The Myth Of Motivation: Why Motivation Doesn’t Actually Matter

So far in my lifetime, I’ve already applied to fourteen colleges, ten or so jobs, and dozens of internships and volunteer positions. As many of you probably are, I am well familiar with the standard application process. Tell me a little bit about yourself. What are your strengths and weaknesses? And, in my personal opinion, the worst of the bunch: Why are you motivated to do x, y, and z?

When posed this question, most of us likely spout some generic key phrases about wanting to help people or make a difference or change the world. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but the reality is, there are so many more motives for volunteer work other than for the sake of doing good.

During my freshman year of college, I applied for a volunteer position as a tutor in a 2nd grade classroom. Yes, I like kids and I enjoy working with people, but no, I did not take the position because I wanted to better the world. I showed up twice a week, way too early in the morning, to a room full of energetic 8 year olds purely because I wanted it on my resume. I was able to harness a certain level of self-discipline and self-originated productivity (more on how to be productive here) to get the work done, not because I really wanted to.

In following years, when job interviewers would ask about my experience working in an elementary school, I usually say I was motivated to work there because I wanted to shape young lives or teach the next generation of leaders or whatever. And honestly, interviewers probably know it’s bullshit, and here’s why.

And this is the myth of motivation: motivation doesn’t matter. What motivated me to volunteer (resume-building, or bragging rights, essentially) and what may have motivated other volunteers (world change, imparting knowledge, etc.) resulted in no difference between our work. We both volunteered, we both helped, we both shaped lives. Whether or not I was motivated by some intrinsic drive to better the world didn’t matter. In fact, doing volunteer work even when I wasn’t deeply motivated to do so helped me practice self-discipline (AKA helped me learn how to do things that I knew I needed to do, but didn’t necessarily want to). 

The bottom line is this: Not all your extracurriculars or volunteer work has to be driven by some life-changing, selfless incentive, because not everyone feels that way. You can change the world even if it’s not your life goal to be the next Mother Theresa. Actually, you should, because not only does it benefit those around you, it benefits you, by forcing you to build invaluable self-discipline skills. Maybe in an ideal world, everyone would make it their life’s mission to change the world, but that’s simply not realistic, and making world change the expected motivation for volunteer work excludes or alienates a lot of people who still want to help out (just for other reasons).

So here’s my final two cents: volunteer work benefits everyone involved, and it’s not just for philanthropists. Do it because you want it on your resume. Do it because you want to be more disciplined. No matter your motivation, you are benefitting and so is the world around you.

For more information, here’s a book review on a pretty interesting book on the topic.

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