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Sunday Focus: Life’s a Brick…Wall, That Is. So This Is What I Want You to Do.

James Warren April 05, 2015
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A few weeks ago, I sat down for a conversation with a friend who was contemplating a major life change. She seemed unhappy with where things were in her life, and seemed uncharacteristically unsure of herself. So I did what I usually do in these situations, and I began asking her about her goals and plans. To her credit, she already had them and she explained them to me in detail. But I also sensed that the goals had lost some relevance and they lacked some oomph. She didn’t seem charged up by those goals and plans, but instead she looked… stuck. Simply put, she couldn’t motivate himself. And I responded by saying the words I almost always said in such situations.

“I can’t motivate you,” I said. “Only you can motivate yourself.”

I immediately saw the look of frustration on her face, and she acknowledged it. “I don’t have any motivation left. I feel like I’ve hit a wall,” she said. For a moment, I wasn’t sure what to say. But I started to realize what she was going through and began relating to her some of my experiences. In that process, a couple of things became clear to me. And that’s what today’s Focus is all about.

Whenever I found myself in a position of leadership or authority, whether at work, mentoring someone or helping my sons through a difficult experience, I always expressed this point of view that motivation must come from within oneself. And I believe that to be true, deeply and passionately. But as life has taught me, motivation is only part of the story.

What I’ve learned from many, many experiences – mine and others’ – is that motivation is in fact the internal psychological fuel that must be present in sufficient quantity to overcome the resistance offered by the obstacle in one’s way. (Sounds scientific, right?) Motivation comes from a desire to reach a destiny, fulfill a purpose or achieve a goal, and when that desire burns deep, it fuels action. Motivation is a byproduct of goal-setting and the pursuit of purpose.

Think about it: what can be more motivating than knowing that you are on the journey to fulfill your purpose and that your steps, as heavy as they may be, are drawing you closer to your goals?

I explained all of this to my friend and then I illustrated the point, literally:

photo 1

I explained that motivation is an internal fuel tank. And while it is not automatic, it can be refilled. You can refuel your motivation with small wins that serve as little recharges. Break the goal up into small enough increments such that that you really feel you can do at least something to make progress. And eventually, if you take enough small steps, you will reach your goal. As I explained to my friend, motivation is what allows us to go over, around or through the obstacles that stand in our way.

And this, of course, immediately raises two questions: 1) why are there obstacles in the first place? And, 2) what happens if you don’t have enough motivation to overcome them?

Let’s talk about the obstacles first. Obstacles are, by their very definition, impediments to progress. I think that one of the reasons we run out of motivation is because we are running into obstacles that are too big to overcome. We use up every ounce of our motivation trying to succeed. And still, we fail, left with nothing other than to wonder why. Two possible explanations come to mind:

  • The obstacle you face is a sign that you’ve made a wrong turn on your journey. It’s meant to cause you to turn around and reroute yourself towards your destination. (And if you don’t know what your destination is, then your journey is quite literally aimless. And chances are you are likely to run into many, many obstacles – perhaps more than necessary – until you find the right path. It’s like driving in a maze.)
  • The obstacle is a test of your dedication towards achieving your goals and a measure of your passion to fulfill your purpose. In this way, it will surely suck up every ounce of motivation you have and demand more.

As far as possibility #1 is concerned, well, this happens quite frequently to all of us. Because none of us ever gets it totally right on the first try. Oh, we might get the first step right, the first chapter, the first phase of things, but we never get the whole thing right, up front, because we simply don’t know enough. The journey enhances itself. What we learn along the journey is a big part of what we need to continue on the journey. Even the bad things that happen, even the self-imposed stuff – yep, they’re all part of the process. So when we hit an obstacle, sometimes it’s just a sign to help us course-correct, get back on the right path and continue making progress towards our goals and our purpose.

So, given the frequency of this explanation, I probed the situation with my friend to see if #1 was the issue. Maybe she just needed to clarify her goals a bit. Maybe she just needed to refocus on her purpose. And sure enough, that was part of it. But it wasn’t all of it. There was another possible explanation: #2.

And when it comes to possibility #2, well, friends, this is where stuff gets tough. As in “the universe is conspiring against me and no one else can see it but me” tough. Because everything in your core is telling you that you are on right path, that you are where you are supposed to be. But there’s a big obstacle in your way. And you can’t get over it, around it or through it. And you’ve already used up all your motivation. And you haven’t got any left. It’s like you’ve tried to get a running, jumping start to get over a brick wall, but you just can’t get high enough to get a grip, and your feet scramble hopelessly to find some purchase, and you fall back to the ground, over and over again. Until you’re left bent over, hands on knees, bruised and sucking air, as tears of angry failure squeeze out of your tightly shut eyes.

You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve been there. And so have I. And if I reflect honestly on my own experiences, one thing I know is that I can’t always motivate myself sufficiently to overcome the obstacle in front of me. Sometimes, I do need outside help.

This is the essence of the second question that I posed earlier. And this is where inspiration comes in.

When all of the internal energy and willpower just isn’t enough, you have to get it from somewhere else. That’s my definition of inspiration. It’s the external version of motivation. It’s like psychological physics: inspiration transforms into motivation.

