Driven by…what, exactly?

Lately I’ve been thinking about motivation and drive.  Why, exactly, do people do what they do — more specifically, why do people do crazy things?  Things like climbing a mountain, running a marathon, or, I don’t know, spending twelve years in post-high school education in order to get a degree that might someday get a job that pays as well as an entry-level position at Costco?  I’ve been thinking about this because a few people have said that getting a PhD is “quite an achievement.” My grandfather has been particularly keen on this observation, noting that I’m the first in the family to become a “doctor.”  I usually respond to such kind words in typically tactless fashion, saying something like, “Well, it just kind of happened,” or “momentum basically carried me through.”  My well-wishers receive such gracelessness with a warm chuckle, but there’s also a look of genuine bewilderment — is he really so poor at displays of modesty?   But this isn’t false modesty; I’m telling the truth when I say that the PhD just kind of happened.  Or, more accurately, I never set out to achieve the goal of getting a PhD.  It was the next logical step in the path towards the kind of job that I want (which itself isn’t so much a goal as another step).

This, I think, differentiates two ways of approaching life.  There’s my seemingly haphazard method — do one thing, then the next, and so on — and then there’s the “achievement” method, perhaps best illustrated through the unfortunate current popularity of the term “bucket list,” (as in, “I want to visit Paris so I can check that off my bucket list”).*  A “sense of achievement,” drives some people to do what I would consider actually crazy things: finishing an Ironman race, running marathons, that sort of physical-endurance thing.  More accurately, some people want to do these things once, so that they can say that they have done it.  But I’ve never understood that, and I think it’s because I am not driven by a sense of achievement.  I don’t do things to check them off a list or to prove to myself that I can do them, and so when people offer those reasons as explanations for doing things like climbing a 14,000-foot mountain, I warmly chuckle while wearing an expression of bewilderment.

Initially, I thought that my approach was better (of course I did!).  Doing something for the sake of saying that I’ve done it seemed so superficial and meaningless, not to mention frustratingly temporary in its satisfaction (“Okay, that’s done.  Now what?”).  But then I considered how many people I know who do things out of a sense of achievement, and surely they are not superficial and meaningless people.  Moreover, I began to ponder the virtues of being driven by a sense of achievement.  It takes a certain kind of single-minded determination, it seems to me, to set out a goal and pursue it with such passion, and there’s something laudable about that.  And then I started to wonder: well, why am I doing all of this stuff, anyway?  What’s the reason?  Are my reasons any less superficial?  Perhaps even more so?

I don’t have an answer.  But I think I might have a role-model: this guy.  Lonnie Thompson is a climate scientist who has been chasing down the causes and effects of global warming for decades, despite challenges ranging from life-imperiling avalanches to flat-earth society reactionaries.  And, unless I’m wrong, he didn’t do it for the awards or a sense of achievement.  But he also didn’t do it just because it was the next step (although there seems to be a little bit of that, given what looks like a relatively haphazard transition from coal geology to ice core studies).  Instead, Thompson seems driven by a sense of righteousness, for lack of a better word: a belief that what he is doing is real, important, and true. That righteousness has kept Thompson doing all sorts of crazy things, but it makes sense to me.  I don’t know where that kind of drive comes from, but I applaud it, I understand it, and I’ll be thinking about whether I have, or can cultivate, something similar for my own career.

* Unfortunate because the movie was horrible from premise to execution.