By Mark E. Smith
We live in a time where it seems like self-motivation in America is at an all-time low – and, admittedly, I blame much of it on my own generation – those born between 1961 and 1981, known as Generation X. People who lived through the Great Depression and World War II knew the value of self-motivation, and Baby Boomers displayed a work ethic where they knew that living the American Dream required self-motivation to earn it.
Yet, many of us “Gen-X-ers” missed the course on self-motivation. To combat this shortcoming, we seemingly now require “motivational coaches” for everything that we should naturally be doing on our own initiatives, from how to excel in our careers to how to organize our closets. And, let’s be blunt, when we need a “coach” to motivate us to organize our closets, we have a huge deficiency on our hands – we’re truly failing in our potential.
Of course, reality television, a direct product of our generation, portrays a lack of self-motivation at its best – or, worst, as it is – with screaming “motivational coaches” on every television channel. I’ve watched NBC’s The Biggest Loser and thought, If you need someone literally screaming at you to jog on a treadmill, while you’re insisting that you can’t do it, you might as well pack your bags and go home. You’ve already lost the game – on TV, and in life.
What we, as Gen-X-ers – and those on The Biggest Loser! – are missing is that a foremost key to succeeding in life is this: No one should be able to motivate you more than you intrinsically motivate yourself.
Really, if it truly takes another person to motivate you to complete a task – albeit a hounding coach, complaining spouse, or yelling boss – you’re slacking in life, you’re failing in your potential. It’s a sink or swim world, and if you’re only willing to swim when others tell you to, eventually you will drown.
This fact – that true motivation only comes from within – is especially important when living with disability. By nature, people assume that because we have less physical abilities, less is to be expected of us. And, as a result, often not only don’t we have others demanding the best of us, but we also allow ourselves to fall into complacency – and when we’re already living in a culture where complacency is acceptable, we’re doubly dooming ourselves as those with disabilities. However, by taking absolute command of our lives through self-motivation – to such an extreme level that it defies logic at times – we’re equipped to not only succeed at what we wish, but also often succeed to astounding levels, well beyond others’ expectations, where no one can motivate us more than we intrinsically motivate ourselves.
My daughter recently proved the importance of self-motivation to me in her own unique way. She just finished the 7th grade as an A-student. Nevertheless, even with A’s in her classes, she closed out the school year by doing extra-credit. That’s a striking effort because it really defies logic – that is, if you already have the highest grade possible in a class, extra credit points are moot, so why do the extra work, right? What’s clear to me is that my daughter’s self-motivation exceeds logical expectations – it’s her internal drive that’s setting the standard that she’s living by. That is, the grading system isn’t motivating her; rather, she’s motivating herself.
When I was exactly my daughter’s age, I was in the full throws of learning how to live independently with cerebral palsy. And, while there were countless moments in my early teen years that taught me that, truly, all I needed to ever succeed in life was unyielding self-motivation, few lessons have stuck with me more than my simply pushing my manual wheelchair everyday as a developmental exercise in personal growth.
I’ve often spoken and written about struggling to use a manual wheelchair as an adolescent, where I reckoned that it would help develop my independent living skills via developing strength and coordination, that it took me years to go from being able to barely push across the living room to pushing down the street and beyond. But, it was pushing that manual wheelchair down the street that specifically taught me so much about the value of self-motivation, creating an internal strength that’s defined ultimate accountability within me till this day.
See, due to my cerebral palsy, even after a few years of daily pushing my manual wheelchair after school, the best that I could physically accomplish was one push at a time in a painstaking process. I struggled to get both hands on the wheels, pushed them with all my might, followed by my body going into spasms, where the wheelchair rolled to a stop, and I’d start the process all over again. As you might imagine, it was an excruciatingly slow process – foot by foot, for years – and it was even physically painful. Yet, not only didn’t I mind the hardship that I put myself through, but it actually inspired me because I recognized that some progress was better than no progress, regardless of any agony.
