Why are some people more driven than others???

Some people just have that “Get up and go,” don’t they??? This goes by many names – self-control, grit, motivation, drive, persistence, work-ethic. When it comes to succeeding in a particular pursuit, this thing is a pretty important factor, too. One study found that self-reported grit was more important than IQ in predicting a number of outcomes in eighth-grade students:

Self-discipline measured in the fall accounted for more than twice as much variance as IQ in final grades, high school selection, school attendance, hours spent doing homework, hours spent watching television (inversely), and the time of day students began their homework.

It’s a pretty common trait among successful people, too. Will Smith is a pretty successful guy by most standards. Why is that? Here’s what he has to say about success:

Why are some people driven like this, while others are happy to tread water? Will Smith is clearly a very competitive guy with a huge work ethic. Where other people would be happy to take a day off, he keeps on working. Where other people slow down, he speeds up. Sounds exhausting! What is behind such a huge amount of effort?


I don’t believe that this is a fixed trait, because different people in different cultures and environments will react differently. But I do think genetics play a role. Many traits studied by psychologists have a strong genetic component, according to studies of twins. So maybe the traits that lead to being driven also develop more easily in people with a certain set of genes. I’ve never believed the idea that “All people are created equal.” Clearly, some people are born with better aptitudes in different areas than others. We’re not all born with the same mental blank slate, onto which we can develop in different directions.

Intrinsic Motivation

I’ve talked before about the difference between intrinsic motivation (something you do for its own sake) versus extrinsic motivation (something you do for a reward). Could it be that lack of drive is simply a symptom of doing something for a reward, as opposed to doing it for the pure pleasure of doing it?

Michael Jordan talks in his autobiography about how the massive amount of effort he put into training was fun. For him, getting up early every day to practice free throws was scarcely an effort. Not that it’s right to say he has no work ethic — of course not — only that what seems on the outside to be a strong work ethic and “forcing” of behaviours is sometimes less so from the inside.

The key thing to keep in mind here is difficulty. In the video above, Will Smith mentions the idea of talent versus skill, of honing your craft for thousands of hours until you’re a master. This gels with Ericsson‘s work on deliberate practice, and the well-known (thanks to Malcolm Gladwell) idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach mastery, regardless of the starting skill level. Deliberate practice is different to just doing the activity. It is doing it at the outer limit of your ability. It’s working on those hard, frustrating aspects that actually take effort. If you find a pentatonic scale difficult but could jam along to “She Loves You” all day long, then working on the former contributes to your 10,000 hours but the latter does not.

If your craft is something that naturally appeals to you, and you enjoy, so much the better, but you’ll still have times you don’t want to practice, or you’d rather relax, or where you’ve reached a plateau that is hard for you to progress past. Therefore, to the extent that skill level plays a role in success, it stands to reason that grit, persistence, and work ethic is going to play a role in success regardless of intrinsic motivation. As beneficial as it may be, don’t make the mistake of thinking that intrinsic motivation is necessarily synonymous with “high” motivation. I read books for intrinsic reasons, but I don’t always want to read.

You could say therefore, that success can stem from something that you’re intrinsically motivated to do, but either doesn’t require high levels of skill, or you already have high levels of skill in. As long as it’s not something mundane like eating. If you can find something like that, you’re home free, so it’s worth considering if any activities like this exist for you.

However, there is a trap here. If you’re looking for external success via something you’re intrinsically motivated to do, it could very easily switch to something you’re extrinsically motivated to do when you start seeing it as a path to external rewards. This is particularly dangerous, because as Dan Pink notes, motivation for activities only tends to be increased by external rewards when these are rote, boring, repetitive tasks. Ability on tasks that require creative thought or effort tends to be stunted by the promise of rewards. Maybe that’s why a musician’s second album is usually worse than the first?

Purpose / Meaning

Maybe some people have a greater sense of purpose behind them, and this provides the motivation for them to keep going even through difficult times. Survival is one such purpose. It’s hard to imaging Chinese factory workers doing 18 hour days in terrible conditions for any reason other than to survive. If they had a few million in the bank, that would seem like an absurd course of action.

Being anchored to a purpose might keep people going. When they feel like they want to take a break, they remind themselves of what they are trying to do, and they suddenly feel the urge to continue. This makes sense to me. I think our bodies keep energy in reserve, even when we feel very tired, just in case something of high importance becomes salient. Many a times I’ve been walking down the street, tired and hunched, when I see a pretty girl walking the opposite way. Isn’t it funny? I suddenly find the energy to walk upright and stick my chest out a bit!

