Motivation and the Writer, Part 2: Expectancy

The last time I was here, I introduced Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory with an application to all the writers out there. This theory of motivation should also speak to the readers of the world as well; basically, if we’re ever to be motivated to do anything, we have obstacles in our way. Like so many things in life, the obstacles are usually within our minds.

Expectancy theory, in its basic form, boils down to three questions:

  1. Can I do the job?
  2. Will all that work lead to something?
  3. Will I even be satisfied with the outcome?

If any one of these three questions can be answered in the negative, there’s going to be a problem being motivated. This is what Vroom called expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.

Today, it’s all about the expectancy.

When analyzing your own motivation—or lack thereof—do you ever feel like the mountain in front of you is too high to climb? For example: you have a great idea for a novel, but you just can’t get yourself motivated to move past the first chapter or even the prologue.

  • Is it because you feel you don’t have the skill to write?
  • Is it because your mind is so scattered about the world you see in your head that you just can’t focus on one area?
  • Are there roadblocks in your way with regard to time and/or the privacy you need to write the book?

These types of questions should lead you to think there might be a lack of confidence in your ability. If there is a lack of confidence, you’re going to have trouble being motivated to move forward with the work.

Lack of confidence, however, is not always caused by a lack of training or a lack of resources available to  complete the task. In fact, for many people out there, lack of confidence is a symptom of learned helplessness.

What the deuce? I’m blathering on about behavioral science and I have to throw yet another psychobabble term in to the mix? How can you “learn” helplessness? And what does that have to do with confidence.

learned_helplessnessIn 1967, Martin Seligman and Steven Maier conducted an experiment using dogs, electric shocks, and a box. The end result was the discovery (or naming of) a psychological force present in many organisms: learned helplessness.

Let’s say you’re in fifth grade and you’re given a math test. You fail. The teacher and your parents urge you to study more, take home practice tests, and maybe get some tutoring.  The next test you get is, once again, a failure. So you study even more. You get a “D.” Maybe a little better, but the more you study, the less likely it becomes that you’ll ever get better. You either fail or barely pass no matter how hard you try.

Now, skip ahead to sixth grade. It’s math class again and you’re handed your first test of the year.

What is your first reaction? For most people, “I’m going to fail this,” is going to be a prevalent thought. What you did was “learn” to be “helpless.”

The same can be said about the writing process. You once wrote a book. People told you it was okay but could be better. You went to seminars, conferences, took classes at the local community college, read all the books on writing you could get your hands on. The next time you present people with a book, they say exactly the same thing to you: it was okay but could be better.

How’s that for a confidence boost? It’s more like a kick in the head, is it not?

So what does this have to do with expectancy? It’s really all about confidence. You have the skill, you have the time, you have the resources, but in the past something kept you from finishing the task…or worse, someone told you that your work wasn’t good enough.

And that will lead us into Instrumentality: does the effort a person puts forth lead to an expected outcome?

Next time.

For now, think about expectancy. How do you combat this learned helplessness or this lack of confidence in your abilities? What do you do to get through the first roadblock of motivation?