Why we do what we do | Sunday Observer

Why we do what we do

24 October, 2021

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs and many others before and after him have tried to convey what they felt were different paths to achieve what is commonly believed as success followed by happiness. Some might even say that it should be the other way around, meaning a happy person is already successful since one’s ultimate goal is to achieve that happiness.

However, as most people have experienced in their journeys through life, these are easier said than done and that perhaps is why the majority feels unsuccessful and/or unhappy. It may not be that difficult to accept the fact that one’s work is going to fill a large part of one’s life irrespective of whether one is an employee working for someone else or self-employed or just managing one’s wealth helping the others.

The difficult part is to find out what one believes as “great work” or what she or he really loves to do in serving the world while making a living through that.

Certainly, one must continue looking until she or he finds it. Can one find it if she or he doesn’t know what he is looking for? If we don’t know what we are looking for then, will we be able to recognise it even if we saw it or experienced it?

Scratching the surface

What this means is then one should have a good understanding about how s/he is going to contribute to our collective efforts of improving the conditions for all living beings on the planet, rather than destroying as much resources as possible and looking for another planet to move to and repeat the process.

It is certainly beneficial to the planet if we can gain such understanding before we enter the workforce or at least during the early part of our work life. Most of the humans spend the better part of their lives just attempting to meet core human needs. That means, most of what we do is motivated by one or more basic human needs.

If most of our actions are motivated by similar needs, then why do we see various types of motivational factors and different types of actions in achieving these, nearly similar goals? This can be due to different levels of awareness we bring to the relationship between our needs and our actions. Though education plays a major role in developing such awareness, other key components affecting the process could be cultural, religious, social, and economic too. Some cultures consider expressing what one wants explicitly as taboo.

Most of the children living in countries with such cultural practices do not generally cultivate the ability to even recognise what they want. Much of social interactions are focused on questioning what they want and feeding them with any number of reasons to suppress such thoughts so that they will not be considered eccentric. This may very well produce adults who would be acting well within the social norms approved and accepted by that particular society without the awareness of what they really want to do. What is even worse is that most of what such people consider as their needs is also defined by those very same social and cultural norms.

Therefore, they continue to act on their needs without knowing what they really are and end up with far less choices than they would have had otherwise. When one is not aware of needs, one tends to act based on one’s feelings, thoughts, habits, and impulse. Each of these types of motivation, though connected with needs, can be a limiting factor in recognising available choices, if one does not engage with underlying needs.

A prepared path

Feelings such as fear, shame or guilt would make most of the people refrain from any action while anger or excitement would sometimes lead them to types of action they might regret later.

If the social and cultural norms allow, especially the children, to recognise feelings as sources of information which arise from the constant stream of data indicating whether or not their needs are met, then it will be easier for them and their teachers and parents to trace those feelings back to the underlying needs. Understanding those needs will allow them to access the database containing the choices that are available to address those needs.

If the connection between the feelings and the needs that created them is not established, then people tend to use their thought processes mostly influenced by outside factors such as: what the others will say or do and what others expect them to do. Such thoughts will bypass that database of choices that are available at that given point in time.

There is a world of difference between acting on the belief that one has to do something and choosing it based on what is really important to oneself underneath that thought.

Habits and impulses can also be motivating factors behind one’s actions. Most cultures have established ways of judging people who act on their habits and impulses. Though they both lack choice, contrary to habits, impulses are often forgiven as “natural” reactions. It may not be a fair categorisation of one as “natural” and the other perhaps “unnatural” since a deliberate act can also be described as one’s “nature”.

Responding to impulses and acting on them, sometimes, may seem like a welcome relief, especially when one has been enslaved by habits and painful thought patterns.

That will provide one with the illusion of getting back to one’s non-habitual self. Though impulses are spontaneous, they may not have originated from what is really wanted. Therefore, a proper training in addressing one’s intuition when needed will be extremely helpful in avoiding any actions based on habits and impulses.

Whether the motivating factor is a feeling, a thought, a habit, or an impulse, if the action is taken before a proper identification of the underlying needs then the outcome, more often than not, would not be what is wanted. Developing the ability to recognise one’s intrinsic motivational factors such as: vitality, genuineness, curiosity, and their real inner needs as opposed to extrinsic factors such as financial and other types of rewards is also important in zeroing in on what she or he truly wants.

Afterall, personal autonomy, that is, the need to feel that their behaviour is truly chosen by them rather than imposed by some external source is a feel-good factor for most human beings.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]