Motivation Myth #1

Let’s bust some myths about motivation.

Here’s the first myth: Motivation is supposed to be like a big secret. It’s something somebody else out there has, and you don’t, something elusive, mystical, a mythical super-quality carried by super-speakers and super-coaches, something people are maybe born with. You have to have charisma, and if you don’t, you can’t do it. We’ve fallen in love with this idea that a lucky few are born with mystical super-qualities, and we think it’s like being an artist, which is code for “that’s not me”. That last part is the myth.

It may seem off topic but bear with me for a minute because we’re coming back to motivation, I promise. To bust the myth, we have to look at what it means to practice an art.

Who knows that General Custer nearly failed West Point? That he was at the bottom of his graduating class?

Was he a bad strategist? Arrogant? Poor grades in tactics? Did he have Badly grammar? No. it’s because Custer refused to learn how to draw. Not his firearm: I’m talking about draftsmanship. Back then there was no such thing as photography. You couldn’t stick a camera on a satellite and fly it overhead to see if the enemy had weapons of mass destruction. An officer on the front line had to be able to see what the situation was and draw, yes, with lines and shading and all that mystical art stuff, draw the battlefield accurately and quickly to dispatch a scout over to their commanding officer to give a report and then get instructions. To be an officer in the United States Army, sketching was a must. Not a mythical thing, it was something they knew you could learn to do and assumed you would learn to do if you wanted to succeed. It didn’t mean majoring in art, but you could get the job done when it was time to represent reality in two dimensions with pencil on paper. What I understand from a little research on Custer is that he thought there were only two places in a class, the head and the foot. He later became known as a great self-promoter, someone who could always find a way to get himself in the news. Being the head of the class is noteworthy, but requires a lot of effort and brown nosing. He was bound and determined not to be the head, so he earned himself 726 demerits in 4 years at West Point, that’s one roughly every other day. I’m fictionalizing his character now to make a point: Why should I learn to draw? I’m a winner, drawing is for planners and organizers and people too scared to just act. Sending reports to the commanding officer is for people who can’t figure it out themselves. Besides, I’m going to be a General. People will report to me, they’ll be serving me, I’ll be in charge. I won’t have to report to others. Drawing is for second-rate, second-tier commanders, middle management… those guys are all losers Good guys finish last. I am not a good guy, I’m the best.  Ok, I don’t know what his deal was, but we can guess. There was something he didn’t value about being able to draw. He was motivated by being well-known, a.k.a. notorious. It was more important. So he didn’t learn to draw!

What do we learn from that? First, that nobody thought the basic elements of drawing were hard to learn. There was no mystery about drawing in those days. Nobody thought art was a mystical thing only a few gifted people could do. But that idea was growing. Before TV and mass media, everyone danced at a party. After mass media, everyone said “I can’t dance like Fred Astaire, so I won’t dance at all”. You’re missing out! Some will do it with more beauty than others. Chef Gordon Ramsay plating food makes it more interesting than me nuking a burrito – but I can cook, okay.

You can learn the basic elements of drawing or cooking, if you want to. We’re going to see that motivating people works that way too. It has very little to do with having a big-stage personality. In fact, sometimes that big-stage personality doesn’t work as well with normal people. Are you aware Michael Jordan ended up being a lousy basketball executive, he couldn’t put a team together because all he understood was superstardom? Have you ever met a sales manager who was massively successful as a salesperson but they couldn’t understand why half their team wasn’t breaking records every quarter?

We’re very progressive as humans, which is why we now believe that not only drawing,  dancing and cooking but motivation, as well, are in the realm of the mystical and artistic and require a super-human to do it. I bet you know some names of motivational speakers who are more famous than I am. But it’s a myth that you need a superstar with personal charisma out the roof. My assumption is like West Point’s assumption about learning to draw: The best motivators are pretty normal people and they understand the struggle the average person on their team is dealing with. They might not even be team leaders, but they’re going to be motivating others by the end of the day, and that’s going to motivate them in return. The process for motivating superstars isn’t different. But if you can motivate normal people, your superstars will get inspired by that!



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The author lives in Goshen, Indiana with his wife and four children. He is self-employed as a leadership coach working with business executives, writers and other artists, and spiritual leaders. His clients enjoy business growth, increased vision and purpose, work/family lifestyle balance, and freedom from writer’s block.

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