What’s driving you?


Gentle reader: Where does your own motivation come from? Where does motivation originate, and how can it be replenished?
What drives people to keep going and keep achieving over sustained periods?

Martin Amis is the master of the two-worder. He can create pairings of words that cut to the essence of their subject with a scalpel’s precision. Some choice favourites: Rug rethink. Species shame. Category error.*

Amis never settles in his use of language. There’s a reason his collection of literary criticism was entitled The War Against Cliché. For Amis, to settle in language is to settle in life.

Not only fail but actually go under


There’s one particular Amis two-worder that has stuck with me since reading his excellent memoir Experience when it was published in 2000: Tramp dread.

Here’s the relevant passage from Experience (p.35/36 of my copy), in which Amis looks back to his early twenties:

“[A]lthough I was edging forward into it, the adult world of promotion and preferment still looked alien and menacing to me. There was still the suspicion, despite all the current evidence, that you would not only fail but actually go under. Perhaps everybody has this. Christopher Hitchens had it: we called it ‘tramp dread’." 

Everyone is motivated by something. For twenty-something Amis it was "tramp dread”.

This has always sounded uncannily familiar to me. I am motivated by always wanting to be better, to do better by myself and to do better for the good of others. But if I’m truly honest, there’s also always that underlying worry – no matter how realistic or unrealistic it might actually be – that to stand still is to allow everything to collapse, to be lost. Something always has to be done.

Inside the #earlyshift

The early morning is the best of times and the worst of times. The older I get, the more my body clock seems to rebel against any normal notion of sleep. No matter what, I always awaken in the small hours. At its worst, I feel an intense need to do something, immediately. Reading Guy De Maupassant’s Pierre And Jean the other week, I came across the perfect description of this state:

“So he tried to find the reason for the jangled state he was in, this need for movement but desire for nothing…”

Over the past few years, I’ve made a deliberate decision to turn this restlessness into a positive. I want to make my early mornings as productive as possible. Exercise. Blogging. Reading. Of late I’ve taken a long walk first thing of a Sunday morning to pay my respects to a statue of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.**


Conan Doyle’s most enduring creation – one Mr Sherlock Holmes – knew a thing or two about mental restlessness:

“My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation." 

– Sherlock Holmes, from The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

This mental exaltation brings Sherlock Holmes to life. So many Holmes stories begin with Holmes in a languid or even depressed state before the latest mystery arrives on his doorstep, the mental lights go on and the game is – in a very real sense – afoot.

Contentment to me is perilously close to complacency


Considering "tramp dread”, Amis muses that “perhaps everybody has this”. I’m not so sure about this. Each person’s motivation in life is unique to them. What motivates you can change through life. Or your motivation might always be the same.***

But if your particular motivation is your mind rebelling at stagnation, can you ever be at rest? Is this restlessness something you can ever lose? Would you ever want to lose it?

Alastair Campbell says no.

In a fascinating FT podcast on the complex relationship between success and mental health, Campbell recalls how his younger self answered his mother asking why he couldn’t just be content:

“I don’t want to be content. Contentment to me is perilously close to complacency.”

Campbell’s motivation comes from within. It helps him deal with what he acknowledges is a form of mental illness.**** Speaking on the same podcast, Oliver James gives his view on how Campbell has not only coped with his condition, but also used it to help drive him to success:

“It’s got to be about intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. You really might have crashed and burned if you hadn’t been intrinsically motivated.”

Intrinsic motivation is often – but not always – a product of restlessness. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. This driving restlessness can be a positive energy in your life (much as, for me at least, the ability to enjoy the occasional lie-in might be rather nice).

Gentle reader, I would love to know: what drives you in life? Where do you think that your own motivation comes from?


* It is probably redundant and indeed contrary to the spirit of the Amis two-worder to provide longer definitions for these delicious literary morsels. Nonetheless, I shall try:

  • Rug rethink = haircut.
  • Species shame = the feeling that a particularly odious individual might induce, of making the observer want not to be part of the human race if it would have said odious individual as a member.
  • Category error = to think that one thing is the same as another thing when it simply isn’t, is to make a category error.

** The picture at the top of this post depicts said statue from just such a walk last Sunday (28 May 2017), as snapped by plucky young cub reporter @mjcarty.

*** Whilst out in London a few weeks ago, I spotted that a gent (who I would take to be 50-ish) was wearing cufflinks that bore the words “Fortune by Fifty”. I think its fair to say his motivation in life might be somewhat materialistic. If that is what floats your boat, then go for it. And should you be reading this, sir: May you achieve your goal.

**** Alastair Campbell is an ambassador of the excellent mental health charity Mind. If Mind could be of help to you, here is how to contact them.

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