I imagine this as a kind of evolutionary reserve power store, just in case something comes up that might influence our ability to survive our reproduce. But because our brains are adaptable, and self-programmable, we can “install” a number of rules so our brain learns other occasions it should access our reserve power. The ability to build a sense of purpose might be one such thing. Of the top of my head, I can think of one study that backs this up, where people who reviewed their core values did better in a self-control task than people who didn’t.

The need for success itself might serve this role for some. Why would Will Smith rather die than get off a treadmill before you? You could imagine some negative motivations behind this, like not wanting to feel like a failure, or status consciousness taken to such an extreme level that people would rather try to beat everyone that simply deal with that issue. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Competition can be a tool, something that you use to motivate yourself but deep down understand is essentially meaningless. Beyond competition, the desire to contribute and to serve might provide that purpose. There are many examples of people being willing to put themselves through hell, even to die, for a purpose. This is something we’ve been reminded of in recent years but the mechanism has always existed.

If this is correct, the action step here is to install a purpose into yourself, to find the meaning behind what you want to do. There are two ways. One is to determine your values, beliefs and convictions, and pick your direction based on them. This makes sense but is very difficult. If you ask yourself “What do I value?”, “What do I believe?”, it would be hard to know if the answer is “real,” and not something that has been pushed into your head from one of the 10 zillion sources we’re bombarded from in daily life. How “deep” do you have to go to find your true purpose, if there is such a thing, and where does it even come from?

The other way is to take your direction, and integrate your values into it. This strikes me as a temporary solution at best since the two probably won’t fit together very well. It’s unlikely you be pursuing a path that’s in line with your core values and not know it on some level. The reverse is probably true as well, if you’re going in a “wrong” direction there’s probably a little niggling feeling that pops up occasionally (but you bash it back down with the perks of the job).

Have I missed anything?

What do you think about this? Why are some people more driven than others? This isn’t an extensive list, just a few ideas – what have I missed?

Also, what do you think about the “how” side of things. How does one install a sense of purpose for instance?

Here’s another question – can the lack of purpose, motivation and genetic propensity be overcome through “techniques?” If you set goals, go over your values, plan your time, etc., is that enough?

Neuroplasticity and Television

Here’s an interesting thought for you. We could go into this more deeply, and maybe we will in the future, but just for the moment, ponder this. If you do anything regularly and consistently, the brain will change, actually change physically, anatomically, in structure. For example, in violinists the part of the brain linked to the left hand is bigger. Because violinists practice so much, the brain adapts to allow them to do this activity better, more efficiently. The neurological implications of consistent, regular repetition of violin playing are massive – neurons thicken, allowing more electricity and therefore stronger signals to pass through them, and more connections are made between neurons; all with the end result of making the violinist better at playing the violin.

How much time do you spend watching television? What are the neurological implications of this? What is the end result of the synaptical connections being made, day after day? What is it making you better at?

Five things everybody needs to know about materialism

“The things you own, end up owning you”
– Tyler Durden (Fight Club)

I’ve seen Fight Club about 58 times. It’s my favourite film. I love it so much I even had the above quote engraved onto the back of my iPod.

In the film, Brad Pitt’s character Tyler Durden is a pretty heavy anti-consumerist. He is disturbed by the way people look for self-esteem and happiness in material things, and senses a better way.

Tyler Durden Fight Club

Was he right about materialism? Some researchers have been looking into the effects that materialism has on people. Here are five things everybody should know:

1) High importance of money = low satisfaction with life

Seven-thousand people, in 41 countries were surveyed about the importance they place on money, and on love.  When these were correlated against life satisfaction it looked approximately like this:


As you can see, unsatisfied people (to the left) thought money way important and love wasn’t, and satisfied people (to the right) thought the opposite. (1,4)

2) Materialism is associated with mental health problems

People who value financial success highly are more likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety. Likewise, materialists have lower levels of self-actualisation and vitality, (2) and are more likely to be visited by ghosts at Christmas time. (3)

3) Material goals can never be fulfilled

First you want the iPod. Then the clothes, the car, the big house, the boat, the bigger house, the bigger boat. You get stuck on a hedonic treadmill; today’s luxuries are tomorrow’s necessities, as your income and consumption rise, so do your desires and expectations. It’s like moving to a higher weight division in boxing – you can do it, but there’s always a bunch of bigger guys there waiting for you.

