My wife and I are in many aspects a terrific couple. Sharing a lot of similar views, opinions and interests, we have these exceptional conversations in which we understand each other with only few words. Also, because of our comparable background and education we can empathize more easily and comprehend better what the other was experiencing through the day. Yet, even more important than the parallels are our differences in thinking, attitude and world views. The ability to complement each other is probably one of the biggest open secrets of our marriage. I digress.
One of our most obvious differences is our respective preference for the main component of our meals. While I know how to appreciate the occasional meat of better quality, she is a vegetarian – every once in a while pescatarian – since she was fifteen. Although there is nothing wrong with that, ever since, two years ago, I met a guy in a downtown bar in Toronto who happened to succeed in converting his wife from the “flowery” to the “beefy” banks of the culinary river, I was at least excited if not convinced to do the same. The prospective accomplishment of this feat always put me in a good mood and a smile on my face.
Recently we visited friends during the weekend who, as usual, indulged us in excellent food and beverages. Among other things we – with the obvious and sole exception of my wife – had a prime roast beef from Ireland. Of course, it was my marital duty to try to convince her once more of the beauty of the beef. Strongly convicted she refused yet again. With a dangerous mixture of disappointment from another failed attempt and intoxication from the good atmosphere among friends I desperately channeled all my efforts and, in front of two pairs of witnessing ears, expressed the following wager: “If I lose 20 pounds until our wedding day [end of September], will you go out and have a first-class steak with me?” Now I don’t know if it was because she didn’t believe in the success of my venture (she could remain loyal to her convictions) or if she truly wanted to motivate me (she would literally need to swallow that pill), but she agreed and motivated I was.
How come that I wholeheartedly intended to revise my lifestyle if the result was putting a plate of steak in front of my wife; but when my doctor cautiously suggested the same since in the long-run my health could be at stake, I was not as eager to change? This puzzle led me to examine the underlying characteristics of motivation and which aspects we need to motivate ourselves and others.
Two kinds of motivation
I identified two related but in essence slightly different kinds of motivation. First-order motivation is concerned with our ambition to actively change the current situation (i.e. to lose weight, to stop smoking or to go berserk less often when we receive an unpleasant gift at Secret Santa). The other kind is a second-order motivation that builds upon your momentum to pursue a certain state. If I chose, for example, to give 2% of my income to charity (because I am already convinced that it is a good, helpful and morally superior thing to do – first-order motivation), the second-order motivation would let me keep on giving instead of nixing my intentions. Dan Pink, in his excellent book “Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us”, discusses this second-order motivation and, among many exciting things more, the distinguishing aspects between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.