Motivation Is Caring What Happens

Too Cool to Care

We were standing around, heads hanging, listening to the boss berate us for letting quality slide.

In my early twenties, I worked for a few years in a custom color photo lab where we developed film and made prints for professional photographers. When they shot product setups, weddings or formal portraits, they brought us the film for extra careful processing. And we had a good reputation, but lately we hadn’t been living up to our name.

One of us might forget and let some rolls of wedding film develop too long, throwing the color off drastically. Or another of us might be slow covering a chemical tank and accidentally get a few drops of one chemical into the next tank. Just enough to do weird things to the images.

But on this day, Mike had taken a whole rack of wedding film rolls and dunked them into the wrong solution, ruining them completely. The daughter of a prominent local politician was going to be very disappointed.

So the boss was reaming us out, but not with rage and threats. Instead, he just lined us up and talked to us about how we’d been doing our jobs lately. And that day, he made one statement that has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

“I can hire you to come in and spend the hours here,” he said. “I can pay you to do this job. But there’s one thing you need to do that I can’t pay you to do. And that’s caring. You’ll always have to do the caring on your own. Please consider learning to do this one thing. Of course it benefits me and our customers, but it’s really for you… for each of you and your entire future. Unless you learn how to care about what you do, you’ll never be worth anything at any job you ever do. Now go back to work, and think about what I’ve just said.”

Man, that hit me hard because it had never occurred to me before how important it is to care.

We were all young guys in our teens and early twenties, and each of us had been trying to “out-cool” and “out-casual” everyone else. In other words, we’d been trying to demonstrate by our actions how casual we were — how little we cared. Well, the results showed that we were succeeding … at the wrong thing.

Caring Changes Things

Not so long ago in Japan, a drunk got behind the wheel of his car, drove off into the night, and along the way hit another car and killed its 19-year-old driver.

The drunk driver was arrested, tried and convicted. His sentence — five years in prison. A fairly typical sentence. And the world went on.

Except for the dead boy’s mother.

For this grieving mother, things didn’t just go on. It was her son who was killed in that collision. He’d been enrolled in the prestigious Waseda University, and great things were expected of the brilliant young man.

This mother didn’t collapse in her grief. She rose up in righteous outrage and decided that if someone deliberately, knowingly got behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated, it was a much more serious crime than it was currently being treated by the courts. She went on a crusade.

And I do mean crusade. She circulated petitions and gathered names by the hundreds of thousands. She wrote articles, led demonstrations, and appeared on talk shows.

Her campaign ultimately changed the law of the land.

Now any drunk driver who kills someone will face 20 years in prison, not just the brief five-year stint that her son’s killer received.

She cared, and her caring motivated her to move heaven, earth and an entire country’s legal system to assure a more equitable justice in the future.

Caring Is Powerful in Any Land

In the USA, another mother, Candy Lightner, organized a non-profit organization “Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)” after her 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was run over and killed by a drunken hit-and-run driver.

Lightner said, “I promised myself on the day of Cari’s death that I would fight to make this needless homicide count for something positive in the years ahead,” and she did.

These are just two examples — towering examples — of what caring can bring about.

About five years ago, Choi Yong-hun, a businessman from South Korea had just moved to China to help run a new company that he and his two partners had set up.

He’d only been there a couple of months when a group of North Koreans who had crossed the river into China were seeking a way to escape to South Korea. He offered to help them, but things went wrong, most of the participants were arrested, and the organizers jailed.

Since Choi was technically one of the “ringleaders,” he was sentenced to 5 years in a Chinese prison.

His wife, Kim Bong Soon, and their two daughters were left stranded in China with nothing. No husband, no father, no income. They were forced to move back to South Korea and fend for themselves the best way they could.

This was devastating for Bong Soon because she had no particular skills, assets or training to fall back on. Often she was working two and three jobs trying to keep the family together. And yet, during the five years Choi was imprisoned, Bong Soon grew into a poised and articulate spokesperson, calling on legislators in person, speaking at conferences and at public events. She became well known at high government levels.

And her daughters wrote letters incessantly urging the release of their father.

When difficulty descended upon them, they didn’t just collapse and give up. They cared what happened, and they did something about it. Although Bong-soon’s efforts didn’t win the early release of her husband, they did go far in awakening international awareness of the treatment that North Korean refugees receive in China, and the unfair sentences received by the humanitarians who try to help them.

If Motivation Techniques Haven’t Worked

So that’s motivation on huge, massive issues. But what about smaller things?

What if you’d just like to keep yourself motivated enough to earn a good living? Or stop smoking? Or quit overeating? Or get yourself to exercise regularly? Is there any hope for the “little” stuff?

Well, first off, let’s admit that some people are able to get motivated by the smaller issues of life. There are those people who set their minds to do something, and whaddya-know they actually do it. So this is clearly not an impossibility.

And I hear you mumbling, “No, not impossible, except for me….”

But I’d like to suggest that you’re not impossible to motivate — you may have been working on the wrong techniques.

Let me give you an example.

All Motivation Is Not Created Equal

The home I grew up in was not a neat or orderly place. My parents were both packrats, so we had boxes and piles of stuff all over the house. For the most part, I sort of accepted the daily mess as normal, but when I entered my teens, I started seeing things from my own viewpoint. And that viewpoint was starting to show me that things could be neater and cleaner.

I still remember when I was about 13 or 14 I’d occasionally come home from school and, before my parents got back from work, I’d clean up the house, straighten the boxes and piles as well as I could, sweep and mop what was showing of the floor, and clean up the kitchen where it was possible.

