Motivation: Internal, External, and Why You Need To Figure It Out

Good morning everyone.

So many of the things I write have an idea that gets birthed in a conversation where at some point I’ve reached a critical mass of frustration or passion.

For many years, I have considered myself a man driven by passions. I have a love for a thing, so I go do that thing. I get excited to learn something, and I go pick up books and find information and immerse myself in it. It’s how I’ve learned a lot of things, and I don’t think that will ever be a bad outcome.  As I’ve gotten older, as I’ve slowed down, I’ve noticed that by following passion more than anything else, I’ve built a hopscotch pattern of discarded efforts and attempts. It’s not something I’m proud of.

When something starts passionate, I find that it can wear off quickly, when it gets difficult or when something new and shiny comes along. And I, somewhat blindly, jump to the next thing after finding some way to rationalize whatever investment I made in the last thing. In the past, this has led to arguments and discussions alike as to my maturity, as if this is a phase I’m supposed to grow out of, as if part of settling down means the cooling of passion into sort of an acceptance of whatever is in front of you. I’ve always felt that through that lens, passion is something for children, not adults. This conflicts with my thinking that a lot of the passions you have require that you be an adult, both in terms of affording the pursuit, but even the more realistic sense that you need to be tall enough to reach things on shelves or be able to do things without a permission slip.

Breaking this down, putting the newness or excitement about a thing aside (it doesn’t matter if we’re talking a new book, television show, video game, project to work on, or whatever) I start to think about how motivation and passion co-mingle. I think the two intertwine and merge, like highways, carrying us forward through life experiences. Maybe that’s the inner Romantic in me. Maybe that is childish. I couldn’t, and frankly don’t want to say.

What is motivation? Where does it come from? Where can it come from?

This droid had a bad motivator. Don't be this droid, else a farmboy will whine.

This droid had a bad motivator. Don’t be this droid, else a farmboy will whine.

Motivation is the want to do something. That’s all. We can dress it up and get very woo-woo over it, describing it as some quantum force of vibration that needs congruence with the capital-U Universe, and we can get biological about it and say it’s a bio-electric and chemical reaction to a thought, but that means we have to figure out what and how thought works. Because motivation starts with a thought. Your thought. And that’s the critical thing. You’re not going to be motivated without a thought.


A note here before we go further – we can’t talk motivation and have the ideas stick in our minds unless we can agree that honesty, even when painful, is essential for understanding motivations. You have to be willing to be honest with yourself, and that’s no small feat. This is likely not something that will be forever transformed permanently and perfectly because of a blog post, and I’m not looking to do that. I just want to get you thinking, get you moving, and get you challenging yourself. Okay, back to it.


There are two kinds of motivation, and this dichotomy fascinates me. The circumstances where both emerge, and the ways they disguise themselves as the other has become something of a focal point in my work as a coach and editor. I think we should do some defining before we go further.

Internal motivation is your feelings, thoughts, interests, and efforts to do a thing for yourself, or for some reason you supply. Maybe it’s sating a need like having a meal, maybe it’s going to bed, but no matter what the activity is, the itch for it gets scratched because you start a chain of events to accomplish that task. When we create a thing, internal motivation partners with discipline to put our butts in the seat and create, even when so many other things could distract us. For me, internal motivation trumps nearly everything else, even if external motivation seems more intense.

It is internal motivation that sits at the base of wanting to do a thing, of wanting to see that book in-hand or on-shelf. It is internal motivation to commit to the craft, even if external motivation is what it may take to get you started, but we’ll talk about that in a second. I believe that everyone has the capacity to be internally motivated to some degree, and that what catalyzes that is (and should be) different for everyone. I’m driven for my own reasons, just as you are for yours. We may have some overlaps, but we can distinguish our drives from the other.

I write and create because I feel better about myself when I do. That’s not something someone pointed out to me, that’s something I discovered in the eighth grade when I wrote a story about a man taking on the mafia. I edit and coach and help people develop things because it makes me feel useful and good and it seems to be the best thing I’ve ever done in my life today, and again, that was a self discovery. No one can divorce or disintegrate those reasons and those moments of decision from me. The external motivations have and likely will change again, or a dozen agains in my lifetime, but I can always count on the internals.

