What motivates successful people? Why do some people seem driven to succeed while others content themselves with suboptimal performance?
The conventional wisdom answers that success comes to those who really want it, who want it more than others, who want it really, really badly.
This implies that the path to success must involve strengthening your desire... almost to the point of becoming obsessed.
This theory says that if the man does not stop drinking it is because he does not really want to. And it declares that if the child is doing poorly it is because her parents did not really want her. Finally, it tells us that the player lost the match because he did not really want to win.
The other part of this theory tells us that if you cannot succeed as a florist then that means that your heart's desire has nothing to do with flowers. This implies that once you discover your true desire to throw pots success will arrive on angel wings.
This conventional wisdom infests our therapy culture. It was effectively countered by Brett Steenbarger in a post yesterday on turning goals into consistent habits. Link here.
Steenberger's point, if I may paraphrase, is that success does not come to people who want to win; it comes to people who hate to lose.
Winners do not lust after the emoluments of success. What really motivates them is the taste of failure. Having found failure intolerable they have vowed to do whatever it takes not to experience it again.
The emotional matrix of this motivation is shame. Shame accompanies defeat and success comes to those who will do what it takes to avoid shame.
The most significant problem with the emotional reaction to failure is that people do not feel badly enough. They shrug off failure as something that happens in life. They do not denounce it as something that they should never again have to feel.
As Steenbarger suggests, desiring the benefits of success is a poor motivator. When you are working hard because you want to own a yacht , your motivation to work will subside the moment you acquire one.
If, however, you are motivated by a fear of failure, that prospect is always lurking. Worse yet, the more you have the more you stand to lose.
This is not just about learning to win. It also concerns what causes people to make important changes in their lives. I suggested in my book "Saving Face' that shame is a primary motivator of significant and substantial change.
Steenbarger argues the same point. In his terms, we change when we have to, not when we want to. For those who have made a career out of saying that no one can change without really wanting to, this is a sobering corrective.
Alcoholics stop drinking when they find themselves in the real or psychological gutter. Only when the pain becomes too great and the alcohol fails to palliate it are they motivated to do what it takes to avoid going back.
Steenbarger reminds us that alcoholics go to AA meetings for two reasons. First, for the social connections with their fellows; and second, because listening to the bad experiences of others provides a constant reminder of how far they might fall.
It is not about what you want to do; it's about what you have to do. It's not about aesthetics, but about ethics. The strongest positive motivation does not come from appetite, but from duty.
[Note: My first post on "Learning to Win" is dated August 30.]