On Motivation

Everyone wants to know the ‘secret’ to motivation. Like most topics, this isn’t as simple as repeating cliches like ‘just don’t quit’ or ‘stay hard’. These sayings can be useful as simple reminders of more complex concepts, but only if you understand the underlying process and skills that lead to that outcome.

Without those underlying processes and skills, phrases like “just don’t quit” are no more useful than a track coach yelling at his athletes to “just run faster.”

Everybody at a track meet wants to be a fast runner just like everyone who shows up at SOF selection wants to not quit. But, there is only one winner in the race, and only a select few make it through selection. The distinction lies in who is able to produce these outcomes when they matter – not in the ability to describe them.

Our personal experiences create the meaning that we attribute to words and concepts. Everyone can say the same words, but the meaning that those words have is unique to each person. All knowledge is local knowledge.

When a SOF operator says ‘quitting isn’t an option’ that means something to them because it’s based on real-life experience. They can distill a complex set of capabilities into a simple statement without losing its meaning. It’s that simple for them because they know how to not quit. They’ve earned the right to make that statement and mean it.

But, to the person hearing that statement without the same type of experiences and underlying skills, the words are meaningless.

This article discusses the concept of motivation and how it relates to a reliable and adaptable set of skills that anyone can learn and apply. Our goal here is to provide the tools you need to give phrases like “motivation” and “just don’t quit” a useful sense of personal meaning.

Dopamine & Motivation

You can’t have a conversation about motivation without talking about dopamine.

Over the last few years, there have been considerable advances in dopamine-related research. The findings help explain what we know about other topics like willpower, motivation, growth mindset, hardiness, and others covered in our book. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a type of signaling hormone) that is best thought of as the molecule of anticipation and motivation. When you anticipate that you can get something you value, like eating a delicious bowl of ice cream at the end of a long day, you have a surge in dopamine. This surge is what motivates you to go to the store and get the ice cream. 

You don’t get the high of dopamine when you get the ice cream, but when you anticipate that you’ll get it. So, the reward is in the expectation that you’re on track towards something you value. The higher the dopamine release, the longer you’ll sustain motivation to continue doing whatever needs to be done to get the thing you desire.  

Dopamine’s role in motivation isn’t always that simple. If you went to the store, but the ice cream was gone, you’d experience a massive drop in dopamine levels that would lead to feeling unmotivated and resentful. 

This anticipation-reward relationship is called the ‘reward prediction error’ and it explains several things: 

  1. This is why pleasant surprises feel so good. When you don’t expect something good to happen and it does, you get a huge bump in dopamine. And, the more valuable you perceive the unexpected reward to be, the bigger the surge. It also explains why gambling is so addictive. If you randomly win every once in a while, the dopamine surge you get carries you through the losses and motivates you to keep working towards that ‘big’ win you think is just around the corner. Casinos have this down to a science. Slot machines let you win (and hear others winning with loud noises to announce the lucky fool) often enough to stay motivated, but not so often that you leave with more than you came.
  2. When you expect something good to happen and it doesn’t, your dopamine crashes and you feel awful. This is why the cadre at SOF selection tell you to do something, and as soon as you are about to finish (and expect the event to be over), they extend the event or tell you to start over. If you’re not skilled at managing your mental game, you’ll have a huge drop in dopamine, your motivation will drop, and you’ll find a reason to quit.  This doesn’t have to happen. There are methods to control your response through active coping mechanisms and mindsets to mitigate this response. 

Control vs. Desire

Dopamine has two different circuits that motivate different types of behaviors: 

  • Desire-based dopamine circuits push you to seek out that bowl of ice cream, find sexual partners, and buy that shiny new gadget that will change your life. In other words, the desire circuit amplifies emotional signals. This motivates you to accomplish short-term goals that satisfy an immediate desire, but might not align with your long-term goals. 
  • Control-based dopamine circuits activate the logical parts of the brain and help you create and take actions to achieve long-term goals. 

These two circuits oppose each other like the gas and brake pedal on a car. Both are important, but having the right balance between them at the right time is what leads to high levels of performance. 

Let’s take a closer look at the control dopamine circuit: 

  • It helps you shift your attention beyond your immediate needs like acquiring food, water, & shelter. 
  • It activates the logical parts of the brain that create plans and strategies for long-term goals. 
  • It motivates you to take action toward those goals even if they don’t immediately lead to rewards.
  • It turns down the volume of your emotional responses.

When pursuing any difficult goal you’ll need a well-tuned control-based dopamine response to stay on track through the ups and downs.  

