Motivation and the Writer, Part 6: Valence

Back in May, I started writing about Victor Vroom’s theory of motivation (expectancyinstrumentality, and valence) and how it applies to the writer set. Here now, we conclude (or I conclude).

Valence, essentially, means value. What value do you see in the work you’re putting out? In a nutshell, if a person has the ability to write (and the confidence) and their efforts have led to outcomes according to a set process, do they see any value in that outcome?

Was all that work satisfying?

What if you wrote books and they sold? What if fame was something you didn’t want but you received it anyway?

If you don’t see value in the outcome, you’re not going to be truly motivated (and I mean intrinsically, not extrinsically).

I was teaching a class the other day and asked the room if money was the true motivator. Only one person said “yes” while the rest rattled off things like achievement, having autonomy, doing something for a purpose.

So what determines the answer to the final question: what is value?

That’s simple, really. You determine the answer. Only you can say the effort you put into a work of art has value.

Here’s the problem with valence, however: it’s not an easy thing to figure out. For example, you may say finishing a novel gives you satisfaction because you completed it. However, when you put it out for the world to see or you try to find an agent or you get that first not-exactly-glowing review, you lose motivation.

When you lose motivation, then, did you miss what you value? If completing the novel was truly satisfying, shouldn’t everything else be nothing but icing on the cake?

I used to think I wrote because I wanted to leave a mark on the world. Even if someone said “That novel really hit home and I can’t get it out of my head” (hey, it’s actually happened), then I would know I made a mark. Therefore, according to all the aforementioned blather, I should still be motivated, right?

So do I get true satisfaction in leaving a mark?

Or is it something else?

Positive psychology is an awesome idea and relatively new (the term was coined in the mid-1990s). In a nutshell, here’s the gist: we used to say if you reach a milestone (get a good job, become famous, are successful), you’ll be happy. However, in neuroscience it doesn’t work that way.

The truth is, if you’re happy, then you’ll be successful. If you’re happy, then you’ll find and be what you value.

It’s opposite the way we think of things.

That’s where writers get valence wrong. Writers are human and as human we say the product must produce the satisfaction we seek.


Let me say that Vroom’s expectancy theory (expectancy, instrumentality, valence) should be changed slightly: seek the value first, be satisfied in who you are and what you can do, then write your heart out.

It may mean putting down the pen for a while until you find out what really drives you as a person.


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