“Development of insight into one’s own motives and actions is thought to be a diversion of time and attention better spent on science.”
-Sharon Traweek, “Pilgrim’s Progress: Male Tales Told during a Life in Physics,” 1999
Traweek is describing the culture of American physicists in the ‘90s, but I feel what she’s pointing to around me. How much do we focus on motivating ourselves and acting, and how much on examining our motivations and actions? I’ve certainly heard people say, “Wow! Way to do the thing!” more often than I’ve heard “Wow! Way to really understand why you were doing the thing!” I hear the same thing directed inward: I “need to find the motivation,” or “learn to motivate myself,” or “get myself to keep working.” Those conversations often skip over what I’m working towards, as though motivation is a singular thing, as though the direction I’ve already picked is of course a good one for me to be moving. As though if I just keep acting I’ll get there. Wherever there is.
That’s not to say I never make a mistake the other way. I make all kinds of mistakes. As a senior at Amherst, I finished applications for jobs I certainly didn’t want because they seemed Cool, I knew cool people who Wanted them, and I imagined being Cool, too. Eventually someone I loved pointed out to me that the dream I was asking for wasn’t mine. I thought it over and realized I was acting, but had very little insight into my actions. Then again, when I considered applying to graduate school, I wanted to make sure that my motivations were right. I kept going over why I wanted to do this: to learn? To have time to focus on writing? To step out from my habits, and see what else I found? To join a community that emphasized scholarship and exploration? Was it just stupid pride? All those and more, it turned out, and the fact that part of me wanted to go for pride really bothered me. I didn’t apply. Then someone pointed out, ‘Look, of course that’s there, but that doesn’t mean it’s your only motivation, or even your main one.’ Another example: I’m twenty-three, moving toward the final draft of a poem I might really like, and I look up to realize that I’m scribbling and rescribbling variations of the same sixteen lines. It’s been eight hours. In the story about applying to graduate school, I might have been tripping on what I did with insights, not on the insights themselves—knowing part of me is envious and proud is useful. I want to remember it, and remember not to give it the steering wheel. In the second story, though, I’m glad that (for the day, at least) I didn’t worry too much about why I was scribbling these lines. They felt important, and I followed them.
I think Traweek might agree with all of that. She’s not saying the answer is always “reexamine your motivations” and never “do what you’ve decided.” She’s saying that, culturally, we’re told stories of action much more than we’re told stories of understanding our motivation and purpose with those actions. We’re pushed to value dramatic moves over attentive insights. I hear that, recognize it, and wonder why it is. When I asked my students, “Why do you do what you do,” most of them said something like, “to do the best I can” or “to be successful.” Then some of them started laughing, because they realized they’d skipped the question I meant to pose: what do you mean “best,” what do you mean “successful,” why did you choose those definitions. When and where (and why) did we teach them to keep running before we taught them to think carefully about what they’re running towards?