And if you combine high material aspirations with low income, you’re like a flyweight fighting a heavyweight. This is the worst combination of income and materialism you can have, in terms of well being. (4)

4) You seek self-esteem in things

Another study found a way to manipulate how important people think money is: they had people write out a list of their inadequacies. Once their failings had been literally spelled out for them, they thought money was more important. Their self-esteem had lowered, and they thought money could fill the gap.

The problem with this, is that you’re rooting your self-esteem in things outside of your control. It’s unstable. So if you lose a load of money from, say, I don’t know, a stock market crash, you’re more likely to feel bad about yourself, feel unpleasant emotions, and so on. (5)

5) Materialists live avoidance-based lives

It seems that the link between materialism and poor quality of life can be explained through something called “experiential avoidance.” This refers to the tendency to avoid negative experiences, thoughts, and behaviours, rather than to seek out good ones. Experiential avoiders are focused on getting away from what they don’t want, as opposed to moving towards what they do want. (6)

When the road to their goals and values is paved with the occasional negative experience, they tend not to walk the path, preferring to develop avoidance strategies. Ultimately, living in fear of negative thoughts, experiences and behaviours is associated with a number of negative mental health consequences, and is emotionally draining. This isn’t a black and white thing, and experiential avoidance may not be the defining feature of a person; but it tends to be more pronounced in people who have strong material desires.

Unanswered Questions

As satisfying as it would be to say that materialism causes all the above ailments, the evidence isn’t clear. All the above studies are correlational, so they can’t tell us what is causing what. It could be that people develop unhappiness, mental health problems or experiential avoidance first, and then turn to material goals as a way of coping, as in point 4. Clearly though, if this is the case, materialism doesn’t seem to be the answer.

The Solutions

How can we reduce materialism?

1) Gratitude

Grateful people are consistently found to be less materialistic, and when people are told to express more gratitude, they find themselves becoming less materialistic. The exact instructions given in one study, if you wanted to try this, were as follows:

Please put your pen or pencil down, close your eyes,
and consciously disengage from unpleasant mental and
emotional reactions by shifting attention to the heart.
For a few minutes, focus on sincerely feeling apprecia-
tion for what you have been given in life. Now, in the
space below please write about your experience and
about some of the things that came to mind.

Simpler gratitude exercises have been tested, such as each day writing down three good things that happened that day, and why they happened.

Why does it work? Gratitude, as I mentioned before, tends to make people happier. It could be that more satisfied people don’t seek well being in possessions as much. (7)

2) Meditation

The difference between what you want financially, and what you have, is called your “aspiration gap.” The bigger your aspiration gap, the lower your well-being. Consumer culture tells you that, rather than reduce this gap, you should fill it with things. Another path, which is popular in Eastern philosophy, is to reduce your desire, learn to want what you have. (8)

One way to do this is through mindfulness meditation.  I’m not qualified to give a run-down of how to meditate, but there are some good resources online: John Kabat-Zinn walks you through it in this video, and you can get guidance in mp3 format from Mental Workout (they are cheap: $1-2 each; I’m going through a few of their programs they seem pretty good so far).  Otherwise, just Google.

3) Watch Fight Club 58 times.

Worked for me.

Recommended Reading:


(1) Diener, E. and S. Oishi: 2000, ‘Money and happiness: Income and subjective well-being across nations’, in E. Diener and E.M. Suh (eds.), Subjective Well-beingacross Cultures (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA).

(2) Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration, journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 410-422.

(3) Dickens, C. (1843). A Christmas Carol in Prose.

(4) Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2009). Will money increase subjective well-being?: A literature review and guide to needed research. The science of well-being: The collected works of Ed Diener (pp. 119-154). New York, NY US: Springer Science

(5) Unpublished study, reported in (4)

(6) Kashdan, T., & Breen, W. (2007). Materialism and diminished well-being: Experiential avoidance as a mediating mechanism. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 26(5), 521-539.

(7) Lambert, N., Fincham, F., Stillman, T., & Dean, L. (2009). More gratitude, less materialism: The mediating role of life satisfaction. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 32-42.

(8) Brown, K., Kasser, T., Ryan, R., Alex Linley, P., & Orzech, K. (2009). When what one has is enough: Mindfulness, financial desire discrepancy, and subjective well-being. Journal of Research in Personality

Does money bring happiness? (v2.0)

We’ve looked at this topic before. Since then, I’ve written an essay on the relationship between income and well-being. Although there has been a huge amount of work, the answer is not clear. There isn’t a yes/no answer to this question, unfortunately, and it depends on many different things. To explain what some of these things are, I’ll quote myself:

The presented research suggests that increases in income will bring the most happiness to an individual who is: relatively poor; has just experienced an income drop; is satisfied with their new income level; and who spends their money on experiential purchases and on other people. Income increase will have the weakest effect on an individual who is: relatively rich; living in an affluent country with a growing economy; has high aspirations and wants even more money; and spends their money on material goods for themselves.