The external motivations lure us towards effort by bringing stress or expectation. We have to do this thing so that we can make money so that we can keep the lights on. We have to do this thing because a teacher and class expect us to this. We do this to make other people proud of us. We do this so that we can call ourselves members of a group, and it’s important that we have a sense of membership and belonging.

There’s nothing wrong with having external factors motivate you. We all have them, and I think as we get older, and navigate the waters of adult life, they outnumber the internal motivations. But do not confuse quantity for quality. Just because there are more does not make them superior. I leave it to you as how you decide which are superior, though I will give you a hint: look for the satisfaction.

Would you, for yourself, be satisfied with your efforts because they’re done, or because you did this thing so that someone is off your back? Yes, sure, you might be relieved to have someone leaving you alone and not pressuring you to go faster or do something urgently, but is relief the same thing as satisfaction? In your quiet moments, when there isn’t a pressure exerted on you, how do you feel about what you’re doing?

External motivations are ephemeral. You have certain ones based on the job you’re doing, or from the specific circumstances at the time. A parent’s motivations evolve along with their child. As a writer, the motivations to start a project are different from those to continue or conclude a project. The problem with anything ephemeral is that you lose perspective. These issues don’t seem as momentary or as motile as other things in life, so we inflate them and treat them only in their larger and scarier states. And then, when things vanish as ephemeral things are wont to do, you’re left with this sort of void to fill, which naturally leads you to find some other temporary motivator.

Is this good? Is this bad? That’s not for anyone who isn’t you to decide. Yes, we can all have opinions about how someone gets motivated, but ultimately, it’s not our circus and those are not our monkeys.

I lean away from framing motivation as good and bad, and see it now as helpful versus not-as-helpful. Knowing I have to write because people benefit from help is more comforting to me than knowing I have to write because the silence is frightening. Yes, I want to work to support myself and a family one day, but what I do for that work is up to me, and I am at a point in my life where as a follower of passion, I cannot easily settle without making sure I’ve taken my shot.

You can go ahead and blame @snarkbat and @d20Blonde on Twitter for exposing me to Hamilton.

You can go ahead and blame @snarkbat and @d20Blonde on Twitter for exposing me to Hamilton.

It may be tempting to judge someone’s motivation, thinking it will give us a sense of certainty, that through comparison we’ll find where we rank. But, question whether we need to rank in the first place. Why are we competing? What’s the prize? Do the other people know we’re competing?

Spend some time making a list of motivations, then sort out the external from the internal. It may prove tricky because the internals might really be externals you’ve just really buried and bought into for so long, and maybe you won’t even be able to tell the difference with some of things that motivate you, and that’s okay.

Are you motivated? Good. Then go relentlessly, furiously, aggressively, smartly, thoroughly towards whatever your goals are. Run into an obstacle? Educate and train yourself so that you can adapt and keep going forward. Run into doubters, critics, and haters? Don’t let them taint your efforts with their negativity. Keep moving forward. Keep working.

Keep writing.

We’ll talk Wednesday, see you then.

Sniping The Doubt

So many of you have come to this blog after my guest spot yesterday on Chuck Wendig’s blog, and I truly hope that you find my mix of writing advice, mental health discussion, random nerdery, and occasional food/life-based things to be worth your valuable time. I don’t camouflage much of my life, which has good and bad elements to it, so please know, new people, that my aim is not to offend or shock – I’m just happier showing all the ups and downs and bumps and bruises and fears and joys that come with living and working as a creator, editor, and writer of stuff. 

One of my new favorite video games is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. For those who don’t know, it’s a game about a Rambo-esque soldier running all over the Afghan and African countryside in the mid-80s while shooting Communists. There’s a rather deep and confusing backstory to the whole series of games involving clones and giant robots, but none of that is relevant for what I’m talking about today.

