The Layer Cake of Sustainable Motivation
I’ve recently started an Instagram where I make healing and growth-related memes: @art.of.self.liberation. In this post I want to unpack one of my favs I’ve made so far, The Layer Cake of Sustainable Motivation.
Some notes on the layers:
- If you are not into the concept of a Soul, you can think of the base layer as Value-level or Identity-level alignment. It’s about who you are in the core of your being.
- If you want to learn more about dopamine and how social media hacks our reward pathways, I recommend this interview with the author of Dopamine Nation. It really helped me understand the unsustainability of using metrics for motivation, on a biochemical level.
How to distinguish intrinsic rewards from extrinsic?
Some “rewards” or benefits can seem intrinsic but they aren’t. Another way to think of “extrinsic vs intrinsic” is “instrumental vs inherent”. When you have an instrumental goal, it means you want it for what else it can give you, not for the thing itself.
Money is the classic example of an instrumental goal. You don’t inherently want a bigger amount of money–you want what it brings, like security, status, freedom, etc.
But money is such a useful instrumental goal in our society that it can be really hard to see that this is all it is. Some of the most trapped people I’ve met are people who have a job that they hate, but that pays well. In that case, they are relying on that one Extrinsic Rewards layer to carry their motivation, but the other layers are not there–or worse, they are seriously out of alignment, like anti-cake. What is the opposite of cake? Nutraloaf? Well, whatever it is, they are trying to live off it, and it’s not working.
This is why aligning money with your Soul is tricky.
It’s not because there’s something evil about money. It’s that you can be paid to do so many things that are not in alignment, and finding the right alignment can be a long journey of self-discovery.
We are not often taught the tools for doing this kind of inner-alignment work, which takes a combination of inward listening, experimentation, and absolutely fierce self-loyalty. You have to be unwilling to settle for what you don’t actually want, even when it’s tempting you. You have to prioritize inner joy over outward success, over and over again. And you have to do it for long enough, even when it feels like wandering around in the desert, until you finally figure out your own personal alignment stack.
Add to that the economic pressure that money is a survival resource, and that we attach all this meaning to having it or not having it, and it creates a mess in our minds. So give yourself oodles of compassion if you are trying to figure this stuff out. It’s not easy, and we often don’t live in a social context that supports it. It helps a lot to find or create your own social circle that supports it, by finding friends who also care about alignment.
This isn’t just a career thing though; let’s talk about exercise.
“Being healthy” sounds like it could be intrinsic, but that really depends on the person. Exercise for many of us an instrumental goal–we want what it gives us, but we don’t actually love doing it for its own sake.
We are also given lots and lots of messages that are along the lines of, “If you were healthier, you’d be a better person”. Or not even healthier, just thinner. It’s a mine field of self-consciousness and shame for many of us. And it can be hard to think about exercise any other way. Even self-care can get hijacked into “treating yourself”, which is defining what should be an intrinsic reward as an extrinsic one – ew, stop!
Here’s an example of aligning exercise on a Soul level:
Non-“discipline” and “health benefits” reasons to go for walks:
- Being present in my body around other people.
- Seeing strangers and practicing Metta (“may you be at peace”), feeling connected to everyone I see.
- Opportunity to appreciate people’s gardens and flowers.
- Feeling the weather and seasons happening to my body, being in a place.
- Variety in my day, a transition activity.
- Giving my cats an opportunity to miss me.
Just writing this as an exercise opens up my energy. Suddenly I’m not conforming to the dictates of a “health”-obsessed culture, I’m being myself. I’m doing what I love. I’m being in the world the way I love to be in the world.
Sometimes we can avoid something we actually might enjoy just to reject the meaning it has in our minds. If I frame going for a run as conformity, “discipline”, as shaming myself as “lazy”, then I’m going to internally rebel. So, alignment isn’t just about finding the thing that is the right thing. Sometimes it’s about reclaiming the meaning of something for ourselves. This is internal boundary work.
People are different; comparison will kill your motivation.
But Johnny did this soul-crushing thing for 40 years! Well, maybe he actually enjoyed it on some level. Maybe he doesn’t have a soul, who knows (just kidding!). But we are all different, and it’s true that some people seem less bothered by seeming misalignment. Or maybe they are living lives of quiet desperation. It doesn’t matter. It only matters that it doesn’t work for you.
Studying the Meyers-Briggs type system has helped me a lot in accepting that I’m not the kind of person who can just live with misalignment. (I am an ENFP.) I will sacrifice money all day long if it means I can have my freedom. Alignment is like air to me. I need it. And this motivational layer cake may be an NF thing, not a universal thing. That’s OK. I know it works for me, maybe it will help you too. 💚