Got Motivation?


All my life I have been interested in motivation, why I think, say and do things. I have this interest about other people too of course. I want to know what makes them tick. And that’s motivation. To help me figure this out I have found it useful to draw on the work of three prominent psychiatrists, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Viktor Frankl. Each if these giants in their chosen field of medicine, neurology and psychiatry, have extensively expounded their own theory of psychology as it applies to human motivation, what drives people to act, to think, say and do things.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) said life is all about the will to pleasure. His theory of Psychoanalysis postulated that people seek to find and enjoy pleasure and to avoid pain, that this is instinctive, a biological and psychological need, the driving force in all of us.

Alfred Adler (1870-1937) a contemporary of Freud, says not that’s not it. Humans are driven by something completely different. Influence by Nietzschean doctrine, Adler’s Individual Psychotherapy postulated the will to power, that all people act to become more powerful or influential over their environment, the people and things that surround them. Adler believed that humans will say and do just about anything to avoid feeling inferior.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) developed something altogether different again. Frankl’s Logotherapy postulated the will to meaning. For Frankl, striving to find meaning in life is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans. This is what motivates all human thought, speech and action.

So, who has the best theory? It is to seek pleasure and avoid pain that motivates us? Is it the intent to be more effective, more powerful, more influential? Or, are we primarily motivated by the need to attach meaning to what we think, say and do?

I believe it is a combination of all these things. Or more precisely, I believe we are motivated by each of these three so called “wills” at different times depending upon what is going on in our inner world, in combination with the circumstances that are present in the world outside of us from moment to moment.

Take the typical small business owner. There are times when Freud’s will to pleasure stimulates thought and action, for example, when the desire for a vacation become the most prominent driving force. The person needs to escape the hum drum every day (a little pain) and to derive some enjoyment (pleasure) and relaxation by sitting on a warm far off beach with a loved one.

But there are other times when the same business owner will be motivated by Adler’s desire to become more effective, for example, to market and sell more products and services more profitably. In this situation, the will to power is the prime motivator. Being highly effective is an ever present paramount need for any business owners of course. That’s how it is with business.

And what about the will to meaning, Frankl’s stuff? Surely, when putting forth a new strategy or a hopefully better plan of action, it is supremely helpful (and in my mind, necessary) to know with great clarity, why one is pursuing a new course of action. After all, there will be energy expended and potentially some financial cost factors to consider with new actions, so it can be good to think carefully about “the why” before embarking down new path.

The three wills: for pleasure, for power and for meaning drive us. Perfectly natural and normal if we think about it. Human nature is human nature.

Some of my readers know that my father was a psychiatrist and a neurologist too. Two medical specialties because, like Freud, Adler and Frankl, my dad never did anything small. He practiced big time medicine in three states simultaneously. That was my dad. And perhaps you can imagine what our dinnertime conversations might have been like. “What do you do in school today son? Why did you do that? How did that make you feel? How did such and such work out for you.” Yes, it was interesting.

I have met in my time a few other individuals whose fathers or mothers were psychiatrists and with each have commiserated about what it was like as a child to be oft times focus of psychiatric attention and the dinner table. We eventually would agree that we grew great strength from surviving these frequent ordeals at home.

My dad was an Adlerian psychiatrist, a devotee of Alfred Adler, so he was always focused on what I was doing or not doing about becoming more powerful. In my school years, our conversations were about getting good grades, something about which I cared not a wit. Until I became a junior in college and could finally choose which courses to take, I always hated school, found it boring and unstimulating and revolting. When at last I could chart my own academic course, well, this was my will to power and my desire to seek pleasure and to avoid the pain of being told what to do in action. The why mattered a great deal to me as well.

Today, in my role as a psychologist and business strategist and coach and advisor, I see each of these three wills in action virtually every day. I find the will to meaning or the why very useful. For when the why is clear and strong, all that follows, the specifics about how to do things and the application of behavior, the saying and doing parts of an action plan, becomes much easier.

And I love my work dearly. Thanks dad for often saying “I don’t care what you do in your life. Just be sure you enjoy it because you will be doing it for a long time.” Good advice then and now.