The Elements Of Self-Motivation

In the summer of 1995 I was at the height of my career as a professional saxophone player.  Everything was going very well. The band I was in had just cut a CD and one of the songs was doing well on the radio.  I was living in “ da ‘burgh”,  Pittsburgh, PA that is.  There is one day during that summer that stands out the most.  That day was the day I had a chance to see one of my favorite saxophone players, Sonny Rollins.

Sonny Rollins was putting on a free outdoor concert.  Me, my friend Ian (who is a trumpet player), and a couple of other cats (translation: guys) went to check him out.  Sonny Rollins was…let me see how I can put this… he was “off da chain!” (Translation: awesome).  I remember this one calypso tune he and his sidemen were playing.  Right after he finished playing the melody the rest of the band dropped out and it was only Newk (that’s his nickname) and the drums playing. What he did with that horn was so amazing that something inside of me snapped.

Looking back I realize that was the day my music career began to fall apart.  For years I thought the reason that I blew my music career was because of immaturity and just plain old laziness.  My friend Ian was just as confused about my behavior as I was.  He once said to me “Al, you are the hardest working, most focused and determined dude ever. I don’t know how some one could go from practicing 6-8 hours a day, EVERY day to not practicing at all.” 

Well my friend, I have finally put my finger on it.  After reading dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and a handful of research papers on the psychology of human motivation it simply boils down to this. That day at the Sonny Rollins concert I lost one the main elements of self-motivation. I no longer felt as if I had the ability to become more competent. 

Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness are the main elements of intrinsic (self) motivation.

Autonomy basically means to do something according to your own volition or will. It is the difference between the perception of-  “having to” and “choosing to”. Autonomy strongly relates to one of the basic human desires: the desire for independence.  Although they are cousins, autonomy and independence do not mean exactly the same thing.  Independence means to do or to provide for yourself, which doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing something according to your own will.  Because you desire to be the origin of your behaviors and actions (deCharms 1968), when there is no sense of autonomy self-motivation will not last.  How does it fell when you think that you don’t have a choice or any “say so”.  NOBODY, from small children to adults, likes to feel as if they don’t have any “say so”. So, how can you be autonomy supportive to yourself and others? Check out the action steps at the end of this article.

Competence occurs when you have the perception of taking on and overcoming an optimal challenge. It relates the basic human desire for power as well as the basic human desire for curiosity and learning.  There is an expression “If you have a strong enough ‘why’, you’ll overcome any ‘how’ “.  This is not always true.  You will not remain self-motivated to do something that you feel you are not doing well or getting better at. 

That’s what happened to me at that concert. I wanted to be in the ranks of the legends and I thought that goal was beyond my reach.  I wonder if you’re thinking something like…the whole thing seems ridiculous. I know, I know.  It’s like a professional basketball player quitting because they saw Michael Jordan play, right?  But that is how powerful the desire for competence is.

Think about it.  Do you do anything continuously and enthusiastically without having the perception that you do it well? Or do you do anything that you can’t at least get better at doing? A lack of competence can lead to a lack of confidence. A lack of confidence can lead to low self-esteem and low self-motivation. So, what can you do to maintain or develop a sense of competency?  Check out the action steps at the end of this article.

Relatedness is a term that can be used to describe the basic human desire to connect or bond and also the desire for acceptance.

“People not only need to be effective and free; they also need to feel connected with others in the midst of being effective and autonomous. We call it the need for relatedness-the need to love and be loved, to care and be cared for.”
-Edward L. Deci
When relatedness is missing your self-motivation is undermined. There is a song that Christina Aguilera sings. I’m not sure what the title is but the hook is “I feel under appreciated”.   It’s hard to continue to do something when you feel as if it doesn’t matter very much to anyone, right? The words “thank you” are two of the most powerful words in the English language.  Unless you are a hermit or someone totally removed from the real world you like, want, and need to hear words like “congratulations”, “good job”, “Giiirrrl, you look good!” or “You are the man!” It lets you know that you are appreciated and that people can relate to you. How can you promote relatedness in your environment? Check out the action steps at the end of this article.

So what’s the big deal about self-motivation?  The reason intrinsic (self) motivation is so important is because it is one of the keys to emotional intelligence and your personal fulfillment.  It is the cornerstone of responsibility, creativity, healthy behavior and lasting positive change.

For me one of the most frustrating things about being a professional speaker is the fact that a lot of people think that I’m supposed to motivate them.  Another frustrating thing is that a lot of speakers claim that they can motivate you.  But after the rah, rah, rah and all the hype wears off, then what? 

Now to keep it real with you, I love to get people fired up and excited however I also know that true motivation is not something that is done to you. It is something that comes from within you. What I’m supposed to do is provide you the tools you need to motivate yourself.  So…you might want to use the following action steps.


Promoting Autonomy

1.The best way to promote autonomy is to give yourself and others the perception of choice. Not too many choices though. Research shows that too many choices will cause people not to act.   When people feel they have a choice they will be more self-motivated to do it.

My mom was great at this. Instead of simply telling me to do the dishes, (which I hated to do- as a matter of fact I still hate doing the dishes!)  she would ask ,”Al, do you want to do the dishes or take out the trash?” Now, like most teenagers I didn’t want to do either one but I would gladly take out the trash. Eventually she didn’t even have to ask because I knew that as long as I took out the trash…No dishes. How’s that for helping someone to be self motivated?

Developing Competence

1.Practice. Whatever you do practice. Period.

2.Focus on your strengths and manage around your weaknesses.  There’s a book called “Now, Discover Your Strengths”.  It’s a pretty good book. It’s worth reading. Too many people focus on trying to strengthen their weaknesses. The most successful and competent individuals focus on their strengths and manage around their weaknesses  

3.Break processes and goals down into small steps that you are sure you can accomplish, because small steps become quantum leaps and small steps help to reinforce a pattern of success. The Law of Effect (not to be confused with the law of cause and effect) states, “You get more of what you reinforce.” If your steps are too big for you to do and accomplish consistently, then you will develop an unconscious pattern of failure. As you complete your small steps on a consistent basis you will reinforce success, greatly increase your perception of competence, and build your confidence.

Promoting Relatedness

1.You get what you give, so use the law of reciprocity.  “When someone gives you something of perceived value, you immediately respond with the desire to give something back.” When you open up to a person they will desire to open up to you.  And yes I know this doesn’t work for everybody.  I’ll touch on that in a  second.  Be flexible. They may be relating in ways different from what you are expecting. 

2.Obviously you won’t relate to some people even if you use the law of reciprocity.  So you can scale up or downsize.  When I say, “scale up” what I mean is this.  Maybe you can look at how what you do relates to your entire family or society.  My Mom and Dad took this attitude so that my brothers and I could have a chance to interact with both of them even though they were divorced.

There may be some people in your circle who are toxic. You might want to hit those people with the famous phrase “You’re fired!” If you are not being appreciated or if you are having a hard time relating to someone in your circle they may need to be downsized. You probably already knew this but what you KNOW and what you DO are very often two different things. 

© 2004-2005 Al Duncan Enterprises All Rights Reserved.

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Al "The Inspiration" Duncan is the co-author of Unleash the Greatness Within You. He is an expert in the soft skills of Emotional Intelligence, Persuasion, Self-Motivation, and Communication.  Al is a National Seminar Leader and Soft Skills Trainer at  a number of colleges and universities including the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education, Macon State University, and Clayton State University. He is also an instructor at the Knowledge Shop of Atlanta.  Visit him online at
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