Why are we motivated?

Athletes, artists, dancers, musicians, chess players and surgeons (and pretty much anyone who strives for mastery) put in an enormous amount of time and effort to become an expert. In my last post, I referenced the 10,000 hour threshold, which works out to about 9-10 years of solid practice. That’s a really long time.

I just watched Nancy Etcoff presenting at the 2004 TED, her topic was “The surprising science of happiness”. Not surprisingly, she talks about what makes us happy and why we strive for it. But half-way through her presentation, she talks of the Reward System, also known as the Wanting System.

That is really is a system of motivation, a system of wanting. It’s a part of the brain that says, “I need this to survive.” It gives objects what’s called incentive salience. It makes something look so attractive that you just have to go after it.

There is a neurobiology to wanting, to needing. I get that. There are addictions to food, to drugs, to alcohol, to people, to shopping: I understand the general chemistry. But I’m still searching for the biological explanation as to why athletes dedicate their adolescence for the slim chance of becoming world-class, the reason why gymnasts and dancers hone their skills and deny themselves Oreos for years for a chance at making the national team or to perform on stage in New York.

Is it repeated, small dopamine rushes as you get a little better at a specific skill and remind you that you’re making progress? Is it really just the quest for this chemical prize?

I’ll keep researching…if you have thoughts or theories, or better still, can explain this all to me, let me know!

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