Mismatched Motivations

Why you’re unmotivated

We spend our days striving – gunning for that promotion, gambling for likes, chasing the dollar, subtly peacocking for attention, and playing stupid games with others. All for the things WE want… right?

We don’t spend enough time thinking about our genuine desires – what they are and why we have them. Most of us think we know what they are, but instead we spend our time chasing someone else’s.

We desire to be a millionaire, to find the perfect partner, to find wild success in our art or business, etc, etc. Take a step back and look at the motivations behind these desires. What you’ll find is that the source of them lies in comparison and competition. Many boil down to our rank in the social pecking order, external to what truly drives us.

Society wants you to feel bad

You see it in your life and in the lives of others around you.

Though we are magnitudes wealthier than our ancestors a few hundred years ago, armed with things like smart phones that provide us with food, entertainment, and dates on demand, the sort of lifestyle only the extremely wealthy once had access to, we still live unfulfilled, unhappy, and emotionally painful lives, wrapped and packaged in a box, tied together, and topped with a bow, conspicuously labeled “guilt”.

We confuse what we genuinely desire with what society wants for us.

When those desires clash, we feel GUILTY. We carry guilt and shame for not living up to the expectations of society and others around us.

If you make it to your 30’s and haven’t started a family, have your own own house, or haven’t made it in your career, sorry but society says you’re a failure. On the contrary, if you’ve made it, you’re flooded with opinions on how you got lucky, are undeserving, and don’t give back enough.

Society sets the standard of what you must have and achieve to be happy, and many of us conflate that standard with our own.

The aggregate is not the same as the individual

It’s easy to see how we’ve fallen into this trap. We are born a blank slate, free from understanding the desires of the group. As we age and interact with those around us, we begin to learn what society wants, first from our parents and family. From there, we invite our friends and community to influence us.

We learn from the judgement of others what’s right and wrong. These judgments are compounded over years of confirmatory observations. We become conditioned to see things from others’ perspectives.

Scaling up, we see what’s good and bad for our community, our country, and our world. As size increases, so does complexity. Our tiny brains then attempt to simplify it by grouping our individual selves with the abstract idea of society.

Some examples

My chemistry degree did two things for me. First, it helped me get into pharmacy school. Second, it helped me think of a few examples to show how the aggregate is not the same as the individual.

Think of water. A single molecule of H2O does not have the same properties as a glass of water. The interaction between the water molecules gives rise to hydrogen bonds, giving water a new set of properties that a single molecule of H2O does not. Because of hydrogen bonds, water has a relatively high boiling point as compared with liquids devoid of hydrogen bonds, and can also form ice, which is less dense than liquid water. The universe would be a different place without this interaction between water molecules.

In your brain, a single neuron firing cannot achieve much on its own. However, when connected to a network of neurons, they set off each other. The electrical signals from one neuron cascades into others, activating those neurons around it. These networks of neurons form individual parts of the brain, allowing the brain to control your body’s voluntary and involuntary functions.

Now think of Earth. We can zoom into a view of a forest. You see the trees here, but not the plants and animals that make it up. Zooming in more, you see the individual organisms, plants, and animals that are part of it. That one deer you find is obviously not the same as the forest, and the forest is not the same as the Earth. Each has its own properties.

Similarly, society is the aggregate of individuals. From far away, you see society as a whole, and when you zoom in, you see the communities that make it up and how it’s composed of individual people. Just as a forest has its own behavior separate from a deer’s behavior, society has its own behavior separate from its individuals. Also, just as a group of water molecules has new properties that emerge from the interactions, society has properties that emerge from the interactions between the individuals. Society becomes its own organism with its own properties. Society has its own desires.

The Minority Rule

Thinking about this differently, society’s wants and expectations may not even be the aggregate’s consensus.

Nassim Taleb puts forward a very interesting theory, what he calls “the minority rule”, where the rules of a society are dictated by an extremely intolerant minority. This asymmetry of the small group changing the behavior of an entire group can also explain why most of us feel emotionally distraught attempting to align with society’s expectations. As an example, think of people who ONLY eat Kosher. They’re a minority group, but grocery stores and restaurants often ensure their foods fit their needs. For someone who doesn’t care about “Kosher” status, he eats food whether it’s Kosher or not (and trust me – you eat more Kosher than you think because of this minority). The same applies for ideas and rules of a society.

Free yourself

Whether society’s expectations are a result of emergence from the interactions of its individuals, or are a fractal expansion of an intolerant minority’s ideologies, the fact of the matter is, society’s expectations are NOT your own.

It’s no wonder we see so many unmotivated and unhappy people. We are conditioned to believe there is a “perfect” life when perfection itself is a lie. This “perfection” is dictated by an abstract entity, society, which emerged from the interactions between its individuals.

So what’s an individual to do?

How does someone separate their true desires from that of society?

How does someone free themselves from the guilt, shame, and pain of not meeting societal expectations after a life-time of conditioning?

That’s a topic for another day.

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