In normal life, you can look at your watch to see how much further you have to run or compare your pace to a previous workout. All of that disappears in SOF selection. Unpredictable and unexpected obstacles and zero positive feedback are the norm. In other words, all the external feedback mechanisms present in normal life and training environments disappear. If you require these external feedback mechanisms for motivation, then you’ll probably disappear from the course too. 

The control dopamine circuit is what helps you build robust internal feedback mechanisms that are self-reinforcing. It’s also what enables you to buffer normal feedback mechanisms from pain, fatigue, and setbacks that are inescapable features of SOF selection. 

The rest of this article will discuss the specific mindsets, attitudes, and strategies that you’ll want to use to reinforce the strength of your control dopamine system. 

Process vs. Outcomes

When you perceive that you’re on track towards your goal you get little pulses of dopamine to keep you motivated and moving forward.

This is why a process-oriented approach (an aspect of a growth mindset), is such a powerful approach to overcoming challenges. When you are focused on the process you feel like you’re ‘winning’ or being successful by continuing on the path towards your goal. The outcome matters, but it’s not the only indicator of success.  

This approach creates a feedback loop in which taking action feels good because the action is part of the bigger goal. This allows you to adjust your approach instead of quitting when you face setbacks. 

If you’re only focused on the outcome, like ‘winning’ or finishing an event in selection, you’re susceptible to reward-prediction error and its corresponding drop in motivation. If your motivation is dependent on an external event like a calisthenics beatdown ending when you think it should, then your motivation can be taken away from you. 

Types of Motivation

There are two types of motivation: 

Intrinsic Motivation = If you’re motivated for the sake of experience or the internal experience that will accompany an activity you’re feeling intrinsic motivation. A few examples:

  • Running because you love the feeling
  • Learning a new skill because you are curious and enjoy the process

Another form of intrinsic motivation is when you’re motivated by your personal ethics or beliefs. Research has shown that intrinsic motivation is greater and will persist longer in the face of challenges. 

Extrinsic Motivation = If you’re motivated by external rewards such as prestige, money, status, validation, or praise. These are not as powerful as intrinsic motivators.

This doesn’t mean all external rewards or motivations are useless. However, they should be secondary to a more intrinsic motivational source.

Intrinsic motivations are process-oriented, which helps you activate control dopamine circuits. This means that performing the task, and what it represents (a belief or ethic) is enough to keep you motivated. When combined with other mental skills, you’ll have the tools necessary to work through setbacks. 

Effort and Motivation 

Dopamine gets you going, but how much effort you put into something is dependent on how valuable you perceive the outcome to be. Having a goal that is personally salient (e.g. intrinsically oriented) leads to a stronger effort. And, when confronted with challenges, you’ll be able to keep going because the goal is more important than any temporary pain you might feel. 

Craig’s story is a perfect example of this: 

“To me, those boots represented the sum of so many sacrifices my family made for me so that I could be comfortable and eventually successful. One more little thing that my Dad gave up daily for the sake of me and my brothers and sister.

With that image in my mind, I absolutely could not accept the idea of calling my dad one day to tell him that I was done. That I had quit. That after eighteen years of trying to give me every advantage he could so that I could make something of myself I failed because I made a decision to stop trying. That the water was too cold, or the swim was too far, or I just didn’t want to do any more pushups. I would have rather died than make that phone call.

In my lowest moments, I saw those boots by the door, every day. Every fucking day. And I’d make my choice, push off the wall and keep going.”

If you have an understanding of your deepest values and have developed the ability to control your attention during difficult experiences, you’ll be able to focus on how the current situation is a necessary part of the process of achieving your goal.

Pain & Fatigue

Using attention to manage sensations of pain and fatigue is especially important. The more fatigue or pain you subjectively experience, the less motivated you’ll feel.  

The common – and outdated – view of pain and fatigue is through what is called a “Cartesian” model. This centuries-old concept views the mind and body as separate entities and sees fatigue as a direct, linear process – sort of like a gas gauge telling you how much fuel you’ve got left in the tank. Pain is typically thought of the same way: the amount of pain you feel is directly associated with the amount of physical damage occurring. Neither model is accurate. 

Perception, past experience, and prediction all play a role in how hard or painful we feel something is. Pain, fatigue and our sense of effort aren’t just measuring how much gas is in the tank, it’s a complex, emergent phenomenon. We can know and influence many of the pieces that drive it. 

By directing your attention away from internal sensations of pain and fatigue, managing your beliefs, self-talk, and using other mental skills (more on these below), you can alter how much pain and fatigue you feel regardless of what your body is experiencing. That isn’t to say that you can’t think your way out of feeling all pain and fatigue. But, managing those sensations effectively goes a long way towards sustaining your motivation to continue during the most grueling experiences. 

