At one time or another we have all dreamed of doing some big thing.  Perhaps starting a business, writing a book, or traveling to some exotic place.  Maybe we wanted to learn a musical instrument or a new language or some great skill.  And the reason we have often failed to do that big thing is that we lacked the motivation.  Perhaps we had the motivation to start, but we certainly did not have the motivation to see things through.

When I was seven years old I decided I wanted to start my own newspaper.  I could just feel the excitement of riding my bicycle around the neighborhood, throwing out copies of the Collins Gazette (or whatever I called it) on people’s front lawns.  I imagined having a satchel of rolled up newspapers and how awesome I would look as I set out daily to deliver them.

So I sat down at the kitchen table in our house, took a blank sheet of lined paper and got to work.  I drew a picture of the paper’s editor (that would be me) and wrote a few words about this great venture and its proprietor.  After I finished that first copy, my hand was kind of cramped.  As proud as I was of my work, I didn’t really feel like making more copies.  “Whew,” I thought, “that’s a lot of work!  We have one neighbor really close by, so for today one copy will do.”   So off I went.

My Huffy bike had a satchel zip-tied to the handlebars, so I rolled up my one newspaper, stuck it in the satchel, and rode around my yard.  When I was between my house and theirs, I flung the single-page newspaper, just like I imagined.  Only it didn’t fly beautifully into their yard the way I had imagined.  Actually it landed only a few inches from my bike.  Hmm.  Disappointed, I picked up the “newspaper” and that was the end of my journalism.

I had lost motivation.  I think it’s safe to say that we all stopped short of some dreams because we lost or never had the motivation.  You see, that day I experienced a subtle truth about motivation: emotion can get you going but it is utterly unable to keep you going.  Emotion may be a good starter (as in my newspaper venture), but it cannot carry us through.  Think of a charcoal grill. The lighter fluid we use to light the fire may indeed get things started.  But nobody would think it sensible to cook steak over a fire consisting only of starter fluid.  We would run out of fuel long before the steak cooked fully.

Emotion is much the same way.  It is good for starting things.  As a matter of fact, I believe we often need that surge of emotion that gets us moving in a new direction.  But if there is nothing else present to catch and sustain the fire, we will run out of energy and sputter.  So while we cannot discount the value of emotion in getting us going, it is not a long-term motivator.

So what is it that moves some people and carries them through to success while others fall short or give up, often early in the journey?  And how do we keep that motivation?

I believe three things provide excellent long-term motivation – something before us (a goal), something behind us (a propellant),  and something beyond us (a guide).

What are you reaching for?

I believe if we are to succeed, we need something to reach for, something that we can latch onto and use to pull ourselves forward.  I mean something specific – a written goal, with a deadline.  Not grasping at air but grabbing the rope! For example, “I want to lose weight” is not a goal.  If you set out to lose weight with nothing more than the desire to lose weight, you will fail.  But if you post a notice on your fridge that says, “I want to lose 25 pounds within 6 months” you are onto something.  By the way, it helps if the goal is reasonable.  Losing 50 pounds in two weeks, while technically possible, is problematic for a host of other reasons.  In other words, you want to set yourself a hill to climb that is not so steep that you give up and quit.

Do you want to be in business for yourself?  Great!  Aim for a certain amount of income by a certain date.  Do you believe you should write a book?  Wonderful.  One goal should be to write a certain number of words daily.  You see the pattern here.  When we have something to reach for, we are far more likely to get there.  As a matter of fact, recent studies have shown that writing down goals makes us over 40% more likely to reach them.  The goal gets you pointed in the right direction.

When I was recently teaching my daughter to ride a bicycle, she had in her mind what it looked like.  And she worked hard every evening until she got it.  She had something specific she wanted to do and she had a deadline (each evening, it was “today”).  And missing the deadline only fueled her determination to get it the next day.  It took her three evenings.  Having something to reach for can be extremely motivating.

What’s propelling you?

The second part of motivation is having something to propel you.  A sailboat can be pointed in the right direction with the rudder steady, but without wind it’s merely going to go with the flow of the ocean.  For us to reach our goals there are some winds that help us along.  As a matter of fact, I believe motivation is very much like fuel in that we expend it and frequently need to refill it.  The late Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”  Emotion cannot be that daily motivation, for, as I said earlier, it wears off too quickly.  But there are other things to propel us.  I believe encouragement is one of those fuels.  Having someone constantly encourage you, reaffirming their belief in you, is great motivation.

When I was teaching my daughter to ride her bike, more than the instruction I gave, I was telling her, “I believe in you!  You can do this – I know you can.  You’re doing great!  Keep that up!”  And I could see the light in her eyes every time.  Even though she fell frequently, the encouragement seemed to inspire her to get up and try it again.  It was contagious – she heard it and began telling herself she could do it.  She told me during the process, “I’m not giving up!  I can do this!”  I believed, she believed, then she prevailed.

This differs greatly, by the way, from the harshness and negativity so common in society.  Those act as deterrents and will drain our motivation quickly.  What we need is to have people pushing us.  They don’t have to be physically present.  Reading books, listening to interviews and podcasts, and even writing down encouragements to yourself can do wonders to sustain motivation.

Now encouragement alone will not likely keep you moving.  I believe we also need an internal fire of determination and willpower.  I gave up my single-page newspaper because I had no will to continue, I was not determined.  And frankly, had my parents known (this was all conceived and finished within an hour or so), their encouragement would likely not have kept the Collins Gazette in business.

We need encouragement, certainly.  But an unwilling man who persists only because of the encouragement of others – well, I do not believe he will be satisfied with the fruit of his labor.  For his heart is not in it.

What’s Calling You?

Aside from something behind us and something before us, I believe there is one more key ingredient – something beyond us.  If we do not have something outside ourselves, we will ultimately be unfulfilled, even if we appear successful on the surface.  A man who starts a business merely to make a living (something before him), even if his family and friends are encouraging him (something behind him), will likely feel like he just has a j-o-b if he does not have a higher purpose than himself.

For some, this is simply the desire to make other people happy with ridiculously awesome customer service.  To quote Ziglar again, “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”  The carpenter who goes out of his way to do excellent work because he loves to see the joy others express at his creation will likely not go broke from lack of business.

For others, something beyond ourselves means doing what we believe is pleasing to God (who, in turn, calls us to add value to others).  Having some ideal beyond ourselves, whatever that may be, has the effect of accelerating our momentum tremendously.

Whether it’s a desire to have enough to be wildly generous and have a tremendous impact on others, a sense of exceeding the expectations of every customer, or a calling from God to serve and please him, having motivation outside ourselves adds a turbo to the motivation engine.

As I wrap up, keep in mind that motivation is necessary because things get tough at times.  If it were all downhill and smooth, you wouldn’t need motivation – you’d need brakes!  Motivation is what fuels you to overcome the resistance and uphill battles that are a part of achieving any worthwhile and fulfilling goal.

In summary, utilize these key tactics to get and stay motivated:

  • Set specific goals to reach for.  With deadlines .
  • Surround yourself with encouragement and develop your internal grit and determination to push you.
  • Seek something higher than yourself, outside yourself, to accelerate you.

What goal do you need motivation to achieve next in life?  And where will your motivation come from?