Motivation and Purpose


My last post on Motivation produced so many interesting questions and perspectives that I decided to expand on it a little more.

In an ideal world our actions, our behavior, would be guided by a clear sense of purpose. We need to feel we have some form of purpose because a strong sense of purpose becomes the foundation of the motivation we feel that leads us to engage in actions. As it happens purpose plays another, much deeper role in terms of what it does to our attention that is key to what happens to us and we shall get to that in a moment.

To clarify things, let’s first determine the difference between motivation, which we’ve already examined in my previous post, and purpose. The American Psychological Association (APA), defines motivation as actions and behavior that have a clear will and a particular goal in sight while purpose is an object that’s to be reached at some future moment in time. Breaking this down into plain English motivation is what we do to get what we need while purpose is the reason we do it.

In his book “Start With Why” author and speaker, Simom Sinek, says: “Your why is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you.”

Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi Concentration Camps, founded Logetherapy and authored “Man’s Search For Meaning” believed that people are primarily driven by a “striving to find meaning in one’s life.”

Motivation is action. Purpose is meaning. Action without purpose has no meaning.

How we define our purpose however is not always clear to us. To best illustrate the issue consider the case of Desiree Linden, who in 2018 became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in over 30 years. What is fascinating here is that Linden almost gave up at the very start of it.

Linden, got really tired early on. In her post-race interview she said she was “feeling horrible” and experiencing so much pain from the race she was likely to drop out. Knowing that she was going to drop out she switched her attention on a fellow runner, Shalene Flanagan, who herself was struggling. Linden said she slowed down and talked to her, encouraging her and told her that “If you need anything—block the wind, adjust the pace maybe—let me know.”

What is remarkable is that shortly after offering help to her fellow runner, Linden “got her legs back” and picked up the pace, finishing first in the grueling race.

Linden was feeling alone, in pain, and capable of focusing on nothing but the pain she felt. Running that race, at that stage, she was a lonely brain focused only on itself and acutely aware of its own ocean of misery. Quitting was a real option.

Then she stopped to help someone else. Her attention shifted direction. She became aware of other runners in a hard race, also struggling. She became attuned to them in case they needed help. The shift in attention most likely made a difference. As the pain receded to the back of her mind who she was, the marathon runner she’d become, moved back to the center of her attention. The purpose of her had been redefined.

A sense of purpose allows us to re-prioritize how our attention is divided. By focusing on things outside our self we can diminish the discomfort and stress we feel and allow our strengths to resurface.

Consider that attention is divided between three types: Focused (so we can complete a particular task), Sustained (so we can motivate ourselves to accomplish future goals) and Selective (so we can cut out distractions and minimize negative thoughts that diminish our effectiveness).

Each type of attention has a different role but on the whole they all contribute to us selecting what is important to us (which means we are emotionally motivated to do it) and what keeps us looking towards the horizon where our future self is to be found. This approach also helps make us more resilient. Because we more actively choose what to give our attention to, we tend to not be as adversely impacted by the negativity of our environment. Something which, during a pandemic year, is more desirable than ever.

As usual, there is a lot more, deeper, research behind all this from the fields of social psychology and neuroscience that I am glossing over. So, please feel free to ask any questions, as always. I hope this helps you all understand why you feel the way you do sometimes and how to use that knowledge to better manage your emotions and motivation.