Motivation & Willpower 

Unsurprisingly, the research on what people think of as ‘willpower’ aligns with the recent insights on the role of dopamine. 

“Ego depletion” is the idea that willpower is a finite resource. E.g. if you spend a lot of willpower on one thing, then it will be harder for you to muster even more willpower later. ⁠

It’s an appealing idea. It also provides a rationale for all sorts of behaviors that aren’t in the interest of our long-term goals. ⁠The idea of ego depletion often seems to be valid in research, but only under one condition: That you believe in it. ⁠

When people don’t buy into the idea of finite willpower, they aren’t affected by it. They can exercise self-discipline in one task and then do it again later, without a decrement. 

The person who doesn’t believe that willpower as a finite resource expects to be able to do the right thing, so they can. 

Research also shows that those that display higher levels of willpower don’t actually have to use it. The belief that they can overcome challenges through self-discipline activates the control dopamine circuit. This leads to using the logical parts of their brain to solve problems and think long-term. As a consequence, they tend to create systems, shape their environments, and take other small steps to make it easier to do the right thing. 

The person who doesn’t believe that willpower is a finite resource uses their brain to solve the problem once (active coping) instead of accepting that they will inevitably fail (passive coping).  

Shaping your environment leads to the concept we call ‘acting into feeling’. By making it hard not to do the right thing, you end up taking actions that move you towards your goals even when you’re not motivated. Those actions lead to feeling on track with your goals, which leads to feeling more motivated. 

Action precedes motivation most of the time. This is why it’s so important to harness moments of motivation to build skills, shape your environment, and create systems that propagate those actions in the future.     

The person who sees willpower as a finite resource thinks of it as a precious commodity so they only use it for immediately gratifying things (desire dopamine). They also expect to run out of willpower, so when a desire to quit or do something else comes along, they are less likely to fight it. They think of it as a natural consequence of fading willpower and they give in to that impulse. They never ‘act into feeling’. They wait to feel motivated to take action, and when they do, it’s toward feeling good in the moment. So, they never create a process to keep them going when they don’t feel so motivated. 

Like most skills or attitudes, these aren’t black-and-white, binary beliefs. You can fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Context also matters. You may display a lot of willpower in one aspect of your life, but not another. The only way to identify your own tendencies is to have a process for identifying and adjusting your behaviors and beliefs.  

No one is a robot with bottomless reserves. But, believing that you can develop discipline is the first step in doing so.  

Compartmentalization and Segmenting 

When you perceive that you’re on track towards your goal you get little pulses of dopamine to keep you motivated and moving forward. This explains why mental skills like segmenting are so powerful. Breaking down a huge goal into small pieces is an effective way to create little ‘wins’ along the way. 

It also explains why compartmentalization is so useful for rebounding from setbacks. When something doesn’t go well, your ability to set it aside and refocus on what you can control helps you control your stress response. It also reengages the rational decision-making part of your brain, which reduces the volume of your emotional response and allows you to find a reason to keep moving forward

These and the other mental skills covered in our book and taught in our app are important in situations devoid of positive feedback. To not give up, you have to regulate your own experience to find wins in a situation that doesn’t provide them. 

To reliably implement these skills you have to learn how to use them in increasingly realistic situations (i.e open-ended workouts). 

Here is an example of the end result of this process from a client:

“I think the open-ended workouts are helping out. In a sense, I care less about what I have to do and just do it. I don’t get all pissed off when I have to repeat a task. I just start doing the additional mile without much thought.

Also, I feel like nothing really turns out as bad as you think it will be beforehand. I went into the 5 mile runs with a shitty warmup and not a lot of sleep and had some thoughts about how it’s gonna be painful and gonna suck. I realized what I was saying in my head and it made me think about how it’s just another ‘hard’ thing that I’ve done a hundred times. And as it is somewhat “painful” and does suck, it’s never as bad as I make it seem in my own head before actually doing it. 

Actually, it’s usually never really even that hard due to using all the “mental skills” (segmenting, compartmentalization) and afterward within minutes I’m pretty well recovered and don’t feel any different than I did before the task, even with the long open-ended workout.“

Wrap Up

Reading this article won’t magically unlock your power to have unlimited motivation and overcome every obstacle. If you remember from the beginning of this article, you only really know something after you’ve experienced it. Right now, all the concepts in the article are just words in your head.

Now comes the hard part. You have to do the work to turn those words into something you can demonstrate on the worst day of your life. To do this, you’ll need to step outside your comfort zone and pursue difficult experiences while consciously practicing these concepts. 

If you do, someday you’ll be able to say things like ‘quitting isn’t an option’ and know that you actually mean it. 



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