Motivation is a tricky thing, and I would argue there’s not enough of it to go around. Especially when you need it most. So, if you’ve ever wondered how to get motivated when you feel like a failure, you’re not alone.
It’s weird how failure can compound. It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill, just getting bigger and bigger.
And it’s even weirder when you think about how often we feel like a failure without ever having actually failed. Just me?
It kind of depends on several factors (the position of the planets, the speed of the wind, the seasons, how much sugar I’ve consumed) but I’m either the most resilient person who can get up and dust herself off and go at whatever thing I just screwed up again and again.
Or I’m a delicate flower who needs to take several weeks to rest and recuperate after one rejection letter.
I’m not entirely sure why that is. But I do know that once I start to feel like I’ve failed, stuff gets super weird in my head.
I can’t make myself do the basic stuff. In fact, doing anything but drinking a whole pot of coffee while I lay on the couch and consume Netflix as my brain melts out of my ears feels impossible.
But that’s the thing. You just gotta keep going. Because at the end of the day, watching Netflix all day definitely doesn’t make me feel better.
So what is a fragile failure of a girl to do? That’s a great question. I don’t think there’s an answer. But I do know that we can get close to one.
Let’s dive in.
What is Motivation?
The basic definition for motivation is the reason for doing what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s something super obvious. Like I work to pay the bills.
In that case, paying your bills is the motivation.
Sometimes, it’s something deeper than that. Like I work because I believe this is my purpose in life.
And here’s where it gets weird.
We can all respond to external pressure. We can all accommodate outside factors. We’ve been trained to do it since birth.
That’s why writers typically can’t get anything done until they have an external deadline. (Apologies to all my editors who get my work five minutes before the deadline. You are the external pressure that keeps me going!)
But when the reason behind something is an internal thing? Then it gets hard.
And that is because when we talk about motivation, that’s not what we really mean. We’re all looking for inspiration.
But what is inspiration?
The definition of inspiration is basically being mentally stimulated to do something, especially something creative.
It’s that little tickle between the hemispheres of your brain that makes you think you could do something. Or the reason why you pick up a notebook and start writing.
And it’s the reason we start doing the things we were put on this planet to do.
So when you can’t find the motivation to do the thing that you believe you’re destined to do–whether that’s art, running a marathon, putting googly eyes on bananas at the grocery store–it’s because the drive to do that thing was never motivation. It was inspiration all along.
So now all we need to do is go find some inspiration, right? Four cups of coffee and a loud and fast play list should do the trick, right?
Maybe. I mean, until it doesn’t work anymore.
But there’s another way.
What if inspiration can be manufactured?
That may seem sacrilegious. And maybe it is.
But if you think about it, how many of your big sweeping emotions have been manufactured?
(Yes, I recently watched all four Matrix movies and purchased a copy of Simulacra and Simulation to brush up on all the pretentious shit I used to say as an English major.)
You know how the violins swell at emotionally poignant moments in the movie? How the paragraphs in the novel break at just the right point so you slowly realize that maybe the kid has been a ghost this whole time? How the bridge of that song starts out quiet and builds and builds until you’re screaming the chorus with the band?
Yeah. Those things you love and can cite on your annotated bibliography of art that made you who you are have been manufacturing inspiration all along.
This isn’t a bad thing. It’s how shit works.
See, inspiration is not something that’s naturally occurring. It’s something we have to manufacture in the factories. The inspiration factories. They’re real.
These factories are in laptops and recording studios and paint palettes and cameras and sewing machines and a million other places.
You gotta dig down deep in the inspiration factories to mine the inspiration.
And I’m going to leave this little metaphor where it’s at. I know that you can’t mine in a factory. You mine in a mine. But I’m a working class kid who comes from mostly food service and construction workers, so I don’t know shit about factories or mines.
But I will say that you can make your own inspiration. Let me explain.
Motivation Needs Habits
I am a habit-driven person, for better or worse. It’s awesome that I get up early 6 days a week and work out. I feel really smug about that.
It’s not awesome that I will probably never be able to stop biting my nails. I have literally done it since I’ve had teeth and it’s my worst habit. I do not feel smug about that.
But motivation to do the things you are internally driven to do needs habits. Or else, you’re screwed.
