Positive vs. Negative motivation

People can be driven and motivated by a wide variety of reasons, some of which tend to be positive, and some of which tend to be negative. Both can be extremely powerful forces.

Positive motivators

Let’s say you experiment with an instrument when you’re in high school. You start to play the guitar and you fall in love with it. You invest many, many hours in honing your skill. You enjoy it so much, you decide to attempt to produce your own album. You spend all year working on it and put out your first record! In this case, your passion and interest are what motivate you, resulting in a significant investment of time and energy in an activity you value dearly.

Passion, the pursuit of greatness, curiosity, and a feeling of purpose are all examples of positive motivators.  

Negative motivators

Let’s say you’re a high school student who loves playing Soccer. In your first two years of high school, you try out for the team, and you’re cut both times. Not only are you cut, but everyone makes fun of you for how bad you are, and how crazy it was that you even tried out for the team. You’re hurt and angry. In response, you channel your anger into getting better: you spend your summer practicing relentlessly. You watch YouTube videos about how to get better. You find local drop-in games to practice. You’re determined to prove them all wrong. Next year, you end up making the team. Your anger ultimately motivates a significant investment of time in improvement, resulting in the outcome you had originally desired.

Anxiety, insecurity, anger, fear, envy, and resentment are all examples of negative motivators.

In both examples, you’re motivated to focus your time and attention towards improving your abilities, and in both cases, you’re able to successfully achieve your goals. However, as powerful as a negative motivator can be, I strongly believe it detracts from your ultimate satisfaction, even if you successfully accomplish your goal. I also believe it’s harder to sustain the same degree of drive and motivation when it comes from a negative motivator because it’s ultimately less fulfilling.

There is a related concept around intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. When you’re engaged in something because you love it and it provides you with personal satisfaction, you’re more likely to find it fulfilling than if you’re doing it to satisfy someone else, or for the sole purpose of receiving a reward (i.e., it’s transactional).

Rarely are our motivators as clear-cut as the examples above would suggest, and there’s a lot of nuance behind what drives you. Building some self-awareness around what is driving your motivation behind an activity has been helpful for me and is useful in calibrating whether it’s worth the effort.