More Research on Staying Motivated

I read an article in Scientific American the other day (Nov 2012, Daisy Yuhas) that I thought I’d share. I talk a lot about motivation primarily because I think it’s an interesting concept, but also because I’m always trying to find it and hold onto it myself. The article outlines three elements identified by research that are important for sustaining motivation. I figure they’re worth knowing, so I’ll share them here:

The first one is Autonomy. This one was interesting to me because I had never really thought about it before. I talk a lot about the importance of finding or developing an intrinsic vs. extrinsic payoff for sticking with a task – which I still believe to be true – but I’ve learned that that’s not the whole story. It turns out that regardless of whether you engage in an activity for the internal or external reward, the more important thing is that you feel a sense of control over the task. You need to feel that you’re in charge.

The second element, according to the article, is Value. This one wasn’t a surprise: I think it just makes sense that the more you believe in or value something, the more willing and able you’ll be to see it through.

The final element mentioned is Competence. To me this speaks to the cultivation of an intrinsic reward system: the better you get at something, the more rewarding is to do it. And the more rewarding something is, the easier it is to stick with it. We all like doing things we’re good at; the key is doing something long enough to develop a sense of mastery over it.

Think about the elements outlined above, and how they might apply to you and your own motivation. How can you gain a sense of autonomy in everything you do? What parts of the task can you identify that align with your values and beliefs? When you’re feeling unmotivated, can you remind yourself that the better you get at it the easier it will become to stick with it?

The important thing to remember, though, is that things like Autonomy, Value, and Competence are just words until you really make the effort to discover, create, manipulate, and use them successfully wherever you need a motivation boost. Often times this means creating a shift in perspective and being willing to see things in a new way. It’s about digging, stretching, and seeing the bigger picture. Every action you take, whether a one-time thing or a sustained effort, adds up to something bigger. Also know that this will always be a work in progress and that motivation has to be reinvented every day, with every endeavour.

The Secret to Success in Life

We know that there’s no true secret to success in life; but we’re all searching for a way to make it happen. Success can be defined in many different ways; and it’s our personal value system that defines it for each one of us. However you define success, though, there are some things we know to be true:

One is that in order to be successful you have to work at it consistently; there is no quick and easy road. Another is the fact that opportunity plays a big role: it doesn’t matter how hard we work if there is nothing for us to capitalize on. (Often times these opportunities are hidden from our direct consciousness; but they are there nonetheless.)

The other big thing we need to be successful is the willingness and ability to focus on our strengths.

I think this is a tricky one because we’re not always taught to do this. As kids in school we were expected to become proficient in many different areas; whether we showed an aptitude for them or not. (Granted, I realize that a child needs to be exposed to a broad array of knowledge in order to function well in society – but why does he have to struggle year after year to learn something he’ll never use? Wouldn’t his time and energy be put to better use through learning and practicing in the areas of his strengths and talents?)

But that’s a philosophical discussion for another time. My point is that fostering success through focusing on our strengths doesn’t always come easily: we’re not always given the opportunity to learn to know our strengths so that we can act upon them.

So to help this process, here are five cues from the research of Donald Clifton and Paula Nelson for identifying your strengths or true talents (as found in their book, “Soar with Your Strengths”):


Yearning: Which types of activities are you naturally drawn toward?

Rapid Mastery/Quick Learning: Which types of activities do you seem to pick up quickly?

Flow: In which activities do the steps come to you naturally and automatically?

Glimpses of Excellence: What were you doing when you did something extremely well and asked yourself “How did I do that?”

Satisfaction: From which activities do you derive the greatest amount of pleasure?


Think about these questions seriously. Are these the things you’re focusing on in your work and/or life? Are you putting in the time needed to gain expertise in these areas? Would an increased focus on these things cause you to feel more contented, balanced, and successful?

Personal Growth and Development

I’ve been reading some Ken Wilber lately; refamiliarizing myself with his theories after some time away. If you’re not familiar with his work I highly suggest checking it out. It’s really fascinating stuff.

Here’s a snapshot of a couple of his ideas that you can think about in the context of your ongoing personal growth: The four quadrants and the lines of development…

One important thing to keep in mind when we’re doing our internal work, according to Wilber, is that the intentional world of the individual (i.e., what’s happening on the inside) needs to be taken in context with the behavioral, cultural, and social worlds.

Each of these four quadrants, as he calls them (intentional, behavioral, cultural, and social), interacts with one another and cannot be separated. In other words, what you feel, think, experience, etc. is directly impacted by what you do; as well as by the expectations and norms of the culture and society in which you’re immersed – and vica versa.

Similarly, no one quadrant can be reduced to the other; as modern science tries to do (according to Wilber) by focusing only on the directly observable world at the expense of the subjective world of the individual.

