In one of the last classes I took in graduate school, Professor and Psychologist Ed Deci made a proposition. He stated “I need a volunteer for an interesting class experiment.” Prone to brevity, Professor Deci paused and waited for hands to go up. Several long seconds passed when one graduate student raised his hand and agreed to participate. The rest of the class breathed an audible sigh of relief. Instead of inviting this lone volunteer to the front of the room, Professor Deci asked us all to close our eyes. “I want you all to imagine the part of yourself that wanted to volunteer and participate…and now I want you to imagine the part of yourself that kept you from raising your hand. What did that part look like? Did it take a certain form or shape? What was the part of yourself telling you? What words was it saying? Now, if you can, see if these two parts of yourself can have a conversation. What might they say to each other?”
Sitting in a class with 15 other students, I got in touch with the curious, ambitious part of myself that wants to try new things and take on the world. This part of me was big and bold and bright. I also discovered a darker part of myself that feared being seen as incompetent and rejected. Like a black hole, it sucked up my energy and encouraged me to be invisible.
There is a lot of power that comes from noticing and tuning in to the thoughts and feelings that hold you back in life and leave you feeling smaller. Only by noticing and understanding that these thoughts are separate from who you are as a person can you start to distance yourself from them and hand your curiosity and ambition a metaphorical megaphone.
If you also have trouble getting in touch with your own internal motivation, curiosity, and ambition, here are a few things you can try.
Think about what you enjoyed doing when you were a kid: A year ago I discovered my eighth grade diary. It was full of ridiculous crushes and petty daily dramas with friends, but it was also crammed with poetry and stories. I remembered how much I loved to write as a child. I realized that part of what was holding me back from writing in the present was my own judgments about not being great with grammar or not producing something “good enough”. Acknowledging these barriers and starting this blog anyway has brought me a tremendous amount of joy. Thinking back to what you enjoyed before your own and others’ expectations started creeping in, can help you remember the things you naturally feel motivated to do.
Find little ways to get a sense of ownership over your work: Set aside 20 minutes a day to just brain storm. You can think of different ways you could approach a task, new ideas for a product, or a new occupation you could move into entirely. Spending time creating ideas of your own leads to a greater sense of ownership over the choices you make and can help stimulate your sense of motivation (Ryan &Deci, 2000). In addition, your brain is like a muscle and practicing being creative can lead to an increased ability to generate new and interesting ideas (Thompson, 2003).
Get a buddy: Studies show that feeling a sense of connection is vital to stimulating intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). We are inherently social creatures and it can be hard to accomplish tasks without sharing our experiences with someone else. If you feel distant from your coworkers, try hosting an office dinner or inviting someone to team up with you in some way. If you work by yourself, talk about your projects with friends or loved ones so you can share your passions with others.
Remove barriers: Think about the last time you held yourself back from trying, putting it all out there, or volunteering. What thoughts and ideas got in your way? Imagine what you would say to a close friend or family member who was struggling with the same thoughts. Often times we’re harsher toward ourselves than we are to those we care about. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, fail, or be rejected, and give yourself credit for taking risks and trying something new.