Home > community development, enterprise, power, self interest, strategy > Why Doesn’t Motivation Work?

Why Doesn’t Motivation Work?


This is a question I was asked recently by someone in local government.  ‘How come some people travel two thousand miles in search of a job, while others won’t even get on a bus?’

It is a question that deserves consideration – and I believe that the answer lies in both hope and fear.

With hope, travel (both geographical and psychological) is a necessity.  Where there is hope we are driven to pursue it.  Without hope then even the smallest step towards self improvement might not be taken.  The person that travels two thousand miles does so in hope.  The hope that they will find their share of the wealth and that they will be able to alleviate conditions at home by sending some of this wealth back.

The person that won’t get on the bus is in the true sense of the word hopeless in this area of their lives.  What IS the point of another trip to the job centre or the college that will just end up in yet another failure?  It is hard to believe that the institutions that are there to help can be of any help at all.  It is an example of what the psychologists call Learned Helplessness.

The second part of the equation is fear.  How will my life unfold if I don’t take personal responsibility for changing things?  Almost certainly the person prepared to travel thousands of miles is doing so to escape literally fearful conditions at home.  Maybe war or violent crime.  Maybe the type of crushing poverty that leaves you without decent housing and with no hope for improvement at home.  Escape is perceived as an urgent priority, literally life and death.

But what about the person that won’t get on the bus?  How will their life unfold as a consequence?  Well they will remain just like a significant proportion of their peers – which they will find comforting.  As a group they can collectively blame others for their condition.  They can claim benefits and perhaps do a bit of work on the side.  And there is certainly ‘excitement’ to be had – everything from Jeremy Kyle through Diamond White to adrenaline pumping crime.  In the short term life is not so bad.  The longer term consequences maybe less than optimal – but people can always defer worrying about the future. As the Office of Science and Technology puts it “Evidence shows that people may be biased towards seeking short-term rewards at the expense of greater long-term benefits.”

So the need is to offer real hope and a realistic assessment of the long term consequences of not getting on the bus.  It is to help people start to explore their ‘enterprising soul’.  And this is not about a half day ‘business start-up’ workshop.

The tragically ironic thing about the people that travel two thousand miles?  For many, within a few months of arriving, a forced engagement with depressing ESOL classes and tussles with bureaucracy soon lead to the same sense of learned helplessness that means they too will no longer get on a bus.

You see, the problem is that motivation always works – perfectly.

It is ‘the system’ that let us down.

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  1. May 26, 2009 at 7:41 am

    You see, the problem is that motivation always works – perfectly.

    It is ‘the system’ that let us down.’

    And when it does, the result is that your depression is doubled.
    Very good conclusion.

  2. May 26, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Insightful as ever, Mike.

    I would add something to the mix. I am ever frustrated that we continue to live in a society which gears itself to rule by an elite. Where the education system is designed to deliver anything useful only to a small proportion of its recipients, and where the system delivers multi-faceted means of distracting those who “fail” in education from realising their true potential. Thus, modern celebrity culture is a manifestation of former worship of the divine right of kings, and tabloid newpapers, reality TV and soap operas all conspire to divert aspiration and present views of the world in which everyone knows their place, and those who step out of place are punished or ridiculed.

    In this scenario, the only way is not hard work or collaborative effort, but the willingness to make a fool of yourself on TV in front of millions. A fleeting glimpse of fame & fortune, soon undermined by the sniggering of the tabloid journalists.

    Perhaps the people who travel thousands of miles for a job come from cultures where aspiration is valued not denigrated

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