Achievement, Aspiration and Motivation

I am stuck. A year and half ago at age 39 I enrolled into university again to study philosophy. Something I always wanted to do and wished I would have done when I was young. Today I am seriously not motivated to do anything about my studies. I simply can’t get up, read and learn so I can take the tests. I am having a motivational crisis and it made me question a few things I have done in life. This is going to be a series on aspiration and motivation. Here is an overview where I stand right now.

Prometheus sculpture in front of the Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin
“Prometheus” (2011)
Olympus PEN E-P1 + M.Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5 – 5.6@17mm F4.5 1/160s ISO 200

A motivational crisis

I am the kind of person who tries a lot of things and fails at them. I have many ideas that I often dismiss without even trying. When I try them out I often give up at the first few signs of difficulty. If something is not immediately rewarding I tend to lose interest quickly. I often do not even start projects because I can’t imagine that they might satisfy me or they seem like too much of an effort. I don’t like this so I try again and again just to fail again and again then I try something new. This has been going on for twenty years now.

I recently met a new friend and she told me I have a self-defeating mindset. She is a coach so it is her job to see things like that and help people overcome their motivational problems. Her attitude is almost the exact opposite. Set yourself goals, apply yourself and achieve them and she certainly achieved a lot. I feel some inferiority with all my failures and my self-defeating mindset. But then we are both kind of unsatisfied with our lives. I guess that is why we are talking about these topics.

Achievements and satisfaction

When I was a young man all I wanted from life was a decent education, a secure job, a nice place to life and a family. I am 40 years old now and I have an apprenticeship and a college degree under my belt, I have a stable job where I was promoted twice, I live in a nice place and have a loving wife and the cutest daughter. I am not really happy or satisfied. My new friend tells me she also has not achieved the life she wanted and is equally unhappy and unsatisfied even though she is certainly way more motivated and persistent than I am to change things. What is going on here? Should one of us not be happy and satisfied? 

I seems harder and harder to motivate myself for new goals. Maybe it is the self-defeating mindset but then I was able to motivate myself and persist in the past (and to some extend still do now). I do have two degrees, I kept a job and made a career, I kept a wife and willingly took on the responsibility for another person for about half of my remaining life. I also have some hobbies and interests that I have not only kept up but actually grown with. So obviously I can motivate myself for some things but not for others. Something is off.

An common theme

I looked at all the things where I was able to motivate myself and the things I failed at. The latter had one thing in common. They seemed to be external goals of achievement. Getting a another degree, being successful on YouTube (you won’t find any videos anymore ;-), doing exercise to become more fit just as some examples. Did I really set these goals for me or did I set them to impress others, because my family taught me so or for some reason I thought those are things one ought to do in life? Am I trying to achieve something worthwhile or am I trying to validate myself in front of others? I guess I have to ask that question more often.

I am certainly self-defeating but I am probably this way because I always chose the wrong goals. I chose too many achievements. The true reason for trying to study philosophy has probably more to do with my grandmothers insistence that only a proper university degree makes you a “real man”. It also has as much to do with trying to be “better” than others, with feeding my own narcissism. I won’t make a career out of it anymore so why do I need to formally study philosophy at university. I could just read Plato, Kant and Hume for all I and others care.  

I am tired, I just want to live

Talking to my new friend made me question if achievement is something that would satisfy me in the first place. I always thought it would. But again I am 40 years old, I have a rather bland job, a small child, I did a lot of work in overcoming childhood trauma and maybe I am just done achieving. Maybe I want to live more. I always connected my happiness with the future. Once I get this or do that then I can finally be satisfied. Maybe I never will anyway. My friend would call this self-defeating. I might call it acceptance. We are probably both right and wrong in some way.

But I can not ignore the fact that I so often fail to motivate myself enough to see something through. Yes one can make the point that I need to overcome the problems inhibiting me and to persevere until the first successes help build motivation. But one could also see this repeating pattern as a sign that my goals might be wrong or that I have chosen goals for the wrong reasons time and time again.

Aspiration instead of achievement

Lately I have been thinking about the differences between aspiration and achievement. Let me define these terms. Achievement is reaching a set goal. Aspiration is the process of becoming something. Getting a bachelors degree in philosophy is an achievement. When it is done it is done. Aspiring to be a philosopher does need to entail a three year undergraduate course. One could just start reading, philosophizing and writing. Sure formal education helps but you can aspire to be a philosopher every day by just doing it.

Take another example. You can aspire to be a writer. If you are writing a blog you are already doing it. I aspire to be a writer almost every day and in fact I am a writer. You are reading this right? I wrote it. Aspiring to be a writer makes me happy in itself. It is satisfying. Being a successful writer is an achievement. It involves much more effort, persistence and tolerance for frustration. As long as you are not successful as a writer it is difficult to be fully happy and satisfied with being a writer.

Just to really make a point let us look at a third example. You can set the goal to loose 20 pounds and then you would start exercising and watching your diet to achieve that goal. If you don’t loose 20 pounds you are likely to be disappointed even though you did exercise and changed your diet. You could also aspire to be more healthy by doing exercise and watching your diet. You will loose some weight. Maybe 20 pounds maybe less. Does it matter? No because you aspired to be more healthy and you are exactly doing that.

Where to go

A lot of people would say that one needs to set goals and they are right. A young person should certainly have goals. Goals are good. Achievements are good. Modern progress depends on people setting goals and achieving them. But maybe there comes a point in life when aspiration seems to be more worthwhile than achievement. Or maybe some people are more suited for persistence and achievement while others should rather aspire to become someone. More and more I realize that I probably belong to the second group. But both sides do overlap and the balance might change depending on circumstances, experiences or age. Maybe my friend and I are both intrigued and challenged by our diverging attitudes. It makes for a good conversation. Maybe I should aspire to be a conversationalist?

The next parts will be a closer look at my achievements and failures, a road map for my aspirations and a reevaluation of what I really want from live once I figure that out.