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What’s become clear?

Motivation is about meeting psychological needs, not biological needs. Look to the words of Emerson: "what’s become clear since last we met?”

5 min read


What's become clear?

Susan Fowler

As the story goes, if you bumped into the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson on the street, your old acquaintance wouldn’t greet you with the standard, “Hello, how are you?” Instead, he’d ask, “Tell me, what’s become clear since last we met?”

Emerson knew he was asking a powerful question, even if he didn’t have the science to explain why. But today, we have the science. Asking what’s become clear prompts a mindful moment of reflection. And, as it turns out, reflection is essential for mastering your motivation.

The three actions to master your motivation are identify, shift and reflect. The first two actions jump-start a goal or help you change a habit by creating choice, connection and competence — the three psychological needs required for optimal motivation.

Your psychological need for choice, connection and competence is at the heart of motivation. Yet most popular motivation theories still depend on biological drives as their foundational framework, which has led to an ill-advised focus on satisfaction rather than optimal motivation.

For example, when you are hungry, your biological need for nourishment drives you to eat. After you’ve eaten, you are satiated, or satisfied.

Imagine yourself after a big holiday meal. How driven are you to do anything more than sit on the couch and watch TV? But hours later, when your body has run out of fuel, you experience hunger again, and scrounge the fridge for leftovers. A biological need leads to a biological drive — a state you don’t control and can’t sustain over time.

Psychological needs are just the opposite. You can learn how to satisfy your psychological needs by creating choice, connection and competence. But the fascinating phenomenon? The more choice, connection and competence you create, the more you want! Back to that holiday meal.

Let’s say your goal is to lose weight. So, you choose to eat light by connecting with your values for healthy living; you gain a sense of competence by self-regulating and not overindulging. You successfully created choice, connection and competence through your actions and made progress on your goal! It feels great! But to maintain the optimal motivation to reach your weight-loss goal and maintain it over time, you need to recognize how good you feel. You need to reinforce your feelings of empowerment, meaning and progress. Recognition and reinforcement come through reflection.

Think about an important goal you achieved or a habit you changed. Then, deconstruct what happened.

Forty years ago, I wasn’t an animal advocate. I enjoyed eating meat and fish. But after watching a documentary on how we treat the animals we eat, I quit eating meat and fish — literally overnight. How did I make such a radical change so easily? My work has been dedicated to answering that question. Groundbreaking motivation research provided an empirical answer. But it’s taken me over 20 years translating the research into a skill we can apply any time to experience optimal motivation.  

By identifying your current motivational outlook and shifting to an optimal outlook, you can experience a breakthrough on habits and goals such as limiting caffeine and sugar, starting a new exercise regimen or starting a business.

The key to maintaining optimal motivation is to reflect on three questions that reinforce choice, connection and competence. Reflecting on my vegetarian lifestyle has helped me maintain it for almost four decades.

Take the time to reflect on your habit change or goal by asking:

  1. What choices have I made? (How do I feel about those choices; what choices can I make in the future?)
  2. What connections have I made? (What meaning have I created; what values and sense of purpose have I fulfilled; how have I contributed to the greater good?)
  3. What competence have I gained? (What have I learned; what skills have I developed; how have I grown?)

As you consider your habit change or goal, how you would answer an old friend asking, “What’s become clear since last we met?” Whether you are ending the day, the week, or the year, reflect on Emerson’s brilliant question. Create that mindful moment of reflection for yourself. Then, after mastering your motivation, pay it forward by asking someone else, “What’s become clear?”

You’ll give a profound gift to someone you lead, teach, or parent — the opportunity to reflect and master their own motivation.


Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: Motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Susan teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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