What motivates you: A deep-dive of what truly makes our wheels spin

Are you unmotivated in your life? Or perhaps, worse yet, motivated by the wrong things? Motivation can be fickle and, at its worst, downright dangerous, so figuring out what gets your wheels spinning and how you can control that phenomenon to better suit your needs is a big part of what leads to success.

Though no two people might share the exact same motivations in life, there are common threads and thought processes worth examining, starting with an understanding of the most basic of all bad motivations: money.

Money is essential to the vast majority of peoples’ lives, but it’s not what anyone’s truly after. Lower-income folk barely scrounging by and busting their asses at trivial jobs aren’t doing so to accrue money, they’re doing it to keep the lights on, the fridge stocked, and the water flowing. Their motivation is to survive. The second that money is no longer necessary to that goal, it ceases to be a factor in motivations.

Similarly, the rich aren’t motivated by money, either. Look at “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It’s a movie about the life of Jordan Belfort, a man who made a killing as a sketchy stockbroker. Belfort himself endorsed the movie, so make no mistake, the content in it is reflective of reality—especially when Leonardo DiCaprio (who portrays Belfort) declares that he calls dollar bills “fun coupons.” Money means little to him, just like how it isn’t much of an object to most rich people. It’s just a means to an end. In Belfort’s case, that end was loaded with drugs, prostitutes, general debauchery, and all the freedom in the world.

Another wealthy person who agrees that freedom is the purest motivation is Kevin O’Leary, an investor, and star of the TV show Shark Tank. O’Leary himself has said “You don’t do it for money. It’s not about greed. It’s about personal freedom.” That’s the point of earning more money than you need. It affords you the option to do what you want when you want, where you want.

So if you’re motivated by money or are a self-described workaholic without an endgame in mind, take a step back and think carefully about why you do what you do. Is the stockpile of green under your mattress really important? No—it’s what it leads to. If you can live your life and fulfill your dreams independent of money, the power to you. And if you need money to get where you want to go, never lose sight of the bigger picture and end goal, lest you become unable to see the forest for the trees.

Alternatively, one might push forward in life in their pursuit to be the best at something. This is a laughable, albeit noble, pursuit. After all, there are over 7 billion people on the planet. Do you truly think you can be the best?

Even Michael Phelps, who has 28 Olympic medals for swimming, might not be the world’s best swimmer. Sure, he’s the best-documented swimmer, but how many millions of teens and young adults might be lurking out there, stuck in positions where they can’t prove they’re the best on an international stage? There’s undoubtedly a “better” swimmer out there.

Being Olympic-grade at anything is the ultimate best-case scenario. Odds are, most hyper-ambitious people will settle for being “the best,” e.g. the most financially successful or professionally competent, in their immediate social circles, workgroups, or family units. Maybe a few folks aim to be the best in their city at whatever it is they do, and fewer still aim for being the best in the country. A handful of folks even strive to be the best in the world. But none of that matters, because someone will always be better than you.

With this in mind, it might be healthier to reframe your ambitions. You don’t need to be the best in your office to score a promotion; you just need to be better than whoever’s likeliest to land the raise beside you. Similarly, if there is no direct competitor—say you want to be a novelist and you’re not directly facing a singular opponent, but rather, the massive, multi-headed demon known as literary industry approval—then it’s not about being the best of them all, it’s simply about being the best you can be. Because, at some point, it might not matter how good you are—it still might not be enough. Especially when you work in subjective fields and everyone’s metric for “best” is arbitrary.

Don’t fight to be the best out there. Don’t drive yourself harder solely to earn dollar bills. Just be the best at accomplishing tangible goals you set for yourself, and remember that money is a tool, not an objective. With this, we arrive at our third and final topic related to motivation: passion.

Passion is the ultimate motivator, and arguably the best one. Unlike money or a pointless “best” title, passion is something that can fill you with a sense of fulfillment, contentment, and happiness all at the same time. If everyone in the world could do the things they care about and prioritize passion over logistical realities like paying bills and taking care of others’ problems, the world would be a much more vibrant place. Alas, reality isn’t kind enough to afford everyone a shot at pursuing their passion. Even so, having that inner drive is a sensation unlike any other.

Is it possible to be overly passionate? Yes. You can take the motivation derived from your love of something too far, to the point where you neglect other important aspects of your life—chiefly, your health, work, friends and family, and well-being. But if you can keep those areas in check, there really aren’t too many reasons not to go hard with your passions.

At its best, passion can help you eliminate distractions and roadblocks in your life that are holding you back, and help you focus on achieving the future you want for yourself. So make money, be the best at what you can, but never forget that having an intrinsic love for something is the king of the motivational hill. Play the game for the game’s own sake.