While still early on in the game, you get the chance to obtain a sniper rifle. It’s not a very fancy one, it’s loud and not that strong, but it’s a chance to shoot those jerks from long distance. The game prizes stealth and staying undetected while wreaking your bloody and bullet-fueled maelstrom through the land, so it’s a risky proposition to fire such a loud gun and expose yourself to return fire.

But damn if it isn’t absolutely satisfying to watch some digital pinko drop. For ‘Murica. Or something.

You’d think the game wouldn’t be one I enjoy, since it’s tense and requires patience. But yes, the guy with the terminal heart condition happens to enjoy the occasional foray into I’m-a-badass-ville and he’s learning to be patient, mostly.

So I’m laying there on this rock, zoomed in on the dome of some fortress guard, and I can feel my heart churn under my ribs. My palms are sweaty. I trying my best not to drop the controller and give up. I aim. I squeeze the trigger button. The dude collapses. I forget for a minute that every other badguy around knows where I am as I dance on the couch. Many “Oh shit” and “Run stupid, run”s later and I’m safe to try again.

It strikes me that this is also pretty close to my approach with writing and making things. Maybe it’s close to your approach too:

1. I get very excited that I’m going to do a new thing, and that potentially it could be super successful.

2. I get very worried that instead of being super successful, it’s going to be super awful, and I’ll have to try and find a part-time job selling pillows and towels again in order to cover my medical bills.

3. I start to plan what I’m going to do. I watch videos, I read blogs, I take notes, i crib shamelessly from other people.

4. I start to panic that what they’re doing, even if I modify it, will never work for me, and that I’ll never figure out how to make it work.

5. I organize all the thoughts and plans into one cohesive storm-the-French-beaches battleplan.

6. I stare at the battleplan a while. I go do other stuff and manufacture reasons to keep from going forward with my plan. I wait for the “right moment” or “a sign”.

7. I get angry with myself for not being more successful or more accomplished.

8. I get angry with myself for getting angry with myself, remind myself that I am supposed to be avoiding stress like that, and continue not going forward with my plan.

9. I talk, complain, bitch at, lament, moan, gripe, and crab with other people about my plan. I hear them get excited for me. It makes me think, just for a second, that we’re talking about some other human who clearly has the potential to be very successful.

10. I go start my plan.

In those moments where I’m not saying yes to the plan, where I’m not taking action, I’m the sniper watching the guy through the scope. My hands are sweaty, I’m really eager to start doubting myself. I’m all set not to shoot the badguy, but to tell myself how this is going to suck even if I do shoot him.

I don’t like that part of myself. I recognize that it’s essential, that it’s a critical facet for building a whole me as a maker of good stuff, but I don’t like the volume (quantity and loudness) of the doubt that can geyser up to slow me down.

For whatever reason, I forget that I’m the one holding the rifle. I forget that I’m the one who can actually do something about the doubt. Yes, sure, I can walk away from all the plans. I can give up editing. I can give up working, get on state financial assistance and spend my remaining time in some sub-standard medical gulag. Or I could shoot the doubt in the face.

Right. In. The. Face.

I don’t know if my plans will work. I don’t know if I’ll keep any new followers on social media. I don’t know if I’ll say something and people will go running for the hills. I don’t know if I’ll complain one too many times about my health or healthcare and people will write me off (there’s a pun there somewhere). But I do it anyway.

Because just like my digital Rambo can’t let the Commies win, I sure as hell am not going to let the doubt win.

Who knows if I’ll succeed. If I don’t, I’m right back to how I was before – still functional, still pretty happy, still owning an awesome dog, wearing an awesome bath robe and surrounded by so many amazing and great people.

It doesn’t matter what your plan is. It’s what you want to do. You can make a plan to accomplish anything, so long as you’re disciplined enough to work at it, and willing to reward yourself for progress as passionately as you are willing to demonize yourself for shortcomings. It’s hard, all this stuff is hard, but the good things are supposed to be hard. It’s how we grow. It’s how we reach new heights and learn to keep reaching, never complacent, never resting on laurels. It’s how we put people on the moon. It’s how we sent robots to other planets. It’s how we learned to make nachos and paint toenails.

Shoot your doubt. And don’t worry, you have unlimited ammo.

Happy writing.