Why We Avoid Pursuing Our Dreams, and 3 Strategies to Get Motivated

loss aversion motivation psychology

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. - Anon

mountI marvel at how easy it is for me to do everything except the thing that I dream about: writing a novel. I can blog all day, train, teach fitness and self-defense, promote and market and teach myself Javascript. I make plans and schedules to make these things happen. But for some reason, I have a lot of trouble bringing the same discipline to bear on writing.

My theory is that our biggest dreams are also the things we are most afraid to fail at; if we try and fail, we've lost something central to our sense of being. On the other hand, if we never try, we can sustain ourselves with perpetual hope. It's not as good at the real deal, but it's better than facing the risk of losing our passions by failing at them.

From a Certain Point of View

This approach to (not) pursuing our passions is justified by a particular perspective:

If you never try, you can't fail.

This mentality says that it's better to play it safe, to avoid loss, and to stay close to your comfort zone. It doesn't like change, and it really doesn't like risk. In this mentality, stability is considered more valuable than success or fulfillment.

But in the Warrior Spirit, you get to choose your perspective. So choose the opposing perspective, which will do a lot more for your ability to be awesome:

If you never try, you can't succeed.

This is just as true as the first perspective, but it places the emphasis on what you could gain, rather than what you could lose. This mindset recognizes that there are great rewards to be had by the bold, that comfort zones are for napping, and that stability is only as good as the fulfillment and happiness is allows.

Unfortunately, we're wired for the first point of view.

I'd rather not lose, but I don't care if I win

It was a sad day for psychology when we confirmed that most people are loss-averse: we will work harder to avoid losing something than we will to gain something or equal value. The value of a gain will have to be significantly more than the equivalent loss in order to motivate us to action.

Simple phrasing will change how people respond to a situation: credit cards used to charge a small surcharge on goods purchased, thinking that the convenience of the card would be enough to convince people. But it wasn't. People were willing to use cash to avoid losing that extra 5%. So the credit card companies convinced retailers to use different wording. Now, if there's a price difference at all, cash will earn you a small discount. But for some reason, we're not all that motivated to gain back that 5%, at least not enough to bother running to an ATM.

3 Strategies for Beating Your Loss Aversion

  1. Frame your goals in terms of loss: if you don't take the risk, you'll lose the chance for wealth/happiness/fulfillment/love that you would gain if you did. This can take some convincing, but it matches the mindset of a lot of passionate explorers, who were willing to risk life and limb because they couldn't bear the thought of missing out on things yet undiscovered. Note that my second point of view is actually stated in this way: If you never try, you will lose success.
  2. Exaggerate your gains. It's true we're loss averse, but a big enough potential gain will motivate action. So, use your imagination and dress up any potential success so its value is through the roof. Too lazy to workout just to shed a few pounds? Take a moment to think about all the other benefits you could gain: increased energy, blazing vitality, heightened sex appeal, speed, power, and confidence. The list goes on. Keep that list in the front of your mind and the work needed to earn it all seems trivial.
  3. Realize humans are loss averse and compensate. Base your behavior on reason and logic. I'm not a huge fan on this method because it requires a lot of willpower, but it can work if you have good systems in place. Just remember that your brain will minimize the value of a gain versus a loss, so adjust the value back to match reality.

I have been putting off filing a correction on my taxes because I've been thinking it would gain me back $100. Already, I can feel myself squirming when I simply restate the idea that, by putting it off, I'm giving up $100.

So, we've figured out why us humans are so reluctant to tackle our big goals and projects, and we've come up with three practical ways we can adjust our mindset to overcome that block.

Pick one thing you've been putting off and try re-framing your perspective on its value. Write it down--if I don't do X, I'm going to lose out on Y--and stick it to your computer screen. Let it sink in for a few days, and check in to see if you aren't more motivated to get it done.

Photo credit: Trekking Rinjani on Flickr