Answer this truthfully…are you really living your life? Or are you pretty good at existing, flowing with, and reacting to things as they happen? Better yet, are you steering at the helm with a sense of personal responsibility, or are you sitting in the passenger seat, letting others decide for you?
Whatever your answer is, it’s OK. You’re human, and you’re most certainly not perfect. None of us are, but no one wants to be life’s victim, and no one wants to hang out with one either, so if you are playing the character that blames their circumstances instead of taking responsibility as a key player in your own story, then here’s your wake-up call.
You have the luxury of deciding who you want to be every single day you wake up. From the minute you open your eyes in the morning, you have the ability to decide who you’re going to be that day. It’s the people who have mastered the art of living happily and peacefully that have cracked this code, the ones who wake up content and taking responsibility for their lives. That might feel like worlds away from how you’re feeling, but it’s all about taking a different perspective.
Want to see what this looks like? Keep reading and find out how to change your perspective and start taking personal responsibility for how your life looks.
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Personal Responsibility and Self-Actualization
Humans that are content, living as the best version of themselves and holding themselves accountable for their happiness are what psychologist Abraham Maslow calls living as “fully human.” You’ve probably seen Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs pyramid somewhere in your life because it’s a leading human behavior theory explaining the motivations behind us as humans.
People have always struggled with the idea of “self-actualization” (i.e. being fully human) sitting at the top of the pyramid, making it appear like an unattainable peak that few will ever reach. However, that wasn’t Maslow’s intention; he didn’t actually create the pyramid. He wrote about a hierarchy, and someone else assumed it was a pyramid, and after all these years, we’re finding out what he really meant.
“In this choppy surf, a clunky pyramid is of little use. Instead, what is needed is something a bit more functional. We’ll need a sailboat.” -Scott Barry Kaufman
Humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman reworked and refreshed the pyramid based on the latest science in human behavior in his novel, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. Being fully human, Kaufman stressed, is about living in the moment, enjoying the ride, and doing what you love, because when you feel like you’re achieving your purpose, you feel aligned within yourself, and you’re able to make a meaningful contribution to the world.
Sounds good, right? Well, here’s how to edge closer to that stage.
Why You Need to Take Personal Responsibility
When you set sail, you don’t set off without a direction or destination in mind, right?
Life is the same, though a lot of us are out there living aimless lives and consequently falling prey to the grips of anxiety and depression. This is why it’s super important to have an aim or direction, a North Star to head towards, which shouldn’t be confused with materialistic goals, like getting rich or buying that house.
If you’ve ever lived the “I’ll be happy when” life, you’ll know it’s a tough lesson to learn when you find out that you never feel genuinely happy because the goalpost keeps moving. It’s also key to make life decisions yourself because living someone else’s life is a sure-fire way to end up unhappy.
What you need to do is find a balance between deciding what direction will lead you to be your best self and making sure that you’re enjoying everyday life.
“The hard part is really living in the moment and being able to sail through life without the end in mind. Just like it takes courage to open your sail on a sailboat and see where the winds will take you, it takes a lot of courage to become the best version of yourself.” -Scott Barry Kaufman
What Is the Best Version of You?
Aiming to be the best version of yourself is all about acceptance. You need to be able to accept the good with the bad, accept the shadow, and all the things that hide and cower in the dark. Uncover the darkness by giving it some light.
If you’ve had a rough childhood or suffered trauma, if you feel aimless or lost at sea, whatever it is, you have to accept a portion of responsibility for where you are. You’re not responsible for the beliefs you hold based on things people have told you, but you are responsible for dealing with them.
People who take responsibility for their lives and their weaknesses, and choose to spend their life developing and improving on the healthy, positive aspects are the ones who show courage. Climb up the mast of your sailboat and rise above your own personal desires and feelings. You might just see that there are billions of other boats bobbing around out there, and some might need your help.
But you can’t help them until you’ve helped yourself.
