Motivation Matters

When I first started this blog, I made a deal with a friend that I wouldn’t just blog about my rock-and-roll lifestyle here in Tamale, but that I’d give the full, real picture. The truth is that most of the time, it is great. At least once a day, something happens that just makes me stop, stare, and usually laugh out loud (for example, about half-way through this blog post, a bunch of kids came by my window. They’d stolen a bunch of papayas from a nearby plantation, and told me they’d give me one if I played the guitar for them… I do love papayas…). It’s also not without its challenges, and some days, some weeks, well… it’s harder than others.

What are some of the big challenges you’ve faced so far?

My guess is that anyone will tell you that the number one challenge faced by people on long-term placements overseas, as EWB staff or Junior Fellow, or any other organization, is one of motivation. The point certainly got emphasized during pre-dep; we talked about coping mechanisms and strategies, building a strong “foundation” (getting exercise, sleeping, making friends, etc.), and celebrating the small successes. When I got on that plane, I was on such a high from pre-dep, ready to take on these challenges; it wasn’t something I’d seriously considered as being immediately relevant.

At this point, however, I’m finding myself engaging more and more in that battle, that internal struggle to “keep your head in the game”. The strangest part is I didn’t even really see it coming. I had it in my head that this challenge of motivation was going to be a consequence of repeated failure, of seeing the challenges and feeling overwhelmed. I think I thought that it would be some set of events or significant observations – something that could be processed and categorized. Instead I’ve found it’s not a lion in the road that must be circumvented or defeated, but rather to be this insidious thing, like a parasite that gnaws away at the food you eat. It leaves you drained, tired, uncertain.

We talk about a de-motivating environment a lot, as well. Again, what does this actually mean? A lot of people in the office are working hard; a lot of people are getting by in their jobs. Some people are passionately driving change forward, creating change in their lives and communities, while others are getting through the reports they have to accomplish that day. The sad fact is that, all too often, the system by its very nature creates this situation where people are just scraping by. It’s not a culture where people are seeking or excited by change; it’s a culture where change is something to be mistrusted. It’s a culture where performance is in many ways optional.

I’ve been quite amazed by how much this environment has affected my behavior, actually. I would have liked to think that I was somehow immune, that as this change-agent from Canada, this passionate young man here to have impact, I could just float above it all. When I was in Canada, I looked out at this river, rapids and all, and jumped, fully prepared and ready to brace against the rocks and drops. Those rocks and rapids are all there, but I neglected the fact that the river was, at the same time, just numbingly cold.

For me, it’s been the challenge of identifying what exactly I’m doing here, where my value-add will be, and creating a vision of what the impact I have is going to be. Before going in to work most days, I try to create a plan on what my day will be, deciding on a focus in terms of my learning and my activities. All too often, that plan falls through, when someone is out of the office for whatever reason, or when meetings run late, or when some other unexpected challenge decides to stand in your way. I’m learning to take a step back on the expectations I have for myself and my work every day, to balance that desire to create impact with an understanding of what is going to be feasible. The bar gets a little lower, and the challenge is to lower it just enough that you get over it sometimes, without setting it on the ground. I find myself sitting at my desk, trying to decide what to do to fill my time for today. For someone who asks a lot of himself, this drives me to distraction. Literally – I find myself distracted by this, getting into little cycles: I’m not seeing immediate results, so I’m not seeing the value of my work, so I’m not working so hard, so I’m seeing fewer results.

The challenge for me has been to break out of that cycle. We talk a lot about “systems-thinking”, and there’s not a question in anybody’s mind that the changes we’re pushing for are huge, systemic changes. The fact that there are not immediate result is absolutely no surprise – that push for immediate results has led one too many donors down the wrong path, as the countless teacher-less school blocks and broken boreholes makes viscerally clear. Some days though, when this challenge is your life, that can start to ring just a little hollow.

Something I’m taking more and more as a mantra is “Celebrate the small successes”. If a fifteen minute meeting goes well in the day, you walk away from the office with a smile on your face! I was speaking with a returned APS before heading overseas, and he said one of the things he did to cope was carve out specific things, specific times, of the day in which he was fully in control. It might be waking up at precisely 6:22am and going for a 9.4km run. No one can get in the way of you and that goal. It’s been wise advice.

