The Drive of Your Life: Where Does Motivation Come From?

When you think about your work, hobbies, education, relationships – in fact any area of your life – what is it that encourages you to keep going with them? Money? Praise? Love? Prizes?

There may not be a single answer. Many factors influence our actions. But one of the interesting things about motivation is that, while the above question might prompt you to name tangible external triggers that motivate you, it’s not just those that are at play. As the saying goes, it’s what’s inside that counts.

One theory that has informed our work recently is Self Determination Theory. Introduced over three decades ago by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, the theory holds that human beings have three psychological needs that must be met if they are to grow and change as people. These needs are:

  • autonomy (feeling one has the power to make an impact on one’s life and meet personal goals)
  • competence (learning new skills and gaining mastery of them)
  • connection (a sense of belonging and of relating to other people)

These needs are innate, so although people might not be fully aware they are attempting to satisfy them in the first place, their fulfilment drives people on to further fulfil them – and so a cycle of motivation rolls on. Behaviour becomes self-determined rather than determined only by external (and arguably less reliable) factors.

Think of anyone you know who plays sport. They might start the sport because their parent has introduced them to it, but chances are they won’t stick it out for more than a few sessions if they don’t enjoy it. If they do enjoy it, they continue because they can see their own efforts (autonomy) are paying off and they want to improve (competence). Chances are the sport involves other people too, with whom they can share the love of the game and, if it’s a team sport, achieve success together (connection).

Quotes from Lionel Messi clearly illustrate how important self-determination is in one of the world’s best football players:

Autonomy: “I always knew that to [play professionally] I’d have to make a lot of sacrifices. I made sacrifices by leaving Argentina, leaving my family to start a new life. But everything I did, I did for football, to achieve my dream.”

Competence: “I believe there is room for improvement in every sportsman. Every year I try to grow as a player and not get stuck in a rut.”

Connection: “I prefer to win titles with the team ahead of individual awards”

And, although it’s obviously easy to say with millions in the bank, Messi recognises the importance of the rewards he gets from fulfilling those innate emotional needs compared to any tangible rewards and recognition he gets from the world:

“Money is not a motivating factor. My motivation comes from playing the game I love. If I wasn’t paid to be a professional footballer, I would willingly play for nothing.”

Of course it’s not just world class sports players who operate this way. Self-determination is at the heart of any human behaviour that is done for enjoyment or satisfaction. So next time you’re putting up new shelves (straighter than the ones you put up last year), writing a hard-hitting report (so good that you’re bound to be promoted) or going to your book club (bottle of white in hand, eager to hear what others thought of the story), take a moment to consider why it makes you feel good.