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How to generate positive energy

Why choice, connection and competence are critical to motivation.

6 min read


Positive energy

Susan Fowler

Ivan arises each morning at 1:30 a.m. so he can start his 3 a.m. shift delivering snack foods to grocery stores. Co-workers, many who thought this job was a temporary stop until they found their true path and find themselves a decade later packing trucks every morning, goad him,

“What’s a young man like you doing here? You should be in school.”

Ivan, 22, replies, “I am in school.” Immediately after finishing his 8-hour or longer work day, Ivan heads to a local university, where he’s in his junior year as a political science major.

Asking what makes a kid like Ivan work so hard is asking the wrong question. Asking why he works so hard gets to the heart of Ivan’s motivation — and what science validates is most important to generating positive energy.

I met Ivan when he was 6, tagging along with his father, a gardener. Ivan’s father worked two full-time jobs and brought Ivan for father-son bonding, but also to expose Ivan to different people and ways of life. Little Ivan took every opportunity to bombard my husband and I with questions, especially about our work as writers.

Over the years, Ivan listened and has practiced the skill of motivation by asking himself questions to create choice, connection and competence — the essential ingredients for optimal motivation. I think we can all learn from his example.


When faced with a decision, create choice by asking, “What choices do I have?”

Ivan mindfully evaluates his choices. He could choose not to go to school or work seven days a week. But he fully accepts responsibility for choosing to get his education and contribute financially to his family who supports his efforts.

As you face your workday, are you mindfully aware of the choices you’re making to show up or not show up; to work hard or do the minimum required to skate by?


When making a choice, create connection by asking, “How can I find meaning and contribute to something greater than myself?”

Ivan has deeply considered his values and the role they play in the choices he makes. He isn’t driven to work hard — his motivation isn’t a result of pressure from parents or society.

He has no resentment for the long hours he works or lack of sleep. He has consciously chosen to work hard while he’s young and strong, so he can attain his dream of earning his law degree and becoming a politician. He’s witnessed the corruption in his parents’ home country of Mexico, seen the misunderstanding of complex immigration issues in the US and has dedicated himself to bridging a plurality of perspectives. For example, he’s one of only four men in a women’s studies course on gender and race because he relishes learning and sharing different points of view.

Just as important to his values for learning and helping the underclass is his devotion to the family who helped instill those values. That’s why, on his days off, he works with his father landscaping yards. “Besides getting my education, working with my dad is the best way to show how much I love my family,” he says.

What values are you fulfilling through the choices you make each day?


Create competence by asking, “What did I learn today that will help me be better than tomorrow?”

Ivan’s manager discovered that Ivan was working full shifts while attending school full time.

Ivan was surprised when his manager told him, “I never thought school was important. I just wanted to earn money. Now I have a wife and two kids, and I have to work. But because I don’t have a degree, options are limited. If I had it to do over again, I’d have stayed in school. So, if there’s anything I can do to help you, let me know. We can rearrange shifts to accommodate a test or doing your homework. What you’re doing now will affect the rest of your life. Make the most of it. Who knows, maybe you’ll inspire me to back to school.”

As well as anyone I know, Ivan reflects on his experience and learns from it. Ivan was blown away by his manager’s caring comments and transparency, but also learned an intriguing lesson:

“I was worried that my boss would force me to choose between my job or school, but I learned that the harder you work the more people will help you succeed. Until now, I never understood how much people want to help people who help themselves. It makes me want to work harder, not just for myself, but because I can be a role model to someone who might need my dreams to spark their own.”

What did you learn today that will help you — or someone else — be better tomorrow?

Ivan and I talk several times a month. I always come away from the conversation knowing more about Ivan — and myself, because his hunger for insight is contagious! His stories are real-world examples of what motivation science proves: that proactively making choices, connecting your choices to meaningful values and building competence through your experience helps you master your motivation and generate the positive energy to achieve your goals and live your dreams.


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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