Motivation: It’s not what you think

Motivation is a huge industry in America [1]. Companies pay thousands of dollars for speakers, trainings, and motivational materials for their employees. There are countless apps and gadgets designed to help people accomplish their goals. The “Self-Help” section of any book store is stacked with volume after volume of books designed to unlock your inner potential. Some of these products are based in actual nuanced research, most combine snippets of useful information packaged in with a lot of less scientific advice, and some are just downright garbage.

Built into these products is the notion that all you need to succeed is to find just that one hack or gadget to motivate you. Nothing exemplifies this more to me than the motivational poster. We’ve all seen them. Big framed posters with high quality stock photos and short pithy text. 

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

There is no “I” in “Team.”

Dream [2]

They adorn the walls of offices and waiting rooms. They’re so ubiquitous that they’ve spawned an entire counter line of products that play off the trope so well that sometimes it’s hard to parse the sincere from the satirical.

I really enjoy Demotivators, those great spoofs of the motivational poster. They sneak up on you because they look exactly like regular motivational posters. Photos of sweeping vistas, one word concepts in enormous fonts, with a short sentence at the bottom. It’s typically the text at the bottom that lands the punch. My favorite, hands down goes like this:

“Motivation: If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon.” [3]

Here’s the thing about motivation. It’s not really about individuals, or at least not just about individuals. It’s about an entire ecosystem of interaction, experience, and feedback. The notion that individuals can turn their lives around if they just dig deep and find the right motivation is, from a psychosocial standpoint, laughably naïve. Also, it’s beside the point. It’s an old saw that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but it’s really true. Societies aren’t just the total of the individuals in them. Societies have their own lives, characters, and far reaching impacts. So many of the problems we experience (opioid epidemic, bias motivated violent attacks, pervasive sexual harassment) are social problems. Addressing systemic social problems at the individual level simply isn’t effective or appropriate. That is to say, just telling girls they should do more science is not going to yield any gains in closing the gender STEM gap.

Image Credit: B. Todd

Image Credit: B. Todd

Motivation is a huge area of study pursued by researchers in education, psychology, sociology, economics, and business, to name a few. It contains many, many subfields that compliment one another. Some researchers focus solely on interest development while others look at curiosity. Yes, those are different things, and let me tell you, both groups have OPINIONS about the difference between the two. Within the area of interest formation one researcher may be looking at brain MRIs while another is administering short surveys to hundreds of students, and a third spends months or even years interviewing model train enthusiasts. What I’m trying to say is that motivation is a big complex field that can’t be pinned down to any one simple hack. I also think it’s safe to say that most of us, aren’t focused on individuals. We use them as our subjects, but we’re not just looking at the actions and thoughts of individuals. We’re looking at social context that produces these actions and thoughts. We’re looking for how social contexts produce (or inhibit) motivation and how they shape the nature of motivation. Let’s take a case of one and look at it.

Like many, many people, I am frequently in a state of trying to lose weight and be healthier in my diet and exercise. I’ve had varying success at this. The healthiest time of my entire life was between 2011-2014. I lost about 30 pounds, took up running, and participated in several triathlons. Let me be very clear, I was that kid in elementary school who HATED gym class. I couldn’t run without having to stop and walk every 30 seconds and could be reduced to tears over the prospect of being asked to climb a rope. Suddenly in my mid 30s I turned into work out nerd. Then between 2014-2017 I gained back all the weight (plus more), got much spottier about my workouts, ate very poorly, and didn’t participate in any formal organized fitness events like fun runs or triathlons. 

So what was the difference between these two three year periods? I was the same person [3] with the same information and abilities during both of these times. What was different was my ecosystem. In the first period I worked in the same office with my best friend and we went to the gym together nearly every day at lunch. She taught me how to run without collapsing into a wheezing ball and I showed up in her office very day with my gym bag excited to spend time with my friend complaining about whatever stupid thing was annoying me. We took swim lessons and learned how to perform a proper crawl stroke and did our first sprint triathlon together. We encouraged and challenged each other and it was fun. 

Then my friend graduated and got a better job somewhere else. It was harder to get together and at the same time my workload skyrocketed. Without someone to be accountable to it was easier to prioritize work over fitness. Stress made eating sugary foods a lot more attractive, and slowly my health routine degraded into an unhealthy one.

And that’s it. I didn’t actually change anything important in my life during these two times. I still did all the same activates with my family and pursued the same hobbies during both time frames, but in one I had a work context that supported fitness and in the other I didn’t. Context is everything. 

I’m not saying that people can’t make meaningful changes in their lives, of course they can, but the answer isn’t “willpower” or “wanting it.” It’s about creating the social circumstances that support success and reinforce desired behaviors. When we start looking at big problems like underrepresentation in STEM, changing context becomes a lot more challenging than finding a running buddy (which can be surprisingly challenging). Providing opportunity and access to underrepresented groups or yes, even helping people lose weight, are social issues that need to be addressed in social contexts. Taking a nuanced view of motivation as an ecosystem in which the individual is just one component doesn’t really sell books, though [4]. 

How can parents who want to support their girls in science change the social context? Can they change the social context? How much power do girls and parents have to create a context that sets them up for STEM success? I have thoughts on this ;-) But for now, I think the most important take away message from this rambling rant is not to beat yourself up for failing to DO ALL THE THINGS. It’s pretty hard to just make yourself do stuff that you don’t normally do. It’s REALLY hard to make yourself feel like the kind of person who does that stuff, which is a pretty important part of actually doing stuff. And if you want the girls in your life to engage more with science, well, engage in science with them! Help create a context that supports doing science. If you want to get really meta, create a context that supports you in creating a context that supports science engagement. . . easy, right? Yeah, no. But I’ll talk about that in future posts.


[1] According to this Market Research Blog Americans spend around $10 billion a year on “Personal Development.”

[2] Well, yeah. I mean, you’ve gotta sleep, so sure. Dream. Also. Respirate. Perspirate. Maybe even Perpetrate (for a good cause). But don’t Suffocate. That would be bad.


[4] Ignoring existential questions as to the ephemeral nature of person hood and identity.

[5] Says the lady who is writing a book about engaging girls with science!