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  • Writer's pictureSteven Kotler

The Elements of Drive

Connecting Motivation, Grit, and Drive

I wake up at 4:00 a.m. and start writing. Everyday.

Does this demand grit? Occasionally. But mostly, grit takes care of itself. I’m curious. I have a purpose. And I am passionate about what I do in the world. So, 4:00 a.m. is not a big deal for me.

Let me explain.

If you want to achieve your greatest goals, then let’s get this out of the way right up front. You can learn more by reading my latest book, the peak performance playbook The Art of Impossible.

Here’s the summary.

When the brain wants to motivate us, it sends out a neurochemical message via one of seven specific networks.

These networks are ancient devices. They correspond to the behavior they’re designed to produce. There is a system for fear, another for anger/rage, and a third for grief. The lust system drives us to procreate; the care/nurture system urges us to protect our young.

When we talk about drive—the psychological energy that pushes us forward—we’re really talking about the two specific system…

Play/Social Engagement and Seeking/Desire

The play/social engagement system is about all the fun stuff we used to do as kids: running, jumping, chasing, wrestling, and, of course, socializing. Play is mostly designed to teach us about social rules and social interaction.

When you’re playing with your little brother and Mom screams, “Don’t pick on someone smaller than you,” she’s exactly on message. The point of play is to teach us lessons like, ‘might doesn’t make right.’

It’s nature’s way of instructing us in morality. It’s automatic. When we play, the brain releases dopamine and oxytocin, two of our most crucial “reward chemicals.”

These are pleasure drugs. When we accomplish, or try to accomplish, anything that fulfills a basic survival need – we feel good.

We’re Hardwired to Play

Dopamine is the brain’s primary reward chemical. Oxytocin a close second. Serotonin, endorphins, norepinephrine, and anandamide also play a role.

The pleasurable feeling created by each of these chemicals drives us to act and, if that action is successful, reinforces the behavior in memory.

Dopamine specializes in driving desire, from our sexual appetites to our quest for knowledge. We feel its presence as excitement, enthusiasm, and the desire to make meaning from a situation.

When your phone dings, and you’re curious to check it out, that’s dopamine at work. The urge to decipher black hole theory, the hunger to climb Mount Everest, the desire to test your limits—that’s dopamine, too.

Norepinephrine is similar – but different.

It’s the brain’s version of adrenaline, sometimes called noradrenaline. This neurochemical produces a huge increase in energy and alertness, stimulating hyperactivity and hypervigilance.

When you’re obsessed with an idea, can’t stop working on a project, or can’t stop thinking about the person you just met, norepinephrine is responsible.

Oxytocin produces trust, love, and friendship. It’s the “pro-social” neurochemical that underpins everything from loving, long-term marital bliss to cooperative, well-functioning companies.

Serotonin is a calming, peaceful chemical that provides a gentle lift in mood. It’s that satiated feeling that comes after a good meal or a great orgasm, but it also appears to play a role in satisfaction and contentment, that feeling of a job well done.

Now, endorphins and anandamide. Pain-killing bliss producers. They’re both heavy-duty stress relievers. They replace the weight of the everyday with a euphoric sense of relaxed happiness. It gives us that “all is right in the world” feeling.

The Mother of All Neurochemical Cocktails

Flow is one of the only times you get all six at once. Flow state blends all six of the brain’s major pleasure chemicals. This potent mix explains why people describe flow as their “favorite experience,” while psychologists refer to it as “the source code of intrinsic motivation.” The seeking/desire system is the second system that plays an important role in drive. Sometimes called the “reward system,” this is a general-purpose network that helps animals acquire the resources they need for survival. “In pure form, [the seeking system] provokes intense and enthusiastic exploration and... anticipatory excitement [and] learning,” writes Jaak Panksepp, the neuroscientist who discovered these seven systems. “When fully aroused, the seeking system fills the mind with interest and motivates organisms to effortlessly search for the things they need”—italics mine. I put “effortlessly” into italics for a reason. If we can tune the system correctly, the results show up automatically. When we’re passionate, we don’t have to work hard to stay on task. Because of dopamine and norepinephrine, that happens automatically.

Getting into flow is our basic biology at work. The push of our most critical emotional fuels. The expertly cocktailed neurochemical mix for maximum thrust.

That’s the quick summary of how to connect motivation, grit and drive to achieve your impossible goals.

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1 Comment

Dec 04, 2022

This seems to be abandoned even though I see that you're still creating content ... why is the blog not being up-dated?

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