How to Take Personal Responsibility
The road to learning how to take personal responsibility can be a difficult one, but start simple and then begin to tackle the more difficult aspects. Here are two steps you need to take based on the sailing metaphor we’ve been working with.
1. Secure the Hull (and the Sailor)
Just like the ocean, our life has many ups and downs, ebbs and flows, but having a solid sailboat means you can withstand the weather and hold course without capsizing or filling with water. The hull represents your basic needs, your non-negotiables required for a safe journey, which are: safety, self-esteem, and connection with others.
Check-in and ask yourself whether your basic needs are being met. Do you feel confident about who you are as a person? Do you struggle with willpower and motivation? Do you have enough connections with others?
You need to ask these questions in order to know where your liabilities are. They apply to all of us, and they could be the reasons your current journey isn’t much fun.
“No human being is exempt from the dire consequences of loneliness, and no other basic human need satisfaction can substitute for a deep connection.” -Abraham Maslow
Remember: You only get one sailboat and one journey, so you’ve got to make it count.
2. Open and Strengthen Your Sails
Maslow was all about not focusing and stressing too much on the destination. Yes, head in the right direction, but focus on enjoying the sail by finding purpose, peak experiences, and following that desire to explore.
When was the last time you took the courage to really open your sails? To be vulnerable and willing to fail? When was the last time you were in a flow state, in a moment where you were so engrossed in what you were doing that you forgot about your insecurities and worries, where you were just happy?
Maslow believed we all had our own form of peak experience:
“Whether an excellent athletic or music performance, creative experience, aesthetic perception, the love experience, sexual experience, childbirth, moments of insight and understanding, religious or mystical experience, or overcoming a profound challenge — it is any experience that comes close to perfection for that person.”
Being fully human means that you seek out new, challenging, and uncertain events to further develop yourself. Wouldn’t it be nice to raise the tide for the other boats and seize amazing opportunities? Imagine if you could just forget all about what’s negative and just focus on being in the moment.
If you don’t remember the last time you felt truly happy, if you feel uninspired or lost, if you feel like you’re on the wrong path, then start with the basics. Make sure your basic needs are being met before you move closer to self-actualization.
Look at the mistakes you’ve made it life, learn from them, and move on to doing bigger and better things. Once you learn how to live a life of personal responsibility, you’ll find your compass naturally points you in the direction of happiness and success.
More on Taking Personal Responsibility in Life
Motivation is one of the main reasons we do things — take an action, go to work (and sometimes overwork ourselves), create goals, exercise our willpower. There are two main, universally agreed upon types of motivation — intrinsic motivation (also known as internal motivation) and extrinsic motivation (external motivation).
The intrinsic kind is, by inference, when you do something because it’s internally fulfilling, interesting or enjoyable — without an expectation of a reward or recognition from others. Extrinsic motivation is driven by exactly the opposite — externalities, such as the promise of more money, a good grade, positive feedback, or a promotion.
And of course, we all know about the big debate about money. It’s surely an external driver, but is it possible that it can sometimes make us enjoy what we do more? A meta-analysis that reviewed 120 years of research found a weak link between job satisfaction and money.
And what’s more — there is some evidence to suggest that more money can actually have an adverse effect on your intrinsic motivation.
Regardless of its type, motivation is still important to get you moving, to improve, excel, and put that extra effort when you feel like you don’t have a single drop of energy left to keep going.
So, let’s see some of the best things you can do to keep the fire going, even when you’d rather just indulge in pleasant idleness.
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Why Intrinsic Motivation Tops Extrinsic Motivation
“To be motivated means to be moved to do something.”
Generally speaking, we all need motivation.
An avalanche of research, though, shows that when it comes to finding the lasting drive to “do something,” internal incentives are much more powerful than extrinsic rewards.
Why? It’s simple.
There is a great difference when you engage in something because “I want to,” as opposed to “I must.” Just think about the most obvious example there is: work.
If you go to work every day, dragging your feet and dreading the day ahead of you, how much enjoyment will you get from your job? What about productivity and results? Quality of work?
