What Motivates Us?

Along the lines of lessons from religion that I think may have strong utility for secular life as well is the concept of what motivates us, and the thought that some types of motivations are better than others. If you’re the areligious sort, I would skim or skip the next section, but it provides some useful background for the more secular analog I want to describe in the section after that.

Motivations for Service from a Religious Context
Before I get into the details, I wanted to provide a tiny bit of background. I have heard variations of this lesson about differing levels of motivation a few times in church, so I decided to try and find the original source. As best I can tell, the basis for this was a conference talk by Dallin H. Oaks in October 1984. He had just been called as member of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles earlier that year, but hadn’t been able to speak in the first conference of the year because he hadn’t finished wrapping up his time on the Utah Supreme Court. He decided to focus his first conference talk on the various reasons why people serve, particularly in charitable or church service, and why some motivations were better than others.

In his talk, Elder Oaks outlined six motivations for volunteer or church service, which I’ll generalize later in this post (ranked from the least worthy in his opinion to the most worthy):

  1. Hope of an earthly reward: this is doing service in the hope of gaining wealth, popularity, cultivating contacts for personal gain.
  2. Desire for good companionship: this is doing service because you get to work with good or influential people
  3. Fear of punishment: this is serving or doing good because you’re afraid that you’ll be punished if you don’t. This could be in the form of social ostracism, or it could be fear of eternal punishment, etc.
  4. Sense of duty or loyalty: this is serving because you feel it is what is expected of you.
  5. Hope of an eternal reward: this is service not out of fear of hell, but out of desire for heaven or eternal blessings.
  6. Love: Elder Oaks stated that he felt the highest motivation for service was love of God and love of his children here on earth. That is, not just serving because it’s the right thing to do, or because you want personal blessings for yourself, but because you love other people and God and want them to be happy.

I tend to agree with Elder Oaks that as we learn to move up the ladder of service that we’ll get more out of it, and we’ll be more able to stay “abounding in good works” even when the service is hard.

Motivations in a More General, Secular Sense
I think that in a secular setting, there are also some motivations that are better than others. Now in the secular case, I’m talking about motivations for things like treating others well, following the law, working hard, starting a company, etc. So there probably are some important differences, but I think a similar continuum exists with only slight modifications. Here are my thoughts on a ranking (once again with the best motivations ranked last and the lowest motivations ranked first):

  1. Greed/Popularity/Personal gain: In the case of secular motivations, I’m combining the first two items from the previous motivation list. This is acting from some perceived worldly benefit like wealth, popularity, or social approval form people you care about. In the secular case, this isn’t always as bad as it would be for religious service. For example, we need to work to provide for ourselves, and working with the goal of honorably providing a better living for ourselves or others isn’t inherently bad. But in many cases, it’s still not the best motivation–in fact acting only in our own pure self interest without any of the other motivations can sometimes lead to negative or anti-social behaviors. Adam Smith1 and Fredric Bastiat2 and others have pointed how the interactions of self-interest of various individuals can lead to generally good results, but I don’t think they ever wanted to see a society where that was the only motivation.
  2. Fear of Punishment: In this case of secular motivations, one is acting out of fear of punishment, disapproval, poverty, or other negative personal effects. I’d actually probably put this tied with the above motivation in more general secular circles. In some cases this might be a religious fear of punishment–where you don’t steal or hurt others primarily because you don’t want to go to Hell. Or it could be fear of the law, fear of being found out, fear of what others would think. Fear in general is a poor motivator, it only goads one on to doing the right thing when the feared punishment is considered likely. Remove the likelihood of punishment, and you’ve removed the incentive to do the right. So while if this gets you to not do something bad, or gets you to do something good it’s probably better than nothing, but it still leaves a lot to be desired.
  3. Sense of Duty or Loyalty: In the secular case, this is acting in a way because you feel it is right, or it is what is expected of you, or what you owe to your family, associates, country, etc. As with the religious service motivations list, I think this ranks further up than acting out of fear or desire for temporal gain. You’re doing what’s right (or avoiding what’s wrong) purely because it’s what you believe is right or proper. This isn’t 100% foolproof–sometimes your sense of duty or loyalty, if not tempered by other considerations could lead to doing things that are actually unkind, unjust, or marginalizing certain people you don’t feel loyalty to. Think of the character Javert from Les Miserables. Javert was a police officer totally motivated by justice and duty, who hounded a man who was genuinely trying to change and help society and help better the lives of all around him. On the other hand, there are times when people acting out of duty are nothing short of amazing. While duty isn’t a perfect motivation, the world is a much better, kinder place for people acting out of duty.
  4. Legacy/Making a Difference: If you don’t believe in an afterlife and an eternal reward, the closest you can come is a legacy, or making a real difference in the world. In the secular sense, I would also put this only a tiny bit above duty on the continuum of good to better to best motivations. Legacy can be a more selfless motivation than the kind of praise and public approval provided above in the first motivation, since generally you don’t get any benefit out of what people think of you once you’re gone, at least in the secular sense. But even this can sometimes go awry, especially when motivated by pride, and especially in positions of worldly power. The desire to be known as a “great man” has often lead at least political leaders to do many awful things, as Lord Acton pointed out3. That said, in the private sector, when not using force, working to leave a legacy and make a difference, can be a powerful motivation to do good and difficult things that don’t immediately benefit you, and are above and beyond what is expected.
  5. Love: I still think love really is the best motivation for anything you do. You serve, not to be seen of men, but because you care about those you serve and want them to be happy. You don’t hurt others, not for fear of punishment, or out of mere duty, but because you see them as your brothers and sisters, and beings worthy of your love. You work the long hours and put your heart and soul into your work because you truly love it, and you love all the good that will come of it.

