We’re all motivated by different things. And as much as Nike’s “Just Do It!” campaign may seem like a good way to achieve your goals, transformation is rarely so simple.
I spent years battling my innate tendencies, trying instead to be like people I admired–people who have an ascetic, monk-like devotion to their work. People who don’t watch a lot of television, are indifferent to pleasures like food and drink, who have a whole lot of gritty determination and willingness to suffer for their dreams. Heck–I’m still in awe of people like that. But trying to better myself through deprivation never actually worked. I’d have short periods of perfection–media fasts, dietary cleanses, a month when I woke up at dawn for green juice and a hike–but inevitably I’d exhaust my reserves of willpower, return to bad habits, and hate myself for it.
A mentor of mine recognized this pattern and suggested something radical: what happens if you just do what you want? What happens if you allow yourself to think that who you are, right now, is already enough? What happens when you notice what you enjoy and bring more of that into your life?
So I started paying attention. When did those moments come when everything felt good, when everything flowed? When did it seem natural to clean my room, move my body, eat in a self-nurturing way? For me the answer was simple: I thrive in the company of friends. When I look at my living space as a place to entertain, to put friends at ease, it’s fun to gather healthy snacks, to set up clusters of comfy seating, to create an atmosphere of beauty. I used to flip this around in a negative way–thinking of my happiness in social settings as an indication that I was somehow co-dependent, that I’d failed at the Joan Didion test of self respect–that to find more comfort in the company of those I love than I do when I “lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed” was a failure. But that isn’t so.
There is strength in recognizing what we do well and cultivating it. For each of us that thing will be different. I have a graphic designer friend who finds bliss in simple aesthetic beauty and the right sort of warm light, for whom a well-balanced shelf is a work of art, and harmonious friendships resonate with a similarly beautiful luminescence. For him even speech is about beauty, he’s a collector of pretty words. He taught me that to appreciate aesthetics isn’t shallow, it can be incredibly deep so long as you’re willing to put in the time, effort, and careful thought necessary to cultivate it with care, to do it with a spirit of generosity and love. Approached as such beauty isn’t exclusionary, it’s a gift, rendering what could be mundane as a work of art.
If you know what motivates you, you can use that to help you set goals when you feel yourself waning. I know that if I want to re-decorating my dining room it’ll come together more energetically if I have a dinner party planned, and if I’m looking to get in shape I’ll have more fun doing so if it’s in the company of people I care about. For my beauty-motivated friend the task could perhaps be driven by an aesthetic outcome–staging a room so that it’s ready to be featured in House Beautiful or walking everyday at the advice of a modeling scout.
I encourage you to note the moments in your life when things click and to pay attention to what the motivating force was that inspired the action you took to get there. Are you adept at keeping the peace, eager to create harmonious environments at work or in your home? Or do you thrill at being a catalyst for change, happiest when you’re shaking up people’s expectations of normal? Both things can be positive so long as they’re consciously cultivated and enhance your experience of life.