Confidence, Certainty, and Understanding Your Own Motivation

Series: The Concept of Happiness

In the previous article in this series, I said that confidence is the emotion that proceeds from the conclusion that you have sufficient skill that your current or proposed effort will result in success. But if the task is at all difficult, how can you reach such a conclusion with certainty? And if you aren’t certain, won’t you have doubt, not confidence?

The way out of this conundrum is to understand your own motivation abstractly. This allows you to exert your effort in such a way that you get a payoff, whatever may happen.

For example, one of the members of my Spring Launch program thought his goal was to get a new job. But when he got clear on his motivation, what he really wanted was decision-making control over his projects. Once he understood this, he realized that he could probably get that in his current job if he handled it right. He spent some time identifying a project to propose and planning how to pitch it to his boss. Two weeks after the Launch he wrote to me: his boss was on board. This was a much easier way to gain and keep his value of autonomy than finding a new job.

And notice that there would have been a payoff even if his boss had said “no.” HIs preparation was an example of his taking charge, having autonomy, and directing his own work. Moreover, the momentum he got by this process ensured that he would be in a better place to look for a job, if that was needed. After all, if he hadn’t figured out what he really wanted, who says his next job would be any better? Would he have known what questions to ask as he interviewed? Probably not. Knowing what he wanted, abstractly, gave him many more ways to get what he wanted.

You need to know your real motivation for acting

So the first step you need to ensure success, i.e., that your effort will pay off, is to be objective about your motivation before you take action. By your motivation, I mean, the value (your value) that is primarily causing the impulse to act.

I’ve argued that you need motivation to act, that you should not force yourself. But you need to vet your motivational impulses. Sometimes the alleged cause of the impulse is not the real cause. There’s a hidden agenda. This creates all kinds of problems and makes it much more difficult to be successful.

For example, suppose you asked your boss for a raise. Superficially you believed your motivation was just more money, but what you really wanted was for your supervisor to show you how much he valued your contributions to the company. If he gave you a raise only grudgingly, you might achieve your stated goal but feel frustration, not joy. You would not be successful, in large part because you misidentified the value you were really after.

This is a known difficulty with motivation. Since it is experienced in an emotional form, you may or may not understand the values that give rise to it.

To be objective about your motivation, you need to examine it closely. You need more than a superficial understanding of it; the most obvious source of motivation may not reflect your best judgment. It is not enough to have perfectly logical reasons for doing what you’re doing. You also need to have motivation in the moment to follow through on those reasons. If you lack motivation or you’re motivated to do something else, you probably don’t fully understand what’s motivating you. That is a problem.

To quote Ayn Rand:

[Rationality] means that one must never desire effects without causes, and that one must never enact a cause without assuming full responsibility for its effects — that one must never act like a zombie, i.e., without knowing one’s own purposes and motives — that one must never make any decisions, form any convictions or seek any values out of context, i.e., apart from or against the total, integrated sum of one’s knowledge. (AR, The Objectivist Ethics)

It is only by knowing your real motivation — the real value you are after — that you can ensure that your action will be successful, regardless of other factors. That takes two steps.

First, vet your conscious reason

The first and most important step to understanding your motivation is to vet your conscious reason. Engage in some due diligence to see if there is any evidence that your motivation is not what it seems. Simply ask yourself, “What is my reason for taking this action? What is my conscious justification?”

If you don’t know your conscious reason, that’s a dead giveaway that there’s a distortion somewhere. Don’t be paranoid that your emotions might be leading you astray due to some unresolved conflict. Just go ahead and introspect them to make your reasons conscious.

Once you do have a conscious reason, you have a good start. Now make sure your reason passes the smell test. Is it in principle rational?

Normally, your conscious reason will be completely rational. For example, it is rational to want a raise because you deserve to be rewarded justly for your services.

That said, sometimes when you’re honest with yourself, you are surprised to uncover a dubious reason for taking the action. For example, suppose you wanted a raise “to prove that you’re really good enough.” No amount of praise or money can prove that to you — you need to prove it to yourself. This means there’s a distortion somewhere.

Never panic if you find out you have a dubious reason for an action you want to take. Uncovering a distortion is a good thing. It will help you make your motivation objective. On the other hand, don’t rest on your laurels just because your reason sounds good. It could still be a rationalization.

