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  • Jamie McCarthy

Manufacturing Motivation.

17th August 2015.


It seems like being ‘motivated’ is one of the cardinal virtues in the UK at the moment. Not to be motivated is usually regarded with the same sort of moral disapproval that used to be given towards to ‘sins’ of various kinds in more overtly religiously dominated times. At the ridiculous end of it are the American-style motivational seminars and workshops, which are fairly easy to see through and enjoy a worried laugh at, and it’s not hard to see how those ideas spring from an original protestant work ethic / religious / moral source. But I feel there are more insidious ways in which this idea of motivation invariably being equal to good and not being motivated to being bad, has permeated our culture (again, with an element of religious, unquestionable faith in the inherent goodness of 'being motivated').

I find something disturbing about our culture’s current fetish with people being motivated. If you know me at all well, you’ll know that I’m quite often motivated to do things (for example, this bit of writing). When my motivation is at its best (I feel), it comes from inside - I feel ‘moved’ to do something (which is where the word motivation originally comes from). I think I get motivated when conditions are right for me to do something and then the motivation just arises of its own volition. (Hmmm – that’s interesting, I just checked ‘volition’ in the dictionary and it comes from ‘volo’ – ‘I wish’. So that makes sense – when I wish to do something, motivation arises).

That places me bang in the middle of why I feel uncomfortable about a lot of the motivational ethos that runs through society today: much of it seems to arise from getting people to do things they don’t want to do, or are actually unable to do. Now I’m not against the idea that sometimes we might need a little help from outside ourselves to do something when inertia stops us from doing things we want to do. What disturbs me though is the degree to which motivation is seen to be something that has to be applied from outside when a person is ‘committing the sin’ of being unmotivated.

The reason why it disturbs me so much is that it places an emphasis on the ‘failing’ of the individual: a person is ‘wrong’ to be unmotivated and therefore needs fixing from the outside. This worries me on a couple of levels. On the one hand it suggests that we need to distrust our feelings (an unmotivated person is clearly not trustworthy and therefore, in this unbalanced state they should not be encouraged to trust their lack of motivation) and on the other, it rules out the possibility that a lack of motivation could come from the ‘un-motivating’ environment a person finds themselves in: it lays ‘blame’ firmly upon the individual and stops any questioning about influences form the outside.

An obvious example would be the way ‘jobseekers’ (as unemployed people are euphemistically labelled these days) are policed by the Department of Work and Pensions. Everything must be done to ‘motivate’ them to find work. It very neatly places the focus firmly on the people who are looking for employment and takes it away from questioning things like the lack of suitable jobs or decent pay, not to mention myriad social problems that might makes it difficult to feel motivated. (Not eating for several days and being unable to afford the bus fare to an interview are, I would propose, extremely de-motivating factors. Personally, I would find it pretty de-motivating to be forced to work on a 'Workfare' scheme at way below minimum wage for an employer who is exploiting my labour).

I find that when I am unmotivated it is usually because there is something that is un-motivating me. For example, recently I gave up my teaching job and have been looking at moving away from earning my living in the arts, because I could see no way of making a decent living from these activities in the current climate in this country. I felt myself increasingly unmotivated in jobs where I was being employed as a musician or composer because my wages and working conditions had become steadily worse over the last couple of years. In this situation I took my lack of motivation as a sign that something was wrong … and that something wasn’t me! Who knows where I’ll end up, but I listened to my lack of motivation to see what it had to tell me about the world and my current place in it. It’s taking a while to unravel and who knows where it will lead me, but I feel it would have been really wrong for me to seek outside motivation to help me continue with a situation that was wrong for me. It would also have been really wrong to try and change me (to find the fault in my approach and get it fixed), rather than look at changing the SITUATION I’m in so it supports me more.

As I said, I’m not saying we can’t ever be usefully motivated from the outside and sometimes, when I look inside I can see that I haven’t been thinking about something in useful way for myself, but I do question the ways in which blaming individuals for a lack of motivation can be a way of deflecting investigation of the ways in which society needs to be rearranged to create the conditions under which people will be moved to action from the inside – where they will experience that ‘volition’. I also question that as a culture our default is to pathologise a lack of motivation, rather than encouraging us to look into it to ask what meaning it holds for us – 'what do we need to listen to that our lack of motivation is telling us?'

I remember a song from the ‘80’s by ‘The The’ that had a line in it: ‘If you can’t change the world, Change yourself’ and of course, when it comes to survival we are sometimes forced to conform to a world that seems unchangeable and immovable. Sometimes having to do that even brings us a new useful insight or way of being, but I feel that to do so is often to commit a violence against ourselves, to ignore a voice that tell us things aren’t right, things have to change …

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