I cared what it looked like (and what it felt like). That was motivation.

Then my folks would get home.

Of course they were pleased with the change (or said they were). And I suppose Dad thought he was encouraging me, but his methods lacked finesse.

“Son, I’d like to see you do this every day, when you get home.”

So for the next few days I’d clean things. But 13-year-olds are easily distracted, and eventually I’d skip a day.

Trouble in Paradise

When Dad got home, he’d give me a lecture… and several licks with his belt.

Whoa… that was a whole different deal. No longer was it my idea, it was his. And it wasn’t something I did for the fun of it any more — it had suddenly become a duty. A duty that, if I failed to perform, resulted in punishment.

The motivation had been changed on me. It had been switched from wanting a better looking house, to wanting to avoid getting a dose of the belt.

Avoidance motivation is hard to sustain for any length of time. Eventually I’d get so demotivated by the whole thing that I simply couldn’t work up enough interest in cleaning even to avoid the belt. After several days of getting whippings, Dad would also lose his motivation and forget to discipline me.

Then we’d all go back to tolerating a dirty, messy house.

So if your efforts to motivate yourself are failing, you might look at the methods you’re using on yourself. Driving yourself by guilt, fear or punitive measures? Forget it.

Ever heard the old saying, “you’ll attract more flies with sugar than with vinegar”? That’s not only true of flies, humans are the same. And especially oneself.

So if you want to get different results from yourself, you’ll probably have to look to different incentives.

A Vision Also Isn’t Enough

Maybe you’ve built Vision Boards, with montages, photos, drawings and clippings of all the things you want. Or perhaps you sat and crafted elaborate mental images of the future you desire.

So did they work for you?

Most people, if they’ll be honest, will admit privately that Future Visions, whether they’re on the wall or in their head, are a hit-or-miss affair. Sometimes they seem to work like magic. Other times, they just sit there, inert and useless.

The common advice is to create a vision of the future you want. But obviously, that can fail us. Almost always, when you check the outcomes you get, the difference between those visions that bring results and those that don’t, is how much you cared about the outcome. In other words, caring — emotional involvement — appears to be the fuel that drives the engine.

So How Do You Care?

As my old boss in the photo lab said, “You’ll always have to do the caring on your own.” Yeah, yeah, fine … but HOW?

First of all, let’s admit that many of the goals we set are not things we care deeply about. In other words, we’re promising ourselves that we’ll do something which doesn’t really engage us.

Do you doubt it? How about:

  • Make a million dollars by January next year
  • Lose 4 dress sizes
  • Bench press 235 pounds
  • Buy a house in Pacific Heights
  • Be a movie star
  • Start my own business as a _____________
  • And on and on….

Honestly, now… how much do you REALLY care about the typical things lined up on your goals list? Do you care as much as Candy Lightner, who started MADD? Or the Japanese mother who lost her son and got a country to change its laws?

Do you care as much as Kim Bong Soon and her daughters, who campaigned tirelessly for her husband’s release, even when she was working two and three jobs?

Do you REALLY care about dropping 4 dress sizes? Remember, actions speak louder than words, so if you’ve repeatedly set goals in the past and then blown them off, the evidence says that no, you don’t care very much.

It’s time to stop beating yourself up for refusing to go after goals that simply don’t light your fire. Scratch ’em off your list and let ’em go. Free up your energy for something that IS meaningful to you.

What’s that you say? You’ve never found anything that’s quite meaningful enough to stir your embers? You just can’t seem to get fired up about anything?

Okay. So let yourself off the hook and go back to your television programs, or your ball games or your fishing. Relax. It’s okay. You don’t HAVE to force yourself to be motivated.

Face it — judging from the evidence up to now, you’re going to coast anyway, so why not just relax and enjoy it, and quit whipping yourself for coasting. It didn’t work when Dad used the belt on me, and it won’t work when you do the same to yourself.

If there’s nothing in particular you want right now, fine. You can stop pretending there is.

The motivation guru Jack Zufelt has made a career of being the “anti-establishment” voice in self help. His primary message is, find out what you really want. Dump all the things that are not at least a 9 or a 10 on your “desire scale” and put your energies into the one or two things you do really want.

Of course, that means you’ll have to stop lying to yourself.

Zufelt doesn’t bother trying to teach people how to turn a 5 or 6 into a 10. And I think he has a point… you need to stop pressuring yourself to do all those little, chicken-spit things on your list. Instead, you should put your energies into the stuff that counts with you — and only the stuff that counts. If you do that, there’ll be plenty on your platter.

So you still think you don’t know how to make yourself care?

Caring Is Easy and Natural

If some guy with white eyeballs comes staggering toward you waving a big, gleaming knife and shrieking, do you care about getting out of his way? Oh heck yeah. It’s natural. You don’t have to sit and take remedial lessons in caring — you just cut and run.

And if you see hundreds of thousands of people being made homeless by a huge storm, do you care what happens to them? The spontaneous outpouring of help and money and resources following huge hurricanes and other disasters says that a LOT of people care.

So it’s actually easy to figure out what belongs on your goals list. Take a little time to sit and leaf through your old lists. Got some sixes, sevens and eights on your list? Cross ’em off. Scratch anything and everything that doesn’t excite you in some way. Dump anything that you find you don’t deeply care about. Especially, get rid of the stuff that you “ought to” want to do.

Whatever is left standing after you’re done deleting and dumping — that’s your goal.

And that’s basically all there is to motivation. Just turn your attention to what you truly care about, and the motivation will take care of itself.