Motivation: What Moves Us?

The brain science of drive and achievement

Posted Dec 28, 2011

The word 'motivation' shares its root with 'emotion': both come from the Latin motere, to move. Our motives give us our aims and the drive to achieve them. Anything that's motivating makes us feel good. As one scientist put it to me, "The way nature gets us to do what it wants is by making it a pleasure."

Our motives dictate where we find our pleasures. But when it comes to pursuing those goals, life so often presents difficulties. And when we face setbacks and obstacles in reaching the goals our motives drive us toward, circuitry converging on a zone in the left prefrontal cortex comes alive to remind us of the good feelings we will have once we reach that goal. When things go wrong, this helps us keep going through tough times.

People whose emotional setpoint tips toward the left side tend to be more positive in their emotional outlook. But, neuroscientist Richard Davidson finds, they are susceptible to anger, mainly when a worthy goal gets thwarted. Then they get frustrated and irritated—which is good, because it mobilizes their energy and focuses their attention in working to overcome the obstacles and achieve that goal.

By contrast, Davidson says, right prefrontal activation acts as what's called a "behavioral inhibitor": people give up more easily when things get tough. They're also too risk-averse—not smart risk-averse, but overly cautious. They have low motivation, they're generally more anxious and fearful and have increased vigilance for threats.

Davidson's research has found that the left hemisphere lights up even at the mere thought of achieving a meaningful goal. Left prefrontal activity is also associated with something bigger than any single target: This is a sense of purpose in life, the grand goals that give our lives meaning.

Howard Gardner has written about what he calls "Good Work," a combination of excellence, where you're doing work that calls on your best talents; of engagement, where you're enthusiastic, energized, and love what you do; and ethics, where work is aligned with your sense of purpose, meaning, and where you want to go in life. No one has done this research yet, but I'd predict that if you studied the brains of people while engaged in good work, you'd find relatively more left prefrontal activation.

When I was a graduate student at Harvard, my mentor was a psychologist named David McClelland, who at the time was a major theorist of motivation. McClelland proposed three main motivators for people. (There are other models of motivation that list dozens of motivators.) I think of each kind of motivation as a different path to activating the left prefrontal cortex and the brain's reward centers which increases our drive and persistence, and makes us feel good.

1. The need for power in the sense of influencing or impacting other people. McClelland distinguished between two kinds of power. One is selfish, ego-centered power, without caring whether the impact is good or bad—the kind of power displayed by narcissists, for example. The other is a socially beneficial power, where you take pleasure in influencing people for the better or for the common good.

2. The need to affiliate; taking pleasure in being with people. Those who are high in this affiliation motive, for instance, are motivated by the sheer pleasure of doing things together with people they like. When we're working toward a common goal, people motivated by affiliation find energy in how good we'll all feel when we reach that goal. Great team members may be driven by the affiliative motive.

3. The need for achievement, reaching toward a meaningful goal. Those high in the need for achievement love to keep score, to get feedback on how they are doing, whether this means just hitting their numbers for a quarterly target or raising millions for a charity. People who are strong in the achievement drive continually strive to improve; they're relentless learners. No matter how good they are today, they're not satisfied with the status quo; they're always trying to do better.

When drive becomes overdrive

There can be a downside to the achievement drive: Some people become workaholics, completely focused on their work goals and neglecting to live a full life. You can see this in students who are "grinds," driven to get the highest grades at the sacrifice of everything else in their lives, just as you see it in those successful executives who work 18-hour days all through the week—and in anyone who has perfectionistic standards. The key to a healthy drive to achieve is having a very high internal standard for performance that you hold yourself to—but if that standard is too high, you fail to appreciate your accomplishments while obsessing about any little imperfection. It's the drive to achieve gone into overdrive.

In reviewing their performance on anything, perfectionists only focus on what they could have done better, not what they did well. They may already be at 110% compared to other people, but they're madly trying to get to 112% or 115%. This striving is very strongly rewarded both in the educational system and in the world of work today. But it has a human cost, whether for a kid in school or someone in the workplace: Your life suffers. The price you pay may be in a series of failed relationships, never taking time out for things you enjoy, or the health costs of chronic stress.

How can you help a person who's caught in that predicament? I think first you have to help them understand that there's a negative side to trying to be overly successful. The second is to point out to them that you don't have to be hitting 110 percent all the time—sometimes just being at 80 or 90% means you're doing well enough—and you can have a life and enjoy yourself, too.

McClelland discovered that you could rate people on their level of achievement motivation with a simple kid's game: the ring toss. In the ring toss you can choose where to place a standup peg out in front of you on the floor—3 feet, 6 feet, 9 feet or 12 feet. You have a plastic ring, and you have to see if you can toss it on the peg. The further out it is, the higher your score. People who are high in the need to achieve are very good at guessing the furthest out they can put the peg and still get the ring on it. They take smart risks. They may do things that look very risky to other people but they've done the right research and have the data, or they've mastered the pertinent know-how, the skills they know will help them hit that goal. McClelland found this trait to be very strong in highly successful entrepreneurs.

I remember some years ago I was taking part in a business forum and was on a panel with young techies, each of whom headed a start up. One was called Razorfish, a buyer of interactive ad space on this then-new thing called the "Web". Everyone was excited about Razorfish at the time—which was the beginning of the 90's Tech Bubble—and this fledgling company was gaining in market value quite rapidly. Back then Razorfish had a large market cap, which evaporated when the bubble burst. It's been bought and sold a few times over the years since.

But I was more intrigued by the other young tech entrepreneur on that panel, whose new company was getting less attention than Razorfish back then. As I spoke to him, I realized he was a classic example of McClelland's profile of an entrepreneur with a high drive to achieve: he seemed to take pleasure in continually learning to improve performance, and while still in college had mastered an arcane math that guided ultra-advanced algorithms that few others understood, but which had potentially powerful applications on the Web.

He was taking what looked to others like a huge risk in his startup built around an application of an untested and little-know method, but he had high confidence it would work. He had done his homework well. Few had heard of his little startup at the time, and I just happened to remember it because of its funny name. The company was called "Google," and his name was Sergei Brin.