However, strangers who I encountered while I was out pushing were extremely troubled by the mere sight of me – some alarmed, while others were downright cruel, when they saw me struggling to propel my manual wheelchair along the sidewalk with such awkward body movements and so little progress. Many in cars driving by thought that I was in distress, pulling over to try to help me. Some people called the police, concerned that I had been abandoned, or escaped from a care facility. Kids taunted me, calling me retard and throwing rocks at me. And, I remember one incident when an elderly woman sprinkled supposed Holy water on me, thinking that I was possessed. Day after day, for years, I was questioned, dehumanized, and harassed by every type of person one can imagine. And, it made me feel undoubtedly embarrassed and humiliated at times. Yet, I never stopped going out every day after school and pushing my manual wheelchair, regardless of heat or rain, or how discouraging the world around me was. Yes, I felt like a spastic, rolling freak show much of the time; yet, I just kept at it, going out everyday to push my manual wheelchair – no matter what.
Looking back, I now understand why others were so alarmed, even cruel. After all, to most people, there’s no logical reason for a kid with severe cerebral palsy to be out struggling to push a wheelchair in the rain, for example, unless something was terribly wrong. Yet, what they didn’t understand was that not only was there nothing wrong with me, but that everything with me was actually right. I was building fortitude, self-reliance, and perseverance in ways that surpassed others’ understanding. In actuality, I was self-motivated to a point that defied ordinary logic – and that, in itself, perplexed people to the point of alarm. Not even the meanest drill Sargeant would demand that a 13-year-old with severe cerebral palsy go out and struggle to push his manual wheelchair, foot by foot, in the rain, while strangers embarrassed, humiliated, and, ridiculed him. However, I demanded it of myself – no one could motivate me more than I motivated myself.
More than any other life skill, self-motivation is the one that’s never failed me. When I was in my junior and senior years of high school, with little parental support to speak of, it was self-motivation that not only got me up each morning for school, but actually improved my grades to an A average. When I was 19, and started writing, with no formal education or writing prospects, self-motivation got me freelance work, a side career in writing that’s now lasted 20 years. When I went through college with a full schedule of classes, while working 35 hours per week, it was self-motivation that had me leaving the house at 5:30am and getting home at 11:00pm, to the point that I was urinating blood from the toll on my health, but I just kept going. When I packed up my family and moved entirely across the country for work almost 10 years ago, it was self-motivation that assured me that I could succeed. And, it’s self-motivation till this very day that allows me to not only live up to my potential, but to also excel even when others still count me out. Ultimately, such anecdotes demonstrate the core result of self-motivation: It keeps you in the game when everyone else might give up – including when they give up on you!
What’s amazing, though, is that there’s little that’s unique about my own record of self-motivation – we all have the same capabilities within, they just apply to different areas of our lives. It’s merely the question of whether we choose to access our intrinsic self-motivation? We often hear people say, I can’t get motivated; however, what they’re really saying is, I just don’t want to do it. How many people do we know who are dissatisfied with their current jobs, but aren’t looking for new ones or pursuing higher education, right? Or, how many people do we know with disabilities living far less independent lives than they are capable of? The list, unfortunately, can go on and on, where there’s nothing holding such individuals back but a lack of self-motivation. If we wish something, it’s ultimately solely up to us to make it happen – no one else.
Like a magic pill for success, self-motivation removes excuses from our lives – it makes us compelled to do what’s needed, against all odds, where we simply get the job done. It allows us to work harder and think bigger than many others, where we realize that our lives are like a garden, where the quality of the soil beneath the surface dictates the quality of the harvest. And, when we’re willing to make the effort to dig down within ourselves – that is, tap into unyielding self-motivation – the growth that we experience is exponential.
Certainly, we should be encouraged and inspired by others – they often set the bar for human potential, where if they can accomplish a feat, so can we. Yet, we must recognize that if we’re truly to succeed, especially in tough times, our drive must intrinsically come from within: Self-motivation. And, if in that process, the extents to which our self-motivation is questioned by others – where they are baffled by our efforts, thinking that we’re pursuing too lofty of goals or demanding too much from ourselves – then we know that we’re really on the right track, where we’re demonstrating that no one can motivate us more than we can motivate ourselves.