The Muse and Motivation

I began my first MAIS course in February, and for the first month of the course, I was angry.  Again, there were many things to which I could attribute my anger, but a clear and dominant focus was Watson and Tharp (2007).  I didn’t want to be angry with them.  They had interesting things to say, and a clear and focused method for me to find my way to personal satisfaction, yet my discontent simply grew with each passing page.  These two well-meaning strangers were asking me to look at my life and decide on something that really needed to change.  They soothed me with the success stories of others, and, like TV evangelists, promised me salvation if I could just follow the simple steps.  The problem was, they forgot to tell me how to start.  What was I to do if I had no pressing problem in my life?  With course time ticking away, I decided to trot out an old muse of mine: writing.

Now a writing project wouldn’t have been all bad, and there are numerous articles in our course readings that talk about both the difficulty and reward available to those who decide to pursue a regular writing practice, (Epstein, 1997; Malott, 1986; Wallace & Pear, 1977) but the fact remained that I was never able to truly begin my project.  I seemed to be waiting for something, perhaps a spark of inspiration to free my pen.  I wore my flint to the nub, watching for the faintest tendrils of smoke, fan ready to encourage the fire to grow, but all I could conjure were flashes.  In the cold darkness of my frustration, I couldn’t see that my kindling was wet.

Anyone who has been caught on the side of the road with an empty tank can tell you how important it is to have sufficient fuel to reach your destination, and a self-change journey is no different.  Garrison (1997) encourages us to look at our “motivational reserve or fuel” (Garrison, 1997, p. 27) gauge to check that we hit the road with ample entering and task motivation.  Watson and Tharp ensured that I thoroughly checked my task motivation gauge, encouraging me to clarify my goals, anticipate problems, and believe in myself (chapter 2); and stressing keen self-observation, and identifying the indicators on the road to self-modification: antecedents, behaviours and consequences (chapter 3).  Watson and Tharp effectively guided me in consulting my “map of the future” (Watson & Tharp, 2007, p. 32) and asked me, “Where exactly are you going?” (Watson & Tharp, 2007, p. 32).  What they didn’t ask me is, “Why do you want to go there?”

Garrison’s discussion of entering motivation centers on “the process of deciding to participate” (Garrison, 1997, p. 26).  Until this point in my research, I hadn’t realized that my failure to persist in my writing project could have been caused by my indecision to participate in the first place.  This disorienting thought lead to a re-examination of my project.  Why did I want to complete this particular project?  What skills did I have to complete it?  And most importantly, what barriers was I coming up against that prevented me from beginning?  Garrison’s (1997) outline of the factors influencing entering motivation helped me look closely at my proposed project.  Certainly my writing project was of value, and I had the skills and ability to complete it: it was a project I had focused on for more than three of my undergraduate courses.  It was my attitude, and my reason for choosing this goal that were not sound.  I realized I had chosen this goal for shallow reasons.  I had academic success with this muse before, and I thought it would be easy to reproduce the experience.

Entering Motivation Factors (Garrison, 1997, p. 28)

I recently had the pleasure of watching the movie “Nine” (2009), a film about a famous Italian director tasked with scripting an epic movie about his country.  In the crucial moment, his muse enters and refuses to perform for him in his visionless picture.  She walks out and he crumbles, his career in ruins.  When I explored for myself my muse, this group of characters who had performed so well for me in my undergrad, I recognized that I failed to approach the wellspring of my inspiration with a proper spirit.  By assuming that my creative spirit would simply perform for the sake of my good grades, I objectified my muse.  I turned again to Watson and Tharp, focusing on Figure 1-1, Alternative III (Watson & Tharp, 2007, p. 5) where they graphically represent reality as “an interaction of person and situation” (Watson & Tharp, 2007, p. 5, ital. mine).  They construct this reality as “the point of view we will adopt in this book” (p. 5), but they only use an anthropocentric viewpoint of “the situation”.  They never concede that the situation can be viewed as the “other”, and interpersonal skills apply.  As Jodie mentioned in her May 12th post, “in order to change a behaviour that is holding me back from fulfilling my true potential, I must first accept it. […] We have to respect that the unwanted behaviour is a part of ourselves that grew organically in response to some stress or threat.  When we remove the behaviour through effort, will and trying, we threaten ourselves further and the behaviour digs