I think it is quite true the point someone made on Twitter last week that entrepreneurs rarely are in it just for the money, that most of them are in it to make a difference, and for love of what they do. While we can’t always have the best motivation for everything we do, I think that knowing that there are better kinds of motivation can help us consciously work to improve why we do what we do, and ultimate improve the kind of person that we’re becoming.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
  1. In several of his works, including Wealth of Nations.
  2. I believe he primarily discussed this in his work titled “Economic Harmonies“, one that I have unfortunately not had the time to read through thoroughly. But from what I have read, I think his thesis he was trying to prove was that people trying to better their own self-interest will typically tend to interact in a way that benefits mankind, even if not motivated by a higher cause.
  3. Immediately after his famous line that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he made the statement that “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” I think this particularly applies to those who try to use power to become what they think will be remembered as “great men.”
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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3 Responses to What Motivates Us?

  1. ken anthony says:

    Motivation, I believe, is as unique as the individual. Why am I motivated to promote mars colonization? I’m old and in poor health. If we all agreed it’s a good idea and did it, I’d still be dead before I saw many results. My religious perspective, from the bible, is that earth was given to mankind, not the universe. So it’s hubris on my part to promote a mars colony. God may have other plans for us in the very near future.

    But it just seems the obvious right thing to do because I see benefits of doing it to all humans. People make a lot of stupid objections to it (when lots of smart objections exist, they just never get mentioned.) Doing it could eliminate a whole class of idiocy from this world.

    I’ve always had this nasty streak of altruism in me. I just can’t shake it.

  2. John hare says:

    Sometimes you start with one dominating and it gradually drifts to another. As when a business doesn’t go as you planned and you carry on because so many depend on you. This is an extensive and complex topic, well beyond an iPhone comment.

  3. Humans are a tribal hunter-gatherer species that tended to camp out in a particular area for a few weeks before moving to a new area to hunt and to exploit food resources. This was pretty much the life our species and our genus had for nearly 2.6 million years.

    Civilization, however, is something that is relatively new to our species. And it only began less than 15,000 years ago. Modern civilization has created an environment where adult individuals are no longer dependent of families or tribes in order to survive. And the rights and the opportunities of the individual appears to be what is most important in modern civilizations.

    Countries that protect the civil rights of the individual while also encouraging capitalism within the framework of a democratic republic are the most attractive and successful states– especially if they appropriately invest in the education of their populations while also investing in scientific research and technological advancement. Countries that don’t do these things, tend to be the poorest and most miserable places to live on planet Earth.

    Most of the serious problems in America today are due to the tragic legacy of racism and civil rights abuses against minorities in America and the continued isolation and under education of minorities in America. African Americans, for instance, only represent 13% of the total American population; yet the failure to fully integrate this small minority of people into mainstream society has had enormous negative social and economic consequences that seems to tragically play out on our television screens almost everyday.

    America’s enormous addiction to alcohol and illegal drugs is also an extremely serious problem with enormous social and economic consequences. As much as Americans tend to worry about the dangers of Islamic terrorism, America’s drug related criminal culture and the spread of our criminal drug culture into Mexico and to the rest of Latin America is far more problematic.


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