Failure to Launch: The "Wheel of Motivation"

How small steps are the key to progress for young adults struggling to launch

Posted Jan 21, 2018

Donna Sutton, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0
Source: Donna Sutton, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

I want to share a concept that helps to understand motivation and lack of it in young adults struggling to launch. I call it “the Wheel of Motivation.”

Evolution has architected our brains to avoid discomfort. For most mammals, stress and discomfort are indicators of potential danger, so avoiding them is natural and even good for survival. But for us humans, with our complex world, risking discomfort may be just what we need in order to develop those skills and confidence that we need for success.

The Wheel can turn in either direction, towards engagement with life and its accompanying stresses, or away from engagement. When young people follow their instinct (and a lot of cues from their 21st Century environment) to avoid discomfort and stress, the Wheel starts to turn in reverse. At first, the result is relief, but turning away from mainstream life has negative effects as well. The young person falls further behind peers and begins to feel uncomfortable about that, maybe ashamed, though who would admit that? Instead of feeling happier, the young person feels more irritable, angry, stressed, and unhappy. This can be so intense that it rises to the level of clinical anxiety and depression.

Here’s the important thing about the wheel. Instead of feeling happier and more relaxed, those who seek to relieve their stress actually become more sensitive to all kinds of discomfort. The more they avoid stress, the more oppressed they feel by anything that disturbs their shrinking world. So the predictable result is a vicious cycle that only gets worse.

When family or helpers suggest going in the opposite direction and moving towards becoming more productive and engaged, those activities only promise more stress. The young person resists actively, often using anger to fend off attempts to encourage change. But the same Wheel of Motivation can go towards life as well. (What this requires will be the subject of another post.) When positive movement happens, the young person anticipates more stress, but the actual result is to feel more positive and confident. There may be a good deal of resistance to recognizing this at first, but small steps taken voluntarily (even with some arm twisting) has a remarkable effect. Positive steps, even though stressful, lead to less discomfort and stress for each action taken in a positive direction. The result is a virtuous cycle where each turn results in more pleasure and confidence and less pain and discomfort, not more.

The biggest reasons for resisting positive steps have to do with seeing a mountain looming ahead. There is so much ground to be made up, it seems impossible. So the job of family and helpers is to direct the young person to the present and to avoid too much focus on what lies ahead. Putting “one foot in front of the other” and doing the “next right thing,” no matter how minor, is the formula for getting the Wheel of Motivation moving in a positive direction where it can eventually become self-sustaining. 

The great importance of the Wheel of Motivation is that doing is more important than talking or even understanding on the part of the young person. Taking positive steps, even ones that are insignificant in themselves, has the effect of making the next step easier. Trying to explain, convince, or even “motivate” the young person can even be counterproductive. What counts the most is actual movement.

About the Author

Jeffrey Smith, M.D., teaches at the psychiatry residency program at New York Medical College.

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