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The 3 scientific truths of motivation

What does scientific research say about our desire to thrive? This post shares three keys to keep in mnid.

5 min read



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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is an excerpt from “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals” by Susan Fowler.

Are you lazy? Do you think most people are basically lazy? Do you enjoy being disengaged at work? Do you think millions of people worldwide enjoy being disengaged? Is that why we need to be prodded, bribed, praised, and pushed into doing what we’re tasked to do? If managers did not hold us accountable for achieving our goals, do you think we would slack off? If you answer any of these questions yes, maybe your basic beliefs about human motivation need updating. You have a natural yearning to thrive — thriving is your human nature. Being bored or disengaged isn’t thriving. Being lazy isn’t thriving. Resenting hard work isn’t thriving.

The truth is, no one wants to be bored, disengaged, or lazy. At our core, we don’t resent hard work. We welcome productive and meaningful work, even when it’s hard. We appreciate meaningful challenges. We even want to be accountable — we just don’t like being held accountable! We want to contribute, feel fulfilled, and grow and learn every day. We long to thrive. Recognizing our nature to thrive leads to a critical question: How do I thrive? Now, thanks to groundbreaking research, we know the answer. And, it’s different than what we’ve been led to believe.

Thriving doesn’t depend on money, power, or status. Thriving doesn’t come from promotions, perks, or driving for results. Thriving certainly doesn’t happen through pressure, tension, or fear — or even willpower or discipline. Thriving requires Choice, Connection, and Competence. Motivation is the energy to act. Choice, connection, and competence generate the high-quality motivation (energy) you need to thrive. Your high-quality motivation—and the energy to achieve your goals and find meaning in their pursuit — depends on creating choice, connection, and competence.

Our need for choice, connection, and competence has been verified scientifically, and I think you’ll resonate personally with their definition and description of each scientific truth.

1. First scientific truth: You need to create choice. You have an innate need to perceive you have choices, recognize and feel you have options within boundaries, and have a sense of control over what is happening at any time: “I am the source of my behavior.” When you don’t create choice, your energy is diminished, and you are less likely to achieve your goals.

2. Second scientific truth: You need to create connection. You have an innate need to feel a sense of belonging and genuine connection to others without concerns about ulterior motives, pursue goals aligned to meaningful values and a noble purpose, and contribute to something greater than yourself. When you don’t create connection, your energy is compromised, and even if you achieve your goals, you are less likely to find the experience meaningful or worth repeating.

3. Third scientific truth: You need to create competence. You have an innate need to feel effective at managing everyday situations, demonstrate skill over time, and feel a sense of growth and learning every day. When you don’t create competence, your energy is blocked, and your frustration at being unable to meet challenges or make progress puts achieving long-term goals at risk.

The evidence supporting the three scientific truths at the center of your motivation is compelling, but all you need to do is look around you. Notice that when you create choice, connection, and competence, you feel a sense of well-being, are in a flow state, or experience deep-seated peace. On the flip side, observe that when one or more of the three truths are diminished, you feel pressure, tension, stress, loneliness, pride, superiority, despair, fear, anger, or frustration.

You might be wondering, if the three truths of choice, connection, and competence are the magic elixirs for mastering your motivation, why isn’t everyone taking advantage of them? The answer lies in how deeply embedded outdated ideas about motivation are in our beliefs and traditional approaches to motivation. The time has come to challenge what we think motivation is and isn’t.


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people and is on a mission to help others learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,”  she helps individuals master their motivation, achieve goals, and flourish as they succeed.

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