It turns out that what motivates people to flex their mental muscles takes a combination of three things; autonomy, mastery, and meaning.
Yes, yes, and yes.
I have struggled with these three problems all my life.
Mastery. In early elementary school, my mom despaired that I would ever be good at completing my homework. You see, I’d do the first problem or two of a worksheet, and then declare myself done. I’d already mastered adding 2+2, why on earth would I need to repeat it? I was ready for something else. At the time it took several patient teachers to understand that if they just keep feeding me more challenges, that I would keep moving forward. If they sat me in a desk and made me do the same thing over and over, I was likely to daydream or find trouble. Funny, my kids have the same problem...
At work, I’ve done much the same job for twelve years. Once in a while (in a LONG while), I get excited for a few days/weeks/months when I get to try out a new programming language, or a different technology. But usually, I already know this stuff. I know it well. And my specific job is far from the bleeding edge of change (the bleeding edge is slightly ahead of the cutting edge, you know...welcome to the world of techno-cliches). My job deals more with the healed-over scar tissue from a long ago surgery. There’s nothing new. There’s nothing different. That makes me some kind of technical expert (a title that is far more boring than it sounds). What it means is, I can do this job equally well when sleep deprived or decaffeinated, and still have enough brain cells left over to plot a new romance novel (which I don’t get to type until I get home).
Writing is still new. I am learning every day to improve my craft. And with every new manuscript I write, I have more research to do, more things to learn. More stuff to master.
Autonomy. This one has bitten me at work for years, and is one of the stronger driving forces that got me into writing. As a software engineer, I work as part of a team. As part of a team, I have to conform to the team’s pre-existing structure, the team’s styles of programming, the team’s established patterns of designing code. Many days, my programming job feels like a Mad-Lib. The outline is there, I just get to fill in the blanks. And if I choose the wrong verb, someone else will make me change it.
When I started my first manuscript three years ago, I was in desperate need of a creative outlet that I OWNED. With no outside voices telling me what I could or could not do, or say, or write. I needed autonomy in some part of my life. Solving the motivation problem at my day job is a whole ‘nother post.
Meaning. This one still gets me. “Meaning” in my work is not the financial reward. If it were I’d be one of the serial-overtime workers. The ones who make 150% of their so-called salary because they habitually work 60 hours or more per week, and have to be threatened by HR to take their accrued vacation days before they expire. I learned a long time ago to scale my lifestyle to my salary without going into debt. I’m not in this for the money.
And I won’t get into whether there’s meaning or not to my day job. That question has more layers than an onion, and smells far worse.
But my writing. That has meaning. Personal meaning. Emotional meaning. I write in a genre that expects a Happily Ever After for a reason. I can fix problems as I write. Fictional problems that my wacko brain cooks up, yes. I can take a small scrap of a feeling and blow it into 80,000 words of exploration.
Each of my manuscripts so far explores a theme. Themes that are at work in my real life. I’ve explored the ideas of what happens when you make lots of "right" decisions only to end up in the wrong place (Hold on to the Knight). What happens when you put all your life eggs in one basket, and someone backs over it with a car (The Appearance of Impropriety). Self-identity, accepting your whole self, and believing that you can be strong no matter what everyone else expects of you (Leap). This stuff has meaning to me. And maybe to a reader someday.
So, I write. I’m motivated to write. Maybe someday I’ll look at writing like I do my day job: as lacking in those things that motivate me. But I’m an optimist, so I hope I won’t. And the motivation to write is helping with the motivation for the day job. Sometimes it takes a little creativity, a little daydreaming, and getting in a little trouble to put you on the right track.