The other thing (and for me, the number one thing) has been to reset once I get home. So far, and I hope this continues, I’ve been mostly able to clear my mind of work when I’m not working. When I get home, I greet the family I’m staying with, go into my room, and read a book. Last week, for example, I got home after a not-so-great day. After dinner, I got to playing the guitar (an enormous stress-reliever), and the kids – as they tend to do, whenever I start practicing – came strolling in, four in total. I don’t know a lot of songs, so the ones I know I tend to play quite frequently. Today, as I played, two of the boys were humming along, just under their breath. Another friend, currently in Malawi, once told me how music was such a fantastic way to connect with people, and I have never felt that more strongly in that moment, when the rhythm being carved out of the air by my hand was being fleshed out by the quiet voices of those two boys. I continued to play, lost in my own little world. A little while later, as I put the guitar aside, I looked around, back in the present. The four boys were sleeping in various uncomfortable looking positions around me. Seriously, if that doesn’t brighten your day…

I should say that it’s been a bit of a tough patch, but it’s still new. I can only imagine that this challenge grows with time. I’ll also say again that most days are ups, but the downs do exist, and this post was focused a little bit more on those. I’ll keep posting about this – think of this as some reflections early on in the game.

Any thoughts or questions? Ideas on how you keep your own motivation up that I can steal? Comment below!

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5 Responses to Motivation Matters

  1. Catherine says:

    Wow Dan – great post. As I was reading it I thought about how one is bound to run into motivation challenges even for the most passionate among us. It’s the basic ebb and flow of life. I think you’ve got it pretty well figured out with keeping your time away from work your time, and filling it with reading and guitar playing. That way when you wake up the next morning you can start with a fresh determination for what the day may bring. Recently I’ve been working on my curiosity, instead of succumbing to negativity. Instead of thinking, ‘Oh my this is going to be a gong show’, I’m trying to think ‘I’m curious how this is going to play out.’

    And when you’re able to smile at the little victories and send kiddies off to sleep with sweet dreams of your guitar playing, you’ve just won the motivation challenge. In my humble opinion, it is those small and inconspicuous moments that create lasting change in society.

  2. Conor says:

    Hey Dan,

    Thanks for these thoughts about the challenges of doing meaningful work in a different country (and culture). Some barrier to getting something done can appear trivial at first, and then prove to be a crux! But with your thoughtful, positive approach to working with people, I know you will figure things out and make an impact. As you clearly realize, it’s important to keep chipping away at whatever you are trying to get done, and don’t take no for an answer!

    I’m just back from a very brief (3 week) trip to India. It was a whirwind to set up a new air-pollution monitoring project in different neighbourhoods. I spent too much time in crazy traffic, but the fantastic Indian food made up for that.

    Hang in there!

  3. Belinda says:

    This is a very reflective and thought-provoking post. Makes me start thinking about my motivation and how to motivate others. How do you think you can create change in a culture that is not excited by change?

  4. Josh Workman says:

    Terrific post Dan. Your metaphors really help extract out the complex emotions and challenges you are encountering. And like Belinda said, has inspired some reflection on my own motivation challenges.

    Keen to keep following, and hear more about how things are going. Chat soon.

  5. Hey Dan,
    This is a great post! I didn’t know you were such a talented writer 🙂
    Lots of your points resonate, and I think we need to do a better job of building a positive, motivating culture in and around each other as well as in our personal lives. Our attitudes effect each other, so if one person is down and the other commiserates, it’s a negatively reinforcing cycle. Sometimes we need to vent, but I think we really need to struggle to lift each other up rather than push each other down.
    This is not directed at you, just something I was thinking about the other day when hearing that you guys that stayed here over the break were all feeling demotivated. Crappy situation, but I hope our culture can start to turn that around and we can pick each other up!
    Anyway, great writing – I just found your blog, but I’ll definitely be reading from now on!

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