Yep, that’s right, you definitely won’t be topping the Employee of the Month list anytime soon.
The thing with external motivation is that it doesn’t last. It’s susceptible to something psychologists call Hedonic Adaptation. It’s a fancy way of saying that external rewards are not a sustainable source of happiness and satisfaction.
When you put in 100-hour weeks in order to get promoted, and you finally are, how long does your “high” last? The walking-on-a-cloud feelings wear off quickly, research tells us, making you want more. Therefore, you are stuck on a never-ending “hedonic treadmill,” i.e. you can progressively only become motivated by bigger and shinier things, just to find out that they don’t bring you the satisfaction you hoped for, when you finally get them.
Or, as the journalist and author Oliver Burkeman wonderfully puts it:
“Write every day” won’t work unless you want to write. And no exercise regime will last long if you don’t at least slightly enjoy what you’re doing.
If you want to find out more about the different types of motivation, take a look at this article: 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams
Benefits of Intrinsic Motivation
If you are still unconvinced that doing things solely for kudos and brownie points is not going to keep you going forever, nor make you like what you do, here is some additional proof:
Studies tell us that intrinsic motivation is a generally stronger predictor of job performance over the long run than extrinsic motivation.
One reason is that when we are internally driven to do something, we do it simply for the enjoyment of the activity. So, we keep going, day in and out, because we feel inspired, driven, happy, and satisfied with ourselves.
Another reason has to do with the fact that increasing intrinsic motivation is intertwined with things such as higher purpose, contributing to a cause, or doing things for the sake of something bigger than ourselves or our own benefit. A famous study done by the organizational psychologist Adam Grant is case in point.
By showing university fundraisers how the money donated by alumni can help financially struggling students to graduate from college, their productivity increased by 400% a week! The callers also showed an average increase of 142% in time spent on the phone and 171% increase in money raised.
Internal motivation has been found to be very helpful when it comes to academia, too. Research confirms that the use of external motivators, such as praise, undermine students’ internal motivation, and, in the long-run, it results in “slower acquisition of skills and more errors in the learning process.”
In contrast, when children are internally driven, they are more involved in the task at hand, enjoy it more, and intentionally seek out challenges.
Therefore, all the research seems to allude to one major revelation: intrinsic motivation is a must-have if you want to save yourself the drudgery we all sometimes feel when contemplating the things we should do or must do.
6 Ways to Enhance Your Intrinsic Motivation
So, how does one get more of the good stuff — that is, how do you become internally motivated?
There are many things you can do to become more driven. Here are the ones that top the list.
The theory of self-efficacy was developed by the American-Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura in 1982. Efficacy is our own belief in whether we can achieve the goals we set for ourselves. In other words, it’s whether we think we “got what it takes” to be successful at what we do.
It’s not hard to see the link of self-efficacy to higher self-esteem, better performance, and, of course, enhanced motivation. People with high self-efficacy are more likely to put extra effort in what they do, to self-set more challenging goals, and be more driven to improve their skills.
Therefore, the belief that we can accomplish something serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy — it motivates us to try harder to prove to ourselves that we can do it.
You can learn more about self-efficacy in this article: What Is Self Efficacy and How to Improve Yours
2. Link Your Actions to a Greater Purpose
Finding your “why” in life is incredibly important. This means that you need to be clear with yourself on why you do what you do and what drives you. What is intrinsically rewarding for you?
And no matter how mundane a task may be, it can always be linked to something bigger and better. Psychologists call this “reframing your narrative.”
Remember the famous story of John F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1961? As it goes, he met a janitor there and asked him what he did at NASA. The answer was:
“I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.”
Inspirational, isn’t it?
Re-phrasing how your actions can help others and leave a mark in the universe can be a powerful driver and a meaning-creator.
Volunteering is a great way to give back to the world. It can also help boost your internal motivation by making you feel important in supporting the less fortunate, learning new skills, feeling good about yourself, or linking to some of your inner values, such as kindness and humanitarianism.
