2012-06-23

Virtues and Motives

A couple of days ago, I discussed internal and external motivational factors, both positive and negative. The issue there was, if we are supposed to be satisfied with who we are, what is the point of trying to improve? That post brought to light the fact that we are inherently driven toward self-improvement by people around us, and also by our own personal value systems.

It almost goes without saying that our values shape our desire to improve. It need not be a competitive situation. Someone who highly values honesty, for example, will always endeavor to tell the truth. Invariably, there will be times when he or she falls short of perfect honesty in all situations. Telling the truth seems like an easy thing to do, and yet various situations come up that pit our other values against a given virtue. For example, one might be driven to lie out of deference to a person's feelings. The question, "How do I look?" should seldom be answered negatively, for example.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The point here is that behind every effort toward nobility is a virtue; and in front of every virtue is a chance to improve - not because we're currently inadequate, but simply because being better is, well... better.

Let's take a closer look.

If You're Not Going to Win, Why Run the Race?
Unlike jogging on the treadmill at home, running a race involves pitting your body against a whole crowd of other runners. Only a handful of these runners have any hope of winning the race, and everyone knows who they are long before the race gets started. And yet, major road races still attract dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of runners who have no intention of winning. Why?

The first answer is the obvious one: It's fun. Road races are a good source of family entertainment, even if you don't win. There are snacks, door prizes, and a large community of like-minded people to keep participants entertained all morning long. For many of us, that is reason enough to compete.

I also previously mentioned the possibility that a participant may want to inspire others, so I will leave that aside today.

Another reason to participate in a road race is to check your progress. While it's technically possible to set aside one, unchanging loop of, say, 5 miles that you run every time you want to check in on how well you're keeping in shape, most people prefer to use races for this purpose instead. First of all, this is because it's a refreshing change from doing the same loop every day. Second of all, we do this because our fellow racers are also trying to do their best, and that raises the bar a little, inspiring us to do better than we otherwise would, were we running alone. Third, by running in a variety of 5-mile races (for example), we get a better idea of how our performance is stacking up than if we only ever do one.

But the main idea I hope to be conveying here is that there are a great many reasons to race, even if you don't expect to win, and that a lot of these have to do with self-assessment. What is behind the average person's desire to check their physical "progress" with a race? A lot of it is the simple desire to reap the rewards of all that hard work. If you're going to invest weeks, months, even years, in hard physical training, it's satisfying to note when you're enjoying some good progress.

This kind of appraisal is good for self-esteem. It affirms that a person is capable of achieving something, even if that "something" isn't an outright win. Simply stated, it's nice to know that we can improve, even if we're not focused on winning. So we race. It's natural.

Practical Virtues in the Workplace
Of course, not everyone is interested in exercise. Some people derive more satisfaction from a job well done. Once again, we might ask why anyone should endeavor to do better on the job if they are already "good enough."

Taken in this light, the idea is almost silly, isn't it? And yet it is very important to highlight the difference between feelings of inadequacy driving a desire to "improve" (really, it's more like not be so terrible) and taking pride in what you do.

We spend a large part of our daily lives engaged in work. We're motivated to work first by necessity, but second - and more importantly - by the desire to provide for the kinds of lives we wish to have. We want our families to live in comfort, we want our children to have every educational and professional opportunity to which they can gain access. We want to treat ourselves and our families to nice luxuries, and we want our situations to generally improve.

All this adds up to being powerful motivation to perform well in the workplace. For most of us, work is our primary vehicle of improving our lot in life. We may not be particularly interested in the actual work we're doing, but we want to do the best possible job, so that we can gain a higher salary, more workplace responsibility, better benefits and working hours, etc.

What's important here is that improving our lives is an unquestionably good thing.

Of course, that's not the only motivational reason people reach for the stars on the job. Some of us do so because we are actually very interested in what we're doing at work. In that case, many of the same principles I described above about racing applies equally to workplace performance. It's a game, a competition, a chance to demonstrate personal performance from the standpoint of honing and developing a skill set.

Pride: That Dicey Virtue
Finally, many of us are motivated toward improvement by an innate sense of pride. Some people consider themselves perfectly capable of delivering high performance in everything they do (or at least everything that is important to them). For these folks (and I am one of them), delivering anything less than what our own internal standards deem appropriate is delivering something less than what we feel others deserve.

Note that concept carefully. The idea here is that our internal standards determine what we think others deserve. At play is a bit of a Golden Rule. Give others the best you can give, because you want the same in return.

Some people think pride itself is a sin. These people feel that taking pride in one's ability to perform at a certain standard is an act of vanity. Somehow, these folks believe that in feeling this way, we are somehow discounting those who are incapable of meeting that particular standard. They're wrong. No one with a strong internal sense of pride spends that much time thinking about what other people are incapable of. But covering this topic in depth is a post for another day.

Conclusion
This morning, I've tried to discuss some of the practical, internal motivational factors that lead us to self-improvement. My purpose here was to highlight the fact that self-improvement is not necessarily - and indeed need never be - traced to some sense of personal inadequacy.