If motivation is the internal fuel we use to overcome our obstacles, then inspiration is the external source of energy needed to refill and recharge our motivation. As I got further into the conversation with my friend, I finally realized that this was what she was struggling with. (Heck, she said it in the first place!) The fact that she already had a sense of purpose and clear goals, and yet was struggling to focus on them and make progress towards them, was evidence that the obstacles in her way were too big for her to conquer on her own. She needed something else. She needed to be inspired. And it slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t there to coach her or give her life planning lessons. She didn’t need that from me, at least not on that day. She was looking to me for inspiration.

As much as I believe that you need to motivate yourself, I also believe that when you run out of motivation, you need to seek out a source of inspiration. Is that what my friend did? You bet. She was the one who reached out to me. She may not have known exactly why, but on some level, she was seeking inspiration so she could re-motivate herself.

For some, inspiration is spiritual. Other people get it from a creative or artistic experience. Others still find the solace and internal peace of working on something that they enjoy as a source of inspiration if for no other reason than it gives them clarity and a sense of accomplishment, and replenishes their mental energy enough so they can get back to – and overcome – the obstacle in their paths. In conjunction with all of these, and perhaps most importantly, inspiration often comes from others.

Of course, this all made perfect sense to me as I thought about what I needed to do for my friend. Our conversation reminded me of a time when I first realized just how important it is for people to inspire others. Years ago, after my first stint in the sales organization (during which I led a sales organization for the first time), I was participating in our leadership check-in process. This is when employees tell the executives and department heads what they accomplished and learned from their most recent developmental assignments, while silently hoping those same decision-makers greenlighted them to the next rung on the corporate ladder. I focused my presentation on what I learned about leadership during that role. While our company had a leadership model that was taught, reinforced and widely recognized as a part of the culture, I felt something was missing. I made the argument that leaders needed to see inspiration as a crucial part of their roles, just as important a responsibility as providing direction or allocating resources. I’m not even totally sure why I felt that way. I just knew that the team felt overwhelmed and needed something – or someone – to help them refocus their efforts and make progress towards their professional goals. I believed that I owed it to the people I was responsible for to help them achieve those goals, and I thought inspiring them through vision, action and shared experiences was the right way for me to do that.

It doesn’t take much to inspire others. Just be true to yourself. Be a light. Care about someone – and something – besides yourself. Tell your story. Because when we all do those things, we connect with other people who have similar experiences or may be on similar journeys. We say to them, “See? I did it. And so can you.” Think, for a second, about the empowerment behind the words, “You can do it.” There’s a reason we say them to one another when we’re faced with difficulties. That reason is because we are wired to inspire. We are wired to give some of our energy to someone else when they are flailing, broken and ready to give up. We are wired to intercede for one another. The only question is whether or not we are doing it. Are we inspiring anyone else with our lives? Or are we ourselves trapped in an obscurity formed from our own fears and failures?

If we seek to constantly inspire one another, imagine what we could do. Imagine what our lives would be like – what your life would be like. Imagine your relationships with your family and friends, your work and your impact on your colleagues, your progress towards your personal goals. Everything becomes a lot more possible, when we realize and tap into a limitless supply of energy to overcome our obstacles, in the form of the inspiration we draw from others.

So, I have three challenges for you today.

First, get motivated.

If you are struggling on your journey, if the obstacles seem too big for you, ask yourself if you are truly on the right path. Do you know your purpose? Do you have goals? Do you have a plan to reach them? If the answer is yes, then you’re halfway to motivating yourself with a sense of purpose. To fuel yourself even further, take that goal and break it into really, really small parts so you can make a little bit of progress, step by step. The results are transformational. Progress results in motivation and then the cycle repeats.

Next, get inspired.

If you know you’re on the right track, but you’ve simply run out of motivation and you can’t get over, around or through the obstacle facing you, then I challenge you to seek out a source of inspiration. Find someone or something that inspires you. Something that makes you step back, reflect, regain a positive outlook on your journey, gain encouragement and get back at it.

And finally, inspire someone else.

If you’ve got plenty of motivation for your own journey, then I challenge you to inspire someone else on theirs. Don’t just do this to be a better boss, parent, friend or spouse (although that’s certainly a good enough reason). Do this because you care about the people around you. It’s not about cheerleading. It’s about seeing where people are struggling, stepping in when their motivation isn’t enough to help them achieve their goals, and pouring some of your willpower into them. It’s about taking some time to talk to them about their goals and helping them see beyond their circumstances to focus on their destinations. The best leaders I’ve ever had, at work and elsewhere, always did that for me. I hope I do that for someone else. I hope you do that as well.

So while it remains true that I can’t motivate you, it is also true that I can inspire you, and help you motivate yourself so you can overcome your obstacles, as I sketched out for my friend during our conversation:

photo 2 (1)And that is why I wrote this today: to inspire you, because I was inspired myself today. I’ve been struggling a little bit on my own path, and I don’t mind saying so (because again, we ALL do). Life’s a brick wall, sometimes. And man, I’ve stared at that wall, wondering how in the world I would get over it, around it, or through it. And this morning, as I sat down in a church service for the first time in a VERY long time, I found myself remembering the voice of my mother, the songs she sung, and just how much she loved Easter. I found myself remembering all that my mother had overcome in her life, and that she had left me an inheritance of perseverance and optimism that was my birthright. She overcame.

And so will I. And so will you.

Life’s a brick wall. So get motivated. Get inspired. Inspire someone else. That’s what I want you to do.

I’d love to know what you’re going through, how you’re motivating, inspiring and overcoming. Feel free to share your perspective in the comments below, or connect with me on Twitter, LinkedIn or Tumblr.


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