Another piece of Wilber’s view is the idea that development takes place along numerous, relatively independent lines; and that some lines might be more developed than others. For example, he writes, a sociopath might be highly developed cognitively, but not so much morally. Similarly, we here stories all the time about men of the cloth who are presumably quite developed along the line of spirituality, but not so much in other areas important to ethical behavior and impulse control.

I’m drawn to these models because they offer me a clearer and more comprehensive way of understanding myself and the world. They help me remember that all things are interconnected; a well as identify where I can best focus my efforts at any given time for my own continuing development.

If you decide to check these theories out (or if you already know and love or hate them), I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Honoring Your Personal Evolution

Who I was twenty years ago is certainly not who I am today. Or so I used to like to think…

When I look back at myself at that time I see someone with a pretty different set of ideals, values, beliefs, and ways of being in the world. And quite frankly, I like today’s me much better. But what I’ve learned, through lots of self-reflection, is that trying to deny who I was back then was causing me to be inauthentic. And as a person who values authenticity, I’ve had to reexamine this practice:

How we internalize things dictates the formation of our beliefs and values; and consequently how we show up in the world at different times in our lives. Said another way (to borrow from Claire Graves’ Spiral Dynamics research), our experiences and the way we process them continually shape and reshape our psychological structures, value systems, and modes of adaptation.

So who we are today doesn’t differ from who we were yesterday: we’ve always been the same person wrapped in ever-growing layers of our own evolution. As philosopher Ken Wilber points out, human beings – like any other organism – develop in a holararchical fashion: meaning that each new level of the organism transcends and includes it junior. In other words, we’re not designed to disown parts of ourselves. Like atoms to molecules to cells to tissues, each previous part is not discarded, but reconfigured and integrated into the new more evolved whole. This works the same way on all levels that make us human; not just the physical.

If we try to disown any of these layers, or aspects of our selves, we find ourselves having to recreate the past in order to keep a cohesive story. Because as human beings we’re always trying to piece together the Gestalt of our lives: we need continuity in order for things to make sense.

And of course we do this all the time: when we tell the story of who we are and how we’ve arrived, we naturally embellish some parts, readjust others, and completely exclude the rest. Naturally a bit of this doesn’t hurt, but too much makes us inauthentic: when we tell these stories, even as we come to believe them ourselves, we’re not living as our true selves when we’re drawing from a false base.

Granted, it can be wise to forget about certain pieces of our past – but only if you truly see them as toxic experiences that attempt to derail you from being your happy and authentic self. For example, if someone has treated you badly in the past, one of the most helpful things you can strive to do is forgive, forget, and move on (however you can make that happen). This might be the best strategy if you find yourself ruminating about it to the point where your anger or fear does not allow you to find happiness or move forward with your life in a healthy, satisfying way.

On the other hand, if you can acknowledge the hurt and anger but identify that the experience has moved you in a stronger direction, you might not want to try to dismiss it. It might be healthier to see the experience as a piece of your past that’s helped shaped the person you are today. Maybe it’s allowed you to be stronger and wiser in some way. In this way, and if appropriate, you could remember and honor the you in the past who carried and managed this discomfort; so that the you of today can continue to carry out the work you do, live the life you live, and share the things you give back to the world.

This really has to do with honoring all parts of yourself at a “higher level”: a more adaptive, integrated, healthy, and purposeful acknowledgement of who you are. It’s about acknowledging your own evolution, and about integrating and building upon all aspects of your previous beliefs and experiences. It’s about learning to accept who you are; and making the conscious decision to build upon your positive aspects while adapting, adjusting, and integrating in a healthy way the other aspects that are no longer serving you well.

So I’ve learned that I really am the same person I was twenty years ago: just a better, updated version. I’ve also learned that I wouldn’t be the version I am today if I didn’t think what I thought, did what I did, and learned what I had learned along the way!

How to Make Good Decisions

If you’re thinking about how to make good decisions in your life, you might want to explore some strategic planning models.

Truth be told, I don’t know a lot about strategic planning – but the one thing that’s always stuck with me is this: “The cardinal rule is to take the path that allows you to change course if your initial decision proves wrong”.

This is a very powerful statement I think, as it speaks to being proactive and thoughtful about our choices. Many of us (including myself for many years) are too passive about the decisions we make that determine where we end up. Granted, there’s something to be said for “going with the flow”, or trusting the idea that things will work out the way they should. But the problem is that when we take the time to reflect on our lives, we see that things don’t always turn out the way we had hoped they would.

They say that hindsight is 20-20, and unfortunately the choices we could have made are much clearer than the decisions we’re faced with at present. But if you believe that every little choice can alter the events of our lives in some way, you’ll agree that as hard as it is sometimes it would probably pay to be more deliberate with our decisions.

