A few years ago, I heard a talk by the mountaineer Reinhold Messner (of climbing-Mt-Everest-without-oxygen-solo fame), during which he taught me an empowering way to think about "motivation."
His mindset-shifting words?
"Motivation is something always growing inside us. It is not something that comes down from heaven.”
These words, and the story that illustrated his point, have given me a new way of looking at (and dealing with) my inner voice when it whispers: "I don't feel motivated right now."
First, Messner's story; then the "a-ha."
Messner was climbing Everest *again*, this time solo, and his first obstacle was a formidable crevasse. To make an impression on the audience, he projected the photo of a seemingly impassable, black canyon that sliced a chasm across the glacier. Nevertheless, he started up the mountain in the dark with minimal supplies on his back. He had only a short rope—a long one is useless if you have no team to protect your fall—and, illuminating the route with his headlamp, he eventually found a snow bridge across the crevasse. While crossing, he fell in. The plunge broke his headlamp and left him with little possibility of climbing up and out of the hole. Right then and there, he emphatically vowed (while repairing his headlamp) that should he somehow make it out of that freezing, dark place, he would retreat from this crazy, dangerous idea of climbing Everest alone once and for all. Inside that crevasse, he became very motivated to end the climb and head home. IF he found a way out.
Which he did, eventually.
Then a funny thing happened after topping out onto the glacier. As he worked his way back down to camp, his drive to end the climb became weaker and weaker. The motivation to commit to his solo Everest attempt grew stronger and stronger, swallowing his drive to turn around.
Why? Was it just that he now felt safe? Was it pride? Or simple stubbornness? Perhaps a bit of each.
But here's how he explained his motivation to continue:
For two years he had gone to sleep and woken up, eaten and breathed every moment of this goal to climb Everest alone. For two years, he had nurtured and fed the trip to the summit with small steps. Starting as a tiny seed of motivation, it had grown inside him day by day. Quite simply, after two years, his motivation to go up was stronger, healthier, and in fantastic shape. In the end, this motivation was more powerful than his impulsive motivation to turn around after he fell.
It was strong enough to carry him through the cold, the loneliness, the isolation, and a plummet into a crevasse. Over a period of time, he had grown it into a mature, unshakable motivation that eventually did fuel his ascent—solo—to the top of Everest.
Before hearing this story, I saw motivation as a feeling. It came and went; it struck or didn't strike. I didn't think of it as something I had a whole lot of control over. But this story taught me a more helpful way of looking at it. It let me see motivation more as a seed you nurture and grow from within - not a lightning bolt that fuels your progress, then is gone in a flash. Little by little, each day, I can cultivate my motivation into a force to be reckoned with. And if I do that, then just like Messner, I'll have a much better chance of reaching my goals, even in the face of daunting obstacles.