To vet your conscious reason, I recommend introspecting all of your emotions about the proposed action. What do you feel about asking for a raise and why do you feel it? This will shine a light on any competing motivation that conflicts with your conscious reason. You can do this ad hoc, but I recommend going through all of the basic families of emotions and asking yourself why you might be feeling each one. It might go something like this for the example of getting a raise:

Why might I be feeling anger? Because I should have gotten a raise earlier. Why gratitude? Because my husband helped me think through how to do this. (Anger/gratitude is one family.)

Why might I be feeling fear? Because he might blow up at me. Why might I be feeling relief? Because I’m finally taking action that I put off for so long. (Fear/relief is another family.)


In my (free) Thinking Directions Starter Kit, I introduce the 8 basic families of emotions. In my (inexpensive) Thinker’s Toolkit, I spell out instructions for this process, which I call an “empathy bath.” Once you learn the skill, you can do it quickly in most situations. But just doing it ad hoc is enough to start.

What you’re doing by this process is making conscious all of the value issues that you are peripherally aware of at this moment. As Ayn Rand says, you cannot do better than your own mind. But if you ignore the quieter emotions in the fringes, you are not doing your conscious best to make sure that you know the real reason for taking this action.

Knowing your real reason makes all of the difference in success.

Second, make sure you understand the short-term payoff

Unfortunately, knowing your real reason, even if it’s a darn good reason, doesn’t always translate into motivation to act. When this is the case, it almost always means that you have a long-term goal and you don’t see the short-term payoff for acting toward it.

For example, suppose your boss denied your raise and you concluded you should look elsewhere. You might decide that you should redo your resume and post it to a job board. That’s a logical first step. That doesn’t mean you’ll have any desire to do it.

Why not? Because what will happen after you post it? Probably nothing. That is a pretty accurate prediction, even if you think it’s a good short-term goal to set.

This happens all of the time. You break down a longer term goal into logical steps, and then find you have zero interest in taking the next step. The logic may be impeccable. Once you have your resume, it doesn’t hurt to post it to a site. It’s a reasonable first step. The next step might be to send your resume to friends. Then the next step might be to identify warm leads and send it to them. Most likely the payoff will come later in the process.

Here’s the problem: Putting together a resume is a lot of work. If you put together the resume, put it on the job board, but never send it to friends or warm leads, you could put in a lot of effort and never see any results.

The way many people deal with this conundrum is that they double-down on their determination and their effort. They psych themselves up to take the step, even though there’s no tangible short-term payoff. This approach can be used sparingly. But if it’s your go-to approach, it will mean that your most important, most meaningful projects will also be the least rewarding on a day-to-day basis. That is not conducive to happiness.

What I recommend is that you change up your plan so that those first effortful steps achieve some kind of short-term benefit. If you can guarantee that, you will feel confidence. Confidence is the best motivator in this kind of situation.

This takes a little creativity, but if you are clear on the need for motivation — because forcing yourself and self-deprivation lead to suffering, not happiness — it is absolutely worth a bit more thinking. What you need to do is to figure out a variation on this short-term goal that has a payoff that will motivate you.

Let’s go back to the example of creating a resume and posting it to a job board. Suppose that you switch up the order and set your initial goal to be “get feedback on my draft resume from 3 friends.” This is not only easier, but it has an immediate payoff. The feedback is the payoff. You will learn how to present yourself better as a result of these conversations. And you’ll get some real momentum on the job search. And oh, by the way, one of those friends might know of the perfect job for you, and you’ll never need to perfect the resume. But the value you are certain you’ll get in the short term is not a job — it’s feedback and momentum. The long-range goal is to get a job, but the short-term payoff is a value in itself.

I call the process of finding a short-term payoff for the long-term goal self-direction. This is to distinguish it from self-discipline (which involves making yourself take that logical step no matter how you feel) and self-indulgence (which involves only acting when you feel like it). There is much more that could be said about this process of self-direction, which I explain in a 12-session recorded class available on a private podcast in the Thinking Lab.

I’m not saying it’s easy to know your motivation. I’m saying it’s possible. And knowing your motivation is essential for identifying a next step you can take that will pay off. That is what gives you confidence to take that step. You are certain that your effort will result in success.

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