Motivation, mental modals, and moral development

We all have things that we wish we took more action on. We procrastinate on things that are important and fall behind on our deadlines. We aren’t proactive and rather wait for something to be on the edge of collapse before we finally take action.

We say: if I just had more motivation! I feel unmotivated! Most of us do this without really knowing what motivation is. I don’t know if I have found the best and final answer, but the one I found looks pretty good. Here’s my definition:

Motivation is an internal value that drives you to action.

This can either be towards happiness or away from pain. Values are principles that we think will bring us happiness. You could call them mental models.

  • We take action when we have a value important to us that requires action.
  • If we don’t take action, in that moment we value something else higher than our reason for taking action. We either think that we will get less pain or more pleasure from not acting.

Our values change constantly, depending on the time of day, environment and the people who surround us. When you speak of a specific individual’s values you are referring to those values that they most commonly follow. A few common reasons that prevent us from taking action are:

  • fear of bad consequences such as social rejection
  • fear of discomfort
  • fear of failing

These fears are insidious and hide behind excuses that seem perfectly valid on the surface, yet become utterly meaningless once you strip away the outer layers.

Instead of trying to force yourself to be motivated, look at what is important to you. If it is really important, you will take action. On the other hand, if you feel unmotivated (and not because you are afraid), then you are trying to pursue something that is not really important to you. You have probably fallen into the trap of following someone else’s goal. You tried to follow someone else’s script for your life.

Following someone else’s script will make that person happy, but probably won’t do much for you. Following your own script is much more likely to make you happy. It depends on how accurate your script is compared to theirs. We have access to internal data about ourselves which improves our accuracy.

Mental models

We are the ultimate authority in our lives, ultimately the one that has to choose. Our brain uses mental models of how the world works to interpret it and make decisions. To decide we need as accurate models (the principle of Truth). To improve your model’s accuracy you need to test it. You cannot test it unless you use it, so once you reach the stage of post-morality in your moral development you have to apply your model and test it by using it as a template for living.

You can activate your mental model in few ways: by being in a certain environment, at a certain time of day, when surrounded by certain people or a certain mood. These are the same factors that influence your motivation. You can also activate them by visualizing a scenario or consuming some form of content related to your model. Reading a book about a girl who falls in love will probably make you think of your own love life.

When you take action, you start creating momentum for your mental models. eg. walking to the kitchen makes it quite likely that you will open the fridge to see if there is something to eat. If your mental model for thirsty has a lot of momentum you will probably find a beverage to drink and consume it while doing the things you usually do while drinking fluids.

This is why the productivity tip of just starting,just doing it for 3 minutes, is so powerful. Once you start an activity, the mental model that you have for that activity is activated and starts gathering momentum. All the other models that you have active are shuffled to the side and exert a greater or lesser influence depending on how engaged you are with your activity.

Being present in the context of mental models means that you place your full attention on the raw inputs that you are receiving and try to do as little interpretation as you can. You let go of all the mental models that are not of immediate relevance and focus only on the task at hand.

Flow is when you follow only one mental model at a time and don’t continuously switch between different models. It is when your internal tempo and that of the environment is the same. You are neither speeding up nor slowing down, and neither is the environment. Or you are setting the pace for the environment and the environment is keeping up. I am not yet sure which of these two it is.

When you find your why, the mental model that gives you the most satisfaction, then you take action without it being a strain and you do not procrastinate. Most people do not have their why and are still trying out different mental models to see which one works the best for them. When they find their why they will first have to eliminate many activities from their life. These activities do not fit with their why and if they are not dropped they will hang on and drag. You will procrastinate on doing them. They will drain you of energy and slow you down until you either remove them or become completely stuck.

Currently, I do not know what my why is. I am seeking meaning and finding almost none. This is why I feel stuck. Seeking my problem from the outside, I can prescribe a general solution: Change something. If it is positive, keep it. If not, change again. Solomon’s paradox is definitely in full effect. I know exactly the general solution to this problem, yet I am not applying it very well.

Stability vs exploration is a pattern that crops up in mental models frequently. It is the same pattern of learning new things vs getting better at old things that is present in all life. To find a good model you need to try many different ones. For the first few intervals, you will have to suffer through the reduced performance that comes with something new. You will experience the curse of development. You also have to stick with something long enough so that you can reap the full benefits that come from mastery.

Not only is there a fine balance to be struck between exploring new mental models and getting skilled at old ones, there is also the problem of delayed development and part-splitting. Not all mental models are well integrated or internally consistent. Many mental models are unconscious and can only be seen by dint of trying to explicitly map them or by getting an outside perspective.

Moral development

You start life as a baby and as you grow your mental models become more intricate and accurate. Much of this improvement in accuracy is not a result of addition, but rather the replacement of false beliefs with less wrong ones. Your belief, your mental model, of the world as flat is replaced at some point during your childhood with the belief that the earth is a massive sphere that seems flat because it is so large. The shape of the earth is a trivial example of physics, but those closest to the heart are those mental models that govern how we relate to other people and to ourselves.

Lawrence_Kohlberg proposed a model of moral development
with three levels and two stages in each level:

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)

1. Obedience and punishment orientation

(How can I avoid punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation

(What’s in it for me?)
(Paying for a benefit)
Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity

(Social norms)
(The good boy/girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation

(Law and order morality)
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles

(Principled conscience)

As a baby, you make choices purely on impulse from a Stage One morality.

Most adults stay at Stage Two or Stage Three. As you move up each stage there are fewer and fewer people. There are only maybe a few thousand people who have reached Stage 6. There might even be further stages, but they have not been confirmed. Everybody starts out at Stage Zero when they are born, but as time goes by the distribution becomes more scattered. At each stage, there are people who get stuck and stop progressing to the next stage. The farther away people are from the average, the stronger the pull towards the world’s center of mass.

These levels work like gravity in that they attract. The farther away people are from the average, the stronger the pull towards the world’s center of mass. This can be counteracted by people who are nearer to you since it is a squared power like gravity. Unlike gravity, left alone in the heap that we call society it steadily(with many upsets and reversals) increases in mass. Three-pronged Truth, Love, and Power dictates the rate and slope of change.

An individual’s level is only his center of mass that averages his most common levels. Within each individual some parts have been left behind. Freud imagined them as little thugs running around in the basement of our subconscious that fights against workers on higher levels and depletes our energy. They are what motivate us to watch television or lie in our relationships. Ultimately procrastination on one task is action on another. Unless you are dead you are at a minimum breathing and your heart is pumping. Exactly like different divisions in a company you can either try and bend the workers to your will by using force or you can get the upper management to negotiate a deal with them.

The less internal cooperation you have the less energy you will have left to take action on your tasks and the more unsure you will feel. At the extremes of the spectrum, you might develop multiple personality disorder where different parts split into different personalities with their own names and other quirks. Being very coherent and internally focused allows you to be very effective. Such people can take massive action and accomplish great things. Other people might call them very motivated.

To happiness, and beyond!


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