Money might have a small, direct effect on happiness but the relationship is not as simple as asking “How much money do you earn?” It’s “How much do you earn, how much have you earned in the past, how much money do you want, where do you live, and how are you going to spend it?”

If you want to read my full essay (and why wouldn’t you?), you can find it here.

Why is Smoking Addictive?

“I finally overcame my will power and started smoking again.” – Mark Twain

There’s no better way to start an article than to quote a long-dead writer with a moustache; especially when he (or she – women can have moustaches too) makes a good point in an ironic way.  In this case, the point is that once you’ve started smoking, it’s tough to stop.  I know that first hand; I was a smoker for many years.  Right from the beginning though, I knew it was bad for me and that I’d eventually stop.  And eventually I did, on roughly the 378th attempt.

It’s not that it’s just great fun, like going to the cinema – smoking is chemically addictive.  It has an effect on the brain that makes you want to keep doing it.  Despite the negative health effects being pretty well known by now, smokers seem to either disagree that smoking is harmful, or come up with interesting justifications for smoking.

And for a smoker seeking to rationalise their behaviour, there’s plenty of material:  “Some people smoke all their lives and don’t get sick.”  “You could get hit by a bus tomorrow.”  “It looks cool.”  And of course, “I can quit any time I want!” But why do people get addicted to cigarettes, and not, say, apples?

This is your brain on apples

We have a reward mechanism in our brain, which is designed to help us survive by getting us to repeat actions that are beneficial for us.  All mammals have this.  It fires up when we eat, have sex, socialise; when we do anything that we like doing.  The fuel that this system runs on is called dopamine.  Some people call it the pleasure chemical, but maybe it’s more accurate to call it the reward chemical.

Why do people become addicted to cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine?  It’s because these drugs ‘hack into’ this reward system, and cause dopamine to be released in large amounts.  Nothing is necessarily happening to you that your brain would recognise as a beneficial thing; the drugs just get in there and activate the reward system at the same time you are taking them.

When I say ‘at the same time’, that really depends on how quickly the drug gets into your brain and triggers the dopamine release.  The quicker this happens (and the bigger the release, of course), the more addictive the drug is.  This is because the dopamine release will coincide more closely with the physical act of taking the drug.  Smoking is about the quickest method you can get.  The chemicals get to your brain quicker than if you had injected them.

So, you take a drag of a cigarette.  The reward system quickly activates.  Your brain goes “Ah, dopamine, what I am doing is beneficial, I’ll make sure to do this again!” at the same time as you’re smoking.  Then you take another drag, “Ah, dopamine, this is beneficial…” etc., 30 or so times in the space of a few minutes.  The reward system is getting triggered quickly and repeatedly, and being linked to what you are doing at the time: smoking.  This is why it’s so addictive.

Ever get a craving while stood at a bus stop?  Waiting for a train?  While drinking alcohol?  Same thing.  If you tend to smoke at a certain time – say you have a cigarette with your morning coffee – then over time smoking gets associated with that situation: if you drink a coffee on a morning, you’ll get a craving for a cigarette.  After you quit, and expose yourself to this situation repeatedly without smoking, the association weakens, along with the craving.

This is why the old tactic of leaving empty cigarette packets around to give you the illusion that you are stocked up is bass-ackwards; it only serves as a trigger for a craving.  There was an anti-drug campaign a few years ago here in the UK, posters were found all over that displayed pictures of various drug paraphernalia, in a sort of “don’t use these nasty things” sort of way.  This was doomed to failure for the same reason.

You can’t really blame anyone for being addicted to smoking.  This reward system is there to help us survive, not to be hacked into.  We don’t have Norton Anti-Addiction installed in our brains, which runs automatically once a week (and slows down everything else we are doing at the time).  If these pathways are activated, the brain has no idea there’s anything unnatural going on, so naturally we come up with rationalisations to explain the behaviour – some people don’t die from smoking, I could quit if I wanted, etc.

There’s not only this reinforcing effect, chemically rewarding us for smoking, but there’s also the experience of withdrawal to deal with too.  We’ll look at that next time.

Recommended Reading: