10/15/2014 04:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Finding Your Motivation: How Internal and External Rewards Work Together to Synergize Creative Work

Contrary to popular belief, self-discipline (the ability to force yourself to do something you don't want to do) isn't particularly useful in making a dream manifest. What is helpful though, and what we all have the potential to do, is imagine things as we think they should be.


In some sense, motivation is about holding a clear picture of the things you desire in your mind. Everything we truly value -- our marriages, our children, our homes, our talents, our friendships, even our relationship to God -- have their beginnings at the moment when our desire for them to exist exceeds our fear of trying to make them exist. You don't need to be daring, you don't need faith in your abilities: You just need a clear picture of how a thing can be. The picture reinforces the desire. The desire reinforces the motivation.

Along with motivation we need a methodology. Look at this example, from the world of songwriting. Think of it as a metaphor for all kinds of creativity. Here are two statements about wanting to write songs:

1. I am motivated to become a famous songwriter.
2. I want to write a song for my Mom to give to her for her 75th birthday, which is coming up next Tuesday, and by the way, we're having a dinner party for her. There will be a lot of people there and they'd make a great audience. Most importantly, My mom will love it.

The first statement is a big idea that isn't bound to anything specific and it's likely to produce very little. In the second statement, there's a lot of specificity, a lot of small doable ideas in place that might make the actual completion of this song more likely. It is:

• Specific: There's an event (the party and the audience) at which I can "envision" playing the song and getting approval.
• Present: There's also a date (next Tuesday) not some time in an unspecified future.
• True: There's a person I love (my Mom) whom I'd like to make happy and thereby strengthen my bond with her.

It's easy to see how the second statement is far more likely to bring the song into reality. The first statement is so general that it doesn't allow for anything to happen.
It's somewhat paradoxical how the tangible, is often what pulls intangible ideas into the world. You'd think creativity must exist in some diaphanous, otherworldly state. The shock is that the complete opposite is true.

In Jewish mysticism there's a concept called "Creating a Vessel." The idea in its most basic sense is that nothing comes into the world without there first being a vessel to contain it. In other words, you can pray all day long for a job, but unless you go out and look for work, you're pretty much assured of unemployment. If you want to go scuba diving in Bali you've got to get off your butt, buy a plane ticket and get your air tanks filled. There must always be concrete steps taken for the non-spatial dream to enter the world of time and space. Dreaming without any plans or structure always leaves ideas in a latent, ephemeral state.

Structure pulls dreams into reality: Dreams without structure tend to stay dreams

When we are at our creative best we are fearless and unrestrained but also highly structured and highly technical. When you look at the things in your life that give you the greatest sense of freedom and creativity, you're likely to find that they exist in the areas where you've imposed the most rigorous structures on yourself. Ironic in a way isn't it?

• A doctor who's trained for almost 20 years to be able to do open heart surgery with excellent rates of success
• A karate expert who's trained since she was a child to make defending herself a matter of pure reflex
• A mother who's worked tirelessly to raise good upstanding children into adulthood
• A salesman who's built up a reputation for honesty and integrity over the course of his adult life

None of these people would say that their sense of freedom and mobility in the world came from sitting and dreaming of what they could have done. They'd say that their freedom came from their systematic training and their dedicated hard work. Their rigorous efforts don't feel like pain and boredom to them; in fact, their hard work amounts to boundlessness and freedom. Far from being something removed from reality, creativity is in fact rooted in the most mundane activity imaginable; endless, repetitive and highly structured preparation. The catch is that the structures need to be self-imposed. They need to be something we truly want. When they are, we will naturally act in a self-disciplined manner. When someone forces their own rules on us, be they religious ideas, weight-loss plans, or ways we should react to art or music, it always has the effect of shutting down our capacity to dream.

Perhaps we are motivated to creatively develop our ideas because there's an existential loneliness in all of us, some cognizance of our being separate and in some way divorced from all others that triggers a primal need to connect and to communicate. We are communal beings after all, hard-wired to intuit that our survival, not only as a species, but as individuals, depends on our ability to bond with others. Our creativity therefore --whether it's displayed in music, art, cooking, storytelling, athletic prowess, mathematical ability, or a simple grace in extending kindness to strangers--is what keeps us attached to one another: and therefore what constitutes our very lives. Love is a survival instinct and the only thing that can rival its strength is our fear of shame. If creating something wonderful binds us to a community, creating something awful separates us from that community... or so we fear.

Fear, and not lack of self-discipline, (or lack of organizational skills) is what prevents us from making our dreams manifest. We are often motivated to create to derive a sense of validation and purpose: to bring forth a sense of belonging, because without community, even if the community is just two people, the fear and loneliness we would feel outside that community would be too much to bear. We love and dance and write and sing and paint and build and pray to be reassured that we are not alone. Knowing this, feeling this deeply, is to understand, at least part of the creative process itself. Since at its root, fear derives from abandonment, being part of a community is axiomatic to the creative path.