Whenever we’re faced with a set of circumstances that demands a decision between two or more courses of action, the first thing we need to do is get out of our own way. In other words, we need to truthfully examine our own anxieties, assumptions, and self-imposed limitations, and toss them aside. Decisions are easy to make if they’re based on fear: we simply choose the easy way out to avoid any discomfort. But this most often isn’t the best decision in the long run.

The second thing we need to do is examine the realities of the situation: “What’s really possible?” “What’s really the potential impact of this decision over the other?”

Then when we see a situation as clearly as we can, reasonably free from the clouds of subjectivity, we can return to the cardinal rule of strategic planning: “If I make this decision and it doesn’t go so well, how difficult would it be to course-correct and choose a different path?” Of course following this logic doesn’t automatically guarantee success – but if we do need to shift gears, we end up saving a lot of precious time and effort by having thought it through the first time around.

How To Set Goals

We hear all the time that setting goals is crucial to one’s success. But recently there’s been some backlash against this, arguing that goal-setting can be detrimental because we tend to set unachievable goals, as well as miss other opportunities because we are hyper-focused on achieving that one thing.

(But then there’s the opposite problem of becoming too flexible: changing course like the wind and following every shining ball that happens to bounce by…)

As with anything, there’s a happy medium. Of course setting goals is important: we can’t get to where we want to be unless we know where it is we’re going and how we’re going to get there. But on the same token, we know that the only constant in life is change and that circumstances are fluid.

The bottom line, then, is that we need to have a clear idea of what we want and how we’re planning to achieve it; but we also need to flexible and be willing to adjust along the way as we gather new information and fall upon unexpected experiences.

Said another way, the key to successful goal-setting and execution is to have a clear picture of what you want – while understanding that certain elements of that picture may look different by the time you get there.

You can develop this picture by being clear on your values, and by identifying how it is you want to feel. With every choice you’re faced with in life, check to see what aligns most closely to your values and how the decision is most likely to affect your quality of life. Then see how the decision fits into your overall goal and see what needs to be adjusted!

Life Balance

We hear the term “life balance” a lot – but what does it really mean? And how do we find and maintain it?

I think there are two answers to these questions. The first has to do with looking at the various roles and responsibilities in our lives; and accurately and honestly assessing how we’re establishing our priorities and directing our energy. The second, I believe, has to do with recognizing and managing our internal conflicts.

I like to think that we’re never truly “balanced” – but that at any given time we’re either moving toward balance or moving away from it. Moving toward balance means taking the time daily to take stock of our tasks, sorting out what’s most important, and working our way through the list – while continuously and effectively monitoring and adjusting the energy and time we’re devoting to each one. If we feel reasonable healthy on all levels, its probably safe to say we’re moving toward balance.

It also helps to do this mindfully: we see and assess things more accurately and effectively if we’re really “present” in all of our actions and interactions. It’s easy to engage mindlessly in doing the things we need to do, and in being the people we need to be – but successfully “checking everything off the list” doesn’t necessarily mean we’re moving toward balance. When we act in a rote and mindless manner we become disengaged from our emotional and spiritual selves. And we can’t experience a move toward true balance without those.


The Winner’s Brain

I’ve been reading a fair bit lately about neuroplasticity: about how our thoughts, behaviors, and experiences literally shape the neural, chemical, and physical structures of our brains – molding them into more or less effective drivers of our physical and mental health and success.

One of the things I just finished reading is a book called “The Winner’s Brain”, and here a few things in the book that stood out for me:

1. I talk a lot about the importance of soliciting feedback – simply because of the fact that we don’t know what we don’t know. But what I learned in this book is that the parts of your brain that are involved with proficiency of a task are also the same parts involved in proficiency awareness. In other words, there’s a very real reason why we may be bad at something and not even know it! Hence the importance of feedback.

2. I’m a real proponent of “showing up in the world as our true selves” – but also that adjusting to different situations by calling upon different versions, or personas, of our selves can be appropriate and beneficial. The authors of the book acknowledge this, but also state that narrowing the gap between our public and private selves allows us to judge our social interactions more accurately, as well as cause others to see us as more confident and authentic people. A good reminder to not take our adaptive skills too far.

3. I write a lot about ways of cultivating and fostering motivation, but I’ve also learned that motivation has a lot to do with removing barriers as opposed to solely focusing on pushing forward with what you have. Makes good sense.

4. I also focus a lot on the field of positive psychology and the documented benefits of a positive perspective or disposition. The thing that really stood out to me in this regard is the authors’ conclusion that “happiness precedes success”. An elegant little statement, confirmed by solid research, highlighting the fact that we can choose to be happy – and that we’ll experience greater levels of success by doing so.

