The three Ps of Motivation

Let’s categorize motives of people roughly in “doing it for the money” and “doing it for the fun” and we miss something essential. The third category of motivation, one that needs to remain vague and adventurous. Indeed: that other type of motivation has something to do with adventure. Not with just any treasure hunting or survival-in-the-wild undertaking, as they might be overshadowed by the “possession” (money) and “pleasure” aspects. What we mean is the kind of adventure that doesn’t seem to have a clear material goal (but often a psychological). We mean the adventure that people feel the just have to do, an individual Quest that can’t be replicated by anyone else. Perhaps this kind of adventure doesn’t exist in its purity, perhaps it is only a minor aspect of a Gold Rush or Into the Wild.

We amateur thinkers like to tinker with these concepts and squeeze them into a clear one-dimensional schema. So, there are three fundamental factors of motivation:
1) Pleasure: Satisfaction of our needs;
2) Possession: Saving up money for future security, and
3) Passion: A motivation that just “is” and can’t be analyzed.

Pleasure or immediate satisfaction takes plays in the present, or a representation of the present in our emotional states. We’re hungry, thirsty, feel sad, and want that solved a.s.a.p. This is of course the kind of motivation we share with other primates and even many other vertebrates. This is the motivation of the present, a clearly understood overcoming a lack. This is Aristotle’s definition of desire and its satisfaction.
Possession is one way to cope with the future. Here we humans leave other primates “behind” with our capacity to plan ahead and pay next year’s taxes. We don’t feel an immediate desire or lack, we create this feeling through our abstract concerns about a possible future (can I pay my mortgage, what about my pension, can I afford falling ill). This way to cope with the future is essentially about possession: The relevant question is “where do I stand compared to my peers and where do I stand in society?”. This is about power: How can we turn these potential futures into other people’s futures?
Passion can’t answer these questions. We might feel a vague sense of lack as the source of our passion, but we can’t tell what is lacking. We might dream of a future in which the passion has been accomplished, but we can’t describe it. Passion, it shows, must have her source in the enigmas of our past. These are the secret missions of our minds, with no goal other than that we have to be active to relate to this past. A good example is the mission of Little Oscar in Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”.

We thus arrive at the following table:

Passion              ~ Past
Pleasure             ~ Present
Possession         ~ Future

In reality, these three aspects are of course interwoven, but it can be a good thought experiment to discern them. You could plot your daily activities on some 3-dimensional graph to indicate how much they are tied to past, present, and future. And, a more important exercise would be to deconstruct this homegrown philosophical hypothesis.

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Published by

Kamiel Choi

Dutch philosopher and poet, sometimes sharing thoughts on the internet.

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