Habits are on autopilot.
Habits are the things our brain does without thinking about it. Like the order you do things when you’re in the shower. Seriously, try to switch it up. Instead of washing your hair first, try washing your face. It will break your brain. You will feel weird about it because that’s such an ingrained habit.
But this is also a great thing. Because if there’s something you want to do, you just have to turn it into a habit.
Which, I acknowledge, is easier said than done.
Know that all the information out there about how long it takes to build a habit is largely a lie. Maybe it takes 21 days for you. But it probably takes more. And 21 days is just enough time to lull you into a false sense of security about the habit. So, you think it’s solid. But then, you find it’s not and you get down on yourself.
I’m definitely not a habit building genius. I hate the process of building habits. I like having them though. (Except the nail biting.) But I do know that building a habit is totally worth it.
So, here’s what you need to do to get those habits going:
- Build one habit at a time.
- Set reminders on your phone or put notes around your home or workspace. Make it impossible to forget that you need to do a thing.
- Remove any resistance to the habit. For example, if you want to build the habit of waking up early, make it hard to go back to sleep when the alarm goes off. Put your alarm in another room if you have to.
- Be all about this habit until you notice that you’ve been doing it on autopilot. That’s when it’s actually a habit. For me, it’s around 60 days.
Okay. But how do we turn this really mundane information and activities into magical inspiration?
Inspiration is magical and magic is mundane.
Look. Unless you’re a kid waiting for Santa to come down the chimney, you don’t get a lot of magic. And if you’re an adult, you know the exact source of Christmas magic.
All that is to say if you aren’t making the magic, then you are doing yourself a disservice.
Now, what does magic look like if you’re a creative artist sort of person? It’s a playlist that gets you jazzed up. It’s the vision board you made for your computer desktop wallpaper. It’s the candle scent that reminds you of the time you read that one book you changed your life.
It’s a lot of little things that spark something in your brain.
And you need to make those things a habit.
So, when I sit down to my computer to start working for the day, I start a playlist full of songs that made me want to break shit when I was 16 or some super ethereal ambient mixer environment. I light a candle that puts me into the writing headspace. I set the lighting just right.
And then I go.
Granted, this isn’t magic. But it sets all the conditions for magic to be present. And if you recall this Elizabeth Gilbert TED Talk, sometimes all we can do is show up and hope the muse does too.
So, is this motivation? No. It’s not the reason you do what you do.
But it is the thing that gets you excited about doing what you do. And that’s important.
How to Get Motivated When You Feel Like a Failure
So, I guess what I’m trying to say here is that maybe you need more inspiration than motivation.
You need to make inspiration a habit. It has to be the norm. I guess the argument could be made that too much inspiration would wear it out? Like maybe you’d build up a tolerance to it?
That hasn’t been my experience, but it’s possible I guess. I’ll let you know if I ever get there.
And remember those inspiration factories? Yeah. You gotta dig down deep in them to mine their goodness. (Again, I know you can’t mine in a factory, but we’re about 1,700 words into this post, and we’ve made it this far.)
You have to keep doing the work of being inspired. You have to keep showing up, even when it sucks. I’d argue that when it sucks is when you’re actually doing the work. Those days when it’s super easy and the ideas flow? That’s when the muse came to play.
But if you only feel like a failure on days you work, then you’re not alone. Shit is hard. It should be. If it weren’t, every middle manager who is cheating on their spouse would be an artist.
Want to get motivated when you feel like a failure? Good.
All you gotta do is keep working.
Great post, Marisa. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – why do we feel like failures when we haven’t actually failed. You’ve shared some great tips too; I always used to listen to music while doing my homework. Why don’t I do that now when I have a post to write? 😘
Sometimes it can help so much! I will say, I do have to turn off the music when I’m editing, though. But the music does help the words flow.
This is all so on point and good advice. Also, I went down a huge Baudrillard rabbit hole … Simulacra and Simulation … I also need to brush up on all the pretentious shit I used to say, and would like to continue to sound cool saying.
Good. I need someone else to talk through this with. Because if I’m being honest, I’m not great at reading critical theory or philosophy anymore. My grad school brain has been pushed out in favor of the brain that binge reads urban fantasy and watches police procedurals.