Want More Motivation? Take This Counterintuitive Lesson from the Marines.

Probably few organizations value self-motivation like the US Marine Corps, so when their recruits began showing deficiencies, officers dug into the latest psychologist research. Here's what they found.

Charles Duhigg:  One of the things we know about motivation is that we’re able to trigger those parts of our neurology that are related to motivating us when we feel in control. And very frequently this comes from making a choice: something that allows us to assert ourselves into a situation. One of the most fascinating examples of this is how the Marine Corps revamped basic training. So about 15 years ago the Marine Corps found it was having this problem: they were getting a bunch of recruits that were coming in who were completely unpracticed at self-motivation. They essentially had never learned the skills of this. Now for the Marine Corps this is a real problem because the Marines are kind of different from other branches of the military. They’re usually the first in and the last to leave. And so what they need is they need real self-starters, people who know how to take the initiative, but the recruits that are coming through the door at boot camp were just completely unpracticed at this. Charles Krulak, who is the head of the Marine Corps, told me that a lot of these recruits had never been on sports teams, they had never learned how to assert themselves, they had never practiced self-motivation. So Krulak looked at the literature and he found that there were a bunch of studies that said the most effective Marines are ones who have learned an internal locus of control. We all have an internal or external locus of control and what that means is it’s how we see the world whether we believe that we have the ability to assert ourselves and control our destinies or whether we believe that the things that happen around us determine whether we’re successful or not. Krulak wanted to teach his recruits how to have an internal locus of control, what in the Marines they call a bias towards action, and so he redesigned root boot camp completely. Now when recruits enter boot camp, instead of learning discipline and learning how to follow orders, which is how most of us think about it (that’s the cliché), instead they’re trained on making decision after decision after decision: taking control and serving themselves in ways that maybe they didn’t even expect they would need to. At the end of boot camp is this thing called the crucible. It’s a 56 hour obstacle course that every recruit has to complete in order to become a Marine. And during the crucible what’s really interesting is some of the obstacles can only be completed if you kind of disobey the orders you’re hearing. One of my favorites is this thing called Sergeant Timmerman’s Tank where you have to use these ropes and logs to move across this big sand pit.

And you’re told not to do anything unless you get a direct order from your platoon leader, but the thing is everyone’s wearing gas masks. You can’t hear your platoon leader and your platoon leader is wearing a gas mask. Whatever he shouts nobody can make out. The only way to actually do the obstacle is if everyone pretends that they’re listening to their platoon leader and sort of self-organizes on the fly. Now we don’t think of the Marines and we don’t think of the military as some place that teaches us to be subversive. But this is the biggest insight is that when people feel the subversive instinct, when they feel this need to take control and assert themselves that’s when they learn how to generate self-motivation. And the more that we can give that to kids or our coworkers, the more that we can encourage it in ourself. That feeling that you’re on the freeway and you’re stuck in a traffic jam and you want to just take that exit because it feels so good to be in control, that’s where motivation comes from. So anyone can learn a bias towards action. In fact it’s something that we can learn at any stage in life. One of my favorite studies about motivation comes from this examination of how nursing homes work and why some people succeed in nursing homes and other people sort of just get old and pass away. And what they found is that the people who are most successful in a nursing home setting are the ones who try to break the rules. So one of my favorite examples is that they were talking to a group of nursing home residents in Santa Fe and they found that the people who lived the longest, who sort of did best once they were in the nursing home was this group of seniors who as soon as they got their meal tray from the cafeteria where the nursing home would tell them you should have this to eat and that to eat they would trade among themselves and kind of make their own meals. And they talked to this one guy and he said that he always traded away his chocolate cake and that he actually loved chocolate cake. But that he would rather eat a meal of his own creation than just placidly take what was being handed to him. And that’s actually why he was successful in the nursing home is because people who look for ways to prove to themselves that they’re in control whether they’re in control of their own life or whether they’re in control of their own decisions, those are the people who manage to motivate to exercise more and to keep up relationships with friends and to partake in the community. This subversive instinct, if you can encourage that then you learn how to self-motivate and it just pays these huge dividends in your life.

Probably few organizations value self-motivation like the U.S. Marine Corps, so when their recruits began showing deficiencies, officers dug into the latest psychologist research. What they found is that one's "locus of control" greatly determines the extent of self-motivation: do you believe you are firmly in control of your destiny or that external events determine your life? Individuals whose locus of control is internal, i.e. they believe they control their own destiny, have a greater impulse toward taking action. New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg explains how the Marines took this data to better train their recruits.


Duhigg's latest book is Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.

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