5. Last but not least, and I say this all the time, exercise and meditation is really where it’s at. The book confirmed again what we know to be true: that if you do nothing else to take charge of your own destiny, the best thing you can do is exercise and meditate.

These five points are not all the authors say about shaping your brain for better health and success; but they’re the things that jumped out at me at this particular point in time. I’d encourage you to do your own research about what else is being discovered, and about how and why these sorts of things work. (Naturally, a great place to start would be picking up the book.)

But at the very least, try focusing more on the five things outlined above, and see what kind of difference they make to your life!

There is one caveat, though: these things take time and practice to really make a difference. Remember, we’re talking about literally reshaping and modifying the brain on a physical and chemical level. Developing more adaptive perspectives and behaviors certainly creates some quick and powerful gains; but sustaining these gains requires persistence and work!

(Don’t be afraid of the work, though – just keep it fun… Remember the point about staying positive 🙂

Career Satisfaction

For those of us who work for a living, for ourselves or for someone else, career satisfaction is something we’d most definitely like to achieve. And career satisfaction is certainly an achievable goal – but it’s important that the term “satisfaction” be defined correctly for each one of us.

In other words, if you want career satisfaction, you first need to identify what this really means to you. There is no empirical right or wrong: however you define career satisfaction is up to you. As long as it’s done honestly, is what’s right for you.

For example, do you equate career satisfaction with complete happiness in every way, shape, and form? Or would you be happy to make X amount of dollars despite the actual work you do – i.e., would it be worth the grind in order to be able to live the lifestyle you want to live?

Does career satisfaction mean that you would actually enjoy going to your job every day? Does it mean that you have good relationships at work? Does it mean that you receive a sense of fulfillment and contribution through your work?

Chances are, being happy in your career means a combination of the things listed above; in addition to other factors that only you can identify.

If you expect complete utopia in your career, for example, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. But on the other hand, maybe not: there are people who love every aspect of their career because that’s how they’ve decided to approach their lives and work. They try to always take the good with the bad, and they try to see opportunity in adversity. They always look for the silver lining in discouraging situations; and they’re able to identify and be grateful for the lessons learned.

Others love their career because they’ve taken the time to be clear on what they value and what they need from their work; as well as what they will and will not tolerate. They’ve carved out their work environments in response to this awareness.

So, yes, career satisfaction is an achievable goal. But only you know what you’re capable of creating for yourself in response to your own self-worth, clarity, ability, and desire; and to the reality of the opportunities and obstacles in your environment. It’s up to you to define your happiness, and it’s up to you to go after it!

What is Your Leadership Style?

What is you leadership style?

The study of leadership is certainly not a new one, and there are almost too many theories to count. A quick internet search, however (, identifies that most of the different leadership theories that have emerged over the years can be classified into a handful of major types:

“Great Man” Theories
Trait Theories
Contingency Theories
Situational Theories
Behavioral Theories
Parcipitative Theories
Relationship Theories/Transformational Leadership
Management theories/Transactional Leadership.

There are various theories and models listed under each type, and they’re well worth looking into. The style of leadership you adopt can either be a success or a failure, depending upon a myriad of factors: what works with one personality in one environment may not work in the next. Understanding the theories listed above (and any others floating around out there) can help you clarify what you believe to be true about leadership, and how you might best approach your own leadership development.

Within any of these theories, however, the individual leader and his or her preferences also need to be taken into account. In addition to the leadership theories that have been studied, there are also many leadership “styles” listed in the literature. Again, a quick internet search identifies some of the more common ones discussed:

Autocratic or Authoritarian Leadership

Participative or Democratic Leadership

Laissez-Faire Leadership

Servant Leadership

Transactional Leadership

Transformational Leadership

Situational Leadership

Again, these appear to be some the most prominent; but there are other leadership styles identified in the literature that would be worth researching for yourself. I’ve included these ones in particular for two reasons: one because they seem to have the most written about them; and two because these are the styles I see most often in my own leadership coaching practice.

Unfortunately I see examples of Authoritarian Leadership more often than I’d like; where the leader makes decisions unilaterally and often unfairly. And outside of military or paramilitary organizations, this never works. The other styles listed can be more or less effective depending on the environment, culture, and people involved; and you’d be wise to know the difference.

Transformative Leadership is one of the more contemporary styles to be identified, and is often touted as one of the most effective. It is about inspiring others and sharing a greater vision. This type of leadership is great, of course; but it’s often best balanced by a Transactional Leadership style based on role compliance and incentives for achievement. Of the styles listed above, my own bias falls toward Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership; where the leader is able to adjust his or style in response to the unique situation or task at hand.

So what is your leadership style?