Skip to content

On Motive

Posted on:March 25, 2024 at 08:00 PM

Close up photo of strands of yarn

Photo by Mel Poole on Unsplash

Why do we do the things we do? What drives us? What holds us back? We vacillate between these forces, pushing and pulling, like tides, like magnets.

Nourishment and preservation are base functions, inherited from our insect and reptilian ancestors. From our mammalian relatives, we inherit love, the desire to nurture and protect. And from the humans we inherit nobility and sacrifice, greed and indulgence, jealousy and transcendence.

Like the hundreds of complex proteins formed by a handful of molecules, we exhibit a myriad of behaviors, subtleties, and idiosyncrasies arising from a small handful of underlying motives. Why should I join an expensive gym nearby? In the hopes of using my fascination with the novel into something healthy? To magically achieve a more attractive physique without understanding how, like the missing key ??? step before “Profit” in the Reddit meme? What is it that I really want? And is this the best way to achieve that?

Engineers like to call this the X-Y problem. Your problem is X, and you think the solution is Y, but you don’t know how to do it. So you ask for help with Y. Even if you can succeed with Y, there is no guarantee it will work. You should’ve been asking for help with X. Moving too quickly into the solution space without first properly understanding the problem space is a bad recipe for success, and may even be a good recipe for failure. With the advent of ever smarter AI that may be able to write better and better code for us, more and more of software engineering may focus on gathering requirements, a lost art from the early days of programming where engineers would sit with, talk to, and observe their users like scientists, like comrades, like ghosts. You can only solve a problem if you truly understand it.

It is often easier to solve other people’s problems, rather than our own. We can be more objective with them, the cost-benefit is easier to analyze, the tradeoffs more easily visible, without all the emotion and mystery of the inside getting in the way. We can’t silence the inside without significant injury, and although sometimes medication can help, in a great majority of cases we have the capacity to un-knot the dense yarn of the frazzled mind. With patience, with gentleness, with thoughtfulness, and forgiveness, by taking our time, by resting, by bringing ourselves to a degree of ease and safety and comfort and relaxation, we can slowly unravel it, straighten it, feel the inner motives guiding it, and then weave it into something warm and cozy and soft and strong and resilient and good.

In the times when I’ve been successful at it, I’ve found that underneath all the mess are two driving factors: love and fear. I am able to trace all my actions, all  my behaviors, all my desires and worries and concerns back to these two. And not always as you may think: some desire comes from love, but other comes from fear. And some worry comes from fear, but other comes from love. I may not always be able to control these emotional impulses, but by meditating on them, I am able to understand them, and myself, better. By seeing myself from the outside like this, I can be more gentle and more caring and more forgiving of myself than I would otherwise be. I can also sometimes solve my problems better, almost as if they were someone else’s. Sometimes.

Now that I understand this, I have one clear guideline that I think will serve me well: try to make more decisions from a place of love, and try to make fewer from a place of fear. The world is complex with many players, and it is impossible to predict where things will end up with high certainty, but if I can maximize the decisions I make for love, and minimize those I make for fear, I will have done the most I could, in the best way for the best reasons, and can be at peace.