When you remove any external reward expectations and do something for the pure joy and fulfilment of improving others’ lives, then you are truly intrinsically motivated.
4. Don’t Wait Until You “Feel Like It” to Do Something
A great piece in the Harvard Business Review points out that when we say things as “I can’t make myself go to the gym” or “I can’t get up early,” what we actually mean is that we don’t feel like it. There is nothing that psychically prevents us from doing those things, apart from our laziness.
But here’s the thing: You don’t have to “feel like it” in order to take action.
Sometimes, it so happens that you may not want to do something in the beginning, but once you start, you get into the flow and find your intrinsic motivation.
For instance, you don’t feel like going to the gym after a long day at work. Rather than debating in your head for hours “for and against” it, just go. Tell yourself that you will think about it later. Once in the gym, surrounded by similar souls, you suddenly won’t fee that tired or uninspired.
Another way to overcome procrastination is to create routines and follow them. Once the habit sets in, suddenly getting up at 6 am for work or writing for an hour every day won’t be so dreadful.
5. Self-Determination, or the CAR Model (As I Call It)
The Self-Determination theory was created by two professors of psychology from the University of Rochester in the mid-80s—Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. The theory is one of the most popular ones in the field of motivation. It focuses on the different drivers behind our behavior—i.e. the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
There are three main needs, the theory further states, that can help us meet our need for growth. These are also the things which Profs. Deci and Ryan believed to be the main ways to enhance our intrinsic motivation—Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness (CAR).
If our jobs allow us to learn and grow, and if we have enough autonomy to do things our way and be creative, then we will be more driven to give our best, and our performance will soar. In addition, as humans are social beings, we also need to feel connected to others and respected.
All of these sources of intrinsic motivation, separately and in combination, can become powerful instigators to keep us thriving, even when we feel uninspired and unmotivated .
6. Tap Into a Deeper Reason
Some interesting research done in 2016 sought answers to how high-performing employees remain driven when their company can’t or won’t engage in ways to motivate them—intrinsically or extrinsically.
The study tracked workers in a Mexican factory, where they did exactly the same tasks every day, with virtually zero chances for learning new skills, developing professionally, or being promoted. Everyone was paid the same, regardless of performance. So there was no extrinsic motivation at all, other than keeping one’s job.
A third kind of motivation was then discovered, which scientists called “family motivation.” Workers who agreed more with statements such as “I care about supporting my family” or “It is important for me to do good for my family” were more energized and performed better, although they didn’t have any additional external or internal incentive to do so.
The great thing about this kind of driver is that it’s independent of the company one works for or the situation. It taps into something even deeper—if you don’t want to do something for your own sake, then do it for the people you care for.
And this is a powerful motive, as many can probably attest to this.
Frederick Herzberg, the American psychologist who developed what’s perhaps still today the most famous theory of motivation, in his renowned article from 1968 (which sold a modest 1.2 million reprints and it the most requested article from Harvard Business Review One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees? wrote:
“If I kick my dog, he will move. And when I want him to move again, what must I do? I must kick him again. Similarly, I can charge a person’s battery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a generator of one’s own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it.”
Herzberg further explains that the so-called “hygiene factors” (salary, job security, benefits, vacation time, work conditions) don’t lead to fulfillment, nor motivation. What does, though, are the “motivators”—challenging work, opportunities for growth, achievement, greater responsibility, recognition, the work itself.
Herzberg realized it long ago…intrinsic motivation tips the scales when it comes to finding long-term happiness and satisfaction in everything we do, and to improving our overall well-being.
In the end, the next time when you need to give yourself a bit of a kick to get something done, remember to link it to a goal bigger than yourself, and preferably one that has non-material benefit.
And no, don’t say that you tried but it’s just impossible to find internal motivation. Remember the janitor at NASA?
Because once you find your internal generator, you will be truly unstoppable.