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Until about 1950, scientists believed that there were two types of motivation: biological and reward/punishment. Biological motivation is driven by our biological needs to eat, sleep, etc. Scientists believed that the only other way to motivate someone was to offer a reward or threaten a punishment.

In 1949, Harry Harlow was doing behavior experiments with rhesus monkeys. He planned to test the effectiveness of rewards and punishments while the monkeys solved a puzzle. Two weeks before the experiments started, he put the puzzles in with the monkeys so that they would get used to them.

A totally unexpected thing happened. Without rewards or fear of punishment, they solved the puzzles frequently and quickly. The researchers were stunned. Harlow called it intrinsic motivation.

Through coaching and interacting with others, I’ve concluded that we crave challenges. Just like the rhesus monkeys, we are intrinsically motivated to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Some of us hunt for bargains. Others train for marathons. A group of us create realistic landscapes for model trains. My mom did a bit of cursing now and then when she was creating beautiful quilts. Some people I coach put all of their emphasis on moving up the ladder at work and earning more money.

If you look around, people who are happy are leveraging their intrinsic motivation just like the rhesus monkeys did when they solved the puzzles. They’ve found something that they like to figure out or overcome. Finding out what we like to do is a wonderful exercise.

We could take on a physical challenge or learn to knit. Helping others in some way is also a satisfying challenge. It’s important not to get discouraged if we don’t find our own personal challenge right away. We can’t know that we like or don’t like to paint or draw until we try it.

I’ve seen coaching clients get discouraged when the challenge is so big that it feels overwhelming. It’s not that they don’t like doing the action, it’s just that they don’t know how to start or that their expectations for mastery are unrealistic. It’s important to remember that we all start a new skill as consciously incompetent and work our way up to consciously competent. It’s okay to be terrible in the beginning.

It’s also okay to give yourself permission to spend time doing something that you like. I have dabbled with drawing over the years, but I’ve told myself that I will draw after I’ve accomplished everything that needs to be done for the day. It’s no great revelation for me to tell you that things are never done for the day. There is always one more thing that I could do.

Lately, I’ve been setting aside time to draw. I send two drawings a week to my granddaughter. A two-year-old is the proper audience to truly appreciate my work. I’ve found that the time I spend immersed in choosing colors and drawing are rejuvenating. I am refreshed and ready to take on the next task on my to-do list.

It’s a great reminder that self-care is an important part of living a fulfilling life. Finding a satisfying challenge that gives a sense of accomplishment is definitely good self-care.

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