’m talking about sweep picking as well as Yngwie Malmsteen hard.  Olympic gold medal hard.  The sane thing to do is not to attempt these things.  Only crazy people find this level of difficulty motivating.


Try playing tennis by yourself with no walls around for 30 minutes.  How great was that?  Try working by yourself at the office for 8+ hours on a Saturday.

transaction costs

This is basically the opposite of convenience.  I also call these “activation barriers”.  I feel like that comes from chemistry.  The idea of “transaction costs” comes more from Lean.  How often do I visit my Canadian relatives vs. my parents a 3.5 hour drive away?  Once every 10 years vs. multiple times a year.

conflicting motivations

Inner turmoil.  You do not have synergy even with yourself.  Suppose you initially equally want a burger and a burrito.  You just can’t decide!  You don’t think to invent a burgito or a burriger.  Indecision kicks in and you feel more like doing neither.  So, in despair, you order a pizza.  Transformers, Smurfs.  Smurfs, Transformers.  Gah! Baywatch and pizza it is.  How could it have come to this?

disproportionate rewards in the wrong currency

I busted my ass one quarter working over a month straight of serious overtime.  Totally coming through for my company to make a successful demo happen.  All I wanted to do was rest and be left alone after that.  There’s some company party.  I don’t want to go to it.  My boss tells me I should go because it will be “worth my while”.  I get an Employee of the Quarter award with a $100 gift card.  About six other people get Employee Appreciation awards and $50.  If I’m THE Employee of the Quarter, the award should be at least 10x as much as a mere appreciation award.  NOT worth my time.  The value of my unpaid overtime was very easily $6K.  Might as well give a starving vegan whose only cow you stole a 4 oz burnt flank steak.  How very generous and thoughtful of you!  I’d have paid $100 to be left alone.  The only motivation this provided for me was to leave the company.  Without their superstar, their latest demo was a failure.  Who could have predicted and prevented that?  Me, that’s who.  Not the CEO.  Not the VP of Engineering.  Not their entire remaining software department combined.  Me.

If you want to motivate and retain your best people, know their currency and give them a lot of it.  Otherwise you just end up insulting and alienating them.  Public recognition and social whatever have approximately zero value to me.  Large sacks of cash, competent leadership, attaining skill, respect for that skill, and time off by myself to recharge (like Luddite Walden pond in Siberia by myself) mean the world to me.







One thought on “Motivation

  1. Pingback: Scrum: The Role of the Development Team | Software Development with Jeff

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