by Niall Doherty

A friend recently expressed concern that I’m too into personal development, and suggested I should dial it back a little and be more content with the person I already am. She saw my constant drive to improve as fear-based, as if I was constantly telling myself, “I don’t like who I am, I have to change!”

My friend was wrong. I very much like who I am right now. In fact, I consider myself to be pretty damn fantastic*. My drive comes from a place of excitement and curiosity, not fear. I love pushing myself, finding new challenges/experiences and learning from them. I love looking back every twelve months and saying “Wow, I’ve come so far in just one year!”

I’m glad my friend raised that concern though; she reminded me to check my motivation. I think that’s an important exercise for anyone involved in personal development. Every now and then, stop and ask yourself if your motivation comes from a place of fear or excitement.

I came across a good method for testing my motivation in the book Putting on the Heart of Christ by Gerald M. Fagin, who tells of a wise spiritual director who once asked him two “why” questions, and said that the second “why” was more important. Fagin gives the following example:

Why do you want to get a PhD?

“I want to be as educated as possible.”

Why do you want to be as educated as possible? Is a PhD a condition of your worth? Do you need it because you will then be accepted and worthwhile and looked up to? Or is it because you have a love of teaching and research and you wish to minister to others through teaching? In other words, do these and other decisions flow from freedom and love or from fear and compulsion? Fear leads to compulsion and slavery. Love leads to true desires which lead to freedom.

I find this to be an effective approach, though you may need to go deeper than the second “why” to root out your true motivation for something.

Try it yourself:

  • Why do you want that job or promotion? Is it because you love the work or because you fear poverty? Or is it that you crave the admiration of your peers? If the job came with minimal pay, would you still be interested? Why don’t you find work doing something that excites you? Why are you postponing fun and adventure until retirement?
  • Maybe you don’t want that job or promotion. In that case, why not? Are you afraid of success or failure? Or is it that you’d rather focus your time and efforts on something more meaningful and worthwhile? Perhaps the thought of more responsibility is terrifying to you. Why is that?
  • Why do you want a boyfriend or girlfriend? Are you afraid of being alone, or do you genuinely want to share love and intimacy with someone? Do you consider what you can bring to a relationship, or are you only concerned about what you can get from it? Do you think it’s in another person’s best interest to get involved with you? Why are your standards so high or low?
  • Why do you go to church? Is it out of habit, or do you get some positive benefit from it? Do you just like the social aspect of being in a big building with lots of people, or do you find real truth and value in the sermons you hear? Do you cling to religious doctrine to avoid thinking for yourself? Do you even try to practice what is preached?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Taking time to consider them is simply an exercise in becoming more conscious of your own motivations and beliefs. I’d recommend writing out your responses to keep your thoughts organized and record any resolutions you come to. They’re hard questions, yes, but ask yourself only the easy ones and you’ll make no progress.

* Note to self: must work on humility.

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