Motivation is a complicated thing. Some of us have more than our fair share; others could stand to borrow a little. "Be more motivated," we say. But how?
A few weeks ago, I was talking with a grad student friend who has trouble studying without some external motivator (a class, degree, etc.) to hold their feet to the fire. For the last five years of graduate education, this has not been a huge struggle for me; by God's grace, I really enjoy my work and just have an inner drive to study without anyone cracking the whip. Of course, I get burned out every now and then, but typically I bounce back after a few days off. As a result, I was initially having trouble explaining to my friend what exactly it is that gets me out of bed and to the library day after day.
But then a vivid memory popped into my head—a memory of the day I learned the value of preparation. I'll call it the Two Classrooms Story.
Almost exactly six years ago I found myself on a plane headed to India. A rising senior at Asbury University, I had received a grant to go and teach Greek and Hebrew at Living Hope Theological College in Tamil Nadu for six weeks. I had never taught before, but had spent the first part of the summer preparing myself and locating resources (a significant issue for theological education overseas).
A couple of days after touching down in Chennai, I finally arrived at Living Hope late at night, and the following morning Muto, one of the administrators, took me around to see some of the classes. The first room we walked into was a Greek class. Muto walks up to the instructor and said something, and he began packing up his books, which seemed odd to me. Muto turns to me and says, "Okay, you can teach for about 45 minutes." I didn't have anything with me, so I quickly ran back to my room and grabbed some books. When I got back, I spent 40 minutes or so working over John 1:1 in detail with the students. I remember being surprised at having so much to say about a single verse and being thankful that I had spent so much time studying before I came.
After the Greek class, we took a brief break and then went and visited another class where the instructor was teaching on the Psalms. After watching for a few minutes, he looks up and says to me "Okay, you can teach for 5 minutes." Now, I had read the Psalms many times before. But reading the Psalms and lecturing on them are very different things. Nevertheless, when duty calls you can't really say, "No, thanks." So, I got up and tried to act like I knew more than I did about Psalm 91 for a few minutes. (If I remember correctly, I scammed an insight from my dad about the correlation between the psalmist's faithfulness and call and God's response in vv. 14–15.)
To this day I can still remember the visceral and diametrically opposed feelings I experienced in each of those classrooms: in the first, joy at being able to share something of value with the students; in the second, dread at being called upon to say something without having anything to say. And the difference? Preparation. In the first classroom, I had spent weeks preparing to teach Greek, not to mention the countless hours I had invested in studying the language more generally. As a result, I was confident and had plenty to share even when called upon on short notice. In the second, I had a few scattered insights that refused to coalesce into a coherent thought in the pressure of the moment.
What I learned that day was not that I needed to study the Psalms more (although that was probably true as well), but that opportunity often knocks at inopportune times, and in those moments the time you have invested in preparation becomes incredibly valuable.
However, to stop here is merely to define an additional source of motivation that happens to be constant—"Prepare! You never know when you'll need it!" However, this can easily result in both burnout (I can't stand being pushed from outside all the time) and disorientation (what do I prepare for?). We therefore need to add another element to the equation: calling.
God used my time in India to begin calling me to the vocation of a pastor-theologian. As I taught, preached, and studied over those six weeks, I began sensing that this was something that I was being called to do long-term. God showed me how my particular skills and gifts fit into his larger Kingdom purposes and could be used to build the Church. I accepted the call, and it launched me on the life trajectory that I have been on for the last five years.
Calling—that sense of God-given purpose—is what makes all the difference in how I think about my work. Because I have sensed, been affirmed in, and accepted God's call, it is part of me in a very real sense. For this reason, what I learned in those two classrooms about the value of preparation isn’t just an external motivator that pushes me. Rather, it connects to the deeply-held conviction that I am called and results in something that feels more like the pull of being drawn towards something than a shove from behind.
I am not a psychologist or the son of a psychologist, but I do know that on a sweltering day in India God reminded me of the value of preparation and began calling me in a very specific way. The last six years have not always been easy and I have had my share of “hear my cry, O LORD” moments, but when I wake up in the morning, I generally do so with a sense of purpose, and I find this to be a great blessing.
So how do you find motivation? I don’t think you do, at least not by looking for it. I think you look for a God-given calling, put yourself in situations where you can be used and shown your frailties, and then live into that calling with the realization that every moment of preparation counts and is a blessing. To sense God's calling on your life and at the same time truly realize the value of preparation is to become a person of dedication.
What gets you up in the morning?