Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A dream is a wish your heart makes...but hearts were made to be broken.

If you read Psychology Today online religiously (as I do) and have a self-help collection that contains more than three titles (as I do), then you have come across the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. If you're not nuts or are nuts but haven't had any realizations yet about that fact, let me fill you in on what this is. Intrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from within a person. "I paint because I just love painting!" Extrinsic motivation comes from without. "I go to my shit job everyday because they give me the money I need to live." Pretty simple concept, right?

Well, just moments ago, I was sitting in the bathroom at work contemplating possible tweets I could post on my Twitter page when I came up with, "shaved my legs last night and didn't even get laid." That's when it hit me--most modern psychobabble is horseshit! I'd been duped AGAIN! I've got to stop reading Psychology Today religiously, but I get so bored at work and besides, sometimes I find good instructive articles for my boyfriend in the relationship section.

What does one have to do with the other? Well, I only shave my legs because I believe it will get me something I want--sex. I suppose one could argue that this is a mixture of motivations. It's somewhat intrinsic because I'm motivated by something I want (again, sex) to do something I otherwise would not care so much about doing (shave my legs). Honestly, I can still get the sex without shaving my legs, but I figure it provides a more pleasurable sensation for my partner during the act, so I try to keep up with it. But I find myself trying to calculate when I shave my legs around when I'm most likely to be having of the sex. "We had sex two days ago, which means tonight is probably a sex night, except he's not going to get home until late, and..." But this is pretty much the textbook definition of extrinsic motivation. It's certainly not like I shave my legs because I just love shaving my legs. Hell, I don't even do it for the wearing of the skirts. I will shamelessly go unshaven in a skirt if I haven't remembered to shave in a couple of days and that's what's clean.

Essentially what you've just learned is that I only care about people's good opinion of me when it leads to me getting laid.

Anyway, after thinking this about my leg shaving, I started thinking about how much of what we do is extrinsically motivated. Again, this means we do not do it for sheer love of the activity but because we have to do it in order to get something we want or need. But I've read so many freaking articles and books that hinged partially on the idea that we should be doing what we love! Ever heard the question, "Ask yourself what you would be doing if money were no object, then DO THAT!" Yeah. Whoever came up with that question is a) a marketing genius who has not only sold a lot of whatever he or she was selling but also helped a lot of other people who ripped off that sentiment sell a whole lot of something as well, and b) the ruiner of life. People read that in an article on a website, and the next thing you know they're trying to think up ways to move to the middle of nowhere and write the next great American novel (for instance--it's a hypothetical fantasy scenario). Problem is, imagine how realistic it must be that we can all write novels (or become painters, dancers, musicians, nuclear physicists) or do whatever else it is we love to do just for the sheer love of it while still getting paid a living wage for said thing.

If the minute you start to imagine that you panic, it's because it's IMPOSSIBLE--or, if it happened, it would lead to chaos of such proportions nobody would be doing any of those awesomeamazingwonderful things after about three weeks because we would be living in a Mad Max movie.

This philosophy--this "anybody can be anything and should only do that which makes them happy" thinking--is so hopelessly flawed, I don't even know where to begin to address it. First, it's classist. You know who came up with that thinking? Some rich 50-something white lady whose husband did a fancy job that allowed her the cash to go teach yoga in her very own ashram. Second, it's in full flight from reality. Hello, person who came up with this thinking--I'd like to introduce you to the American economy. I'd also like to introduce you to the social constructs that determine how much money people get paid for certain kinds of work and all the people who have been in bands their entire adult lives but never made a cent off their music. I'd like to introduce you to the concept that there are only so many positions available in any certain field. No, we do NOT need that many more internet content writers on the block. There's enough useless crap on the internet already.

Moving on...

Really, though, this philosophy sounds so wonderful! And it comes in even more subtle forms, like when we see Rachel suddenly go from coffeshop waitress to Ralph Lauren la-di-da on Friends. Hope that reference made sense; I never really watched that show. This idea that almost every action we take SHOULD be intrinsically motivated if we're GOOD people and we play our cards right is everywhere we turn...and it's harmful. I'm not a dream squisher. People ultimately do what they want. It's just that for most of us, eating and having a place to sleep are more important than quitting our jobs we hate in order to follow our dreams of not ever having to do anything that isn't fun EVER AGAIN. The reason that this thinking is harmful is that it sets people up for feeling like failures--perfectly successful people who've managed to make great art (even if they've never sold any), have fulfilling relationships (which, contrary to popular belief, are really important to a person's overall happiness and satisfaction with life), maybe write a screenplay that sits in a drawer but is nonetheless amazing, or raised a couple of kids whom they love. People who are good at their jobs, as much as they hate them some days. People who have managed to live through seriously tough stuff--and so much of life is tough stuff. I'm actually still amazed sometimes at the fact that I've been a grown-up without supervision for over 10 years and haven't been arrested or died yet. Everyone who knows me is nodding in agreement.

Ultimately, this philosophy is also tied up in the idea that money equals measurement of success. It isn't explicit, but what they're saying is that this is how you choose what to do for a living. So if you can't MAKE A LIVING out of your dreams, you've failed in some way. Because, you know, we should all be doing what we love FOR A LIVING. And I'm not discounting the fact that this does happen. We just have to be prepared in the event it does not happen for us. We might find perfectly awesome lives in the meantime, but only if we're willing to be okay with the fact that some very specific dreams didn't come true or, at the very least, that we never made OUR LIVING that way.

So follow your dreams. Just don't quit your day job yet.


  1. I totally get what you're saying with the "anybody can be anything and should only do that which makes them happy" but I think the essence of it is to be taken, not the literal. I think it just means don't give up just because someone or something deters you or you're told you are low on the economic totem pole or whatever.

    Hope is what keeps many a people a float...especially nowadays.

  2. Perhaps I'm just too cynical, but I also think life should be approached with a hint of realism. Also, I think it's important when addressing this philosophy to remember that there is a whole segment of the population that is so busy simply trying to maintain subsistence-level living that they can't even begin to think about the "do what makes you happy" ethos in the context in which it's usually delivered, making it at the very least laughable and at the worst downright insulting or harmful. I have it hard compared to the way I was raised, but other people have it 100 times harder than I do. I think it would be irresponsible of me to make it sound like anything is as easy as, "Figure out what you would do if money were no object and DO THAT." Much as we hate it, money is an object, and a person with class privilege choosing to give it up to follow a dream is wildly different from the experience of the person with none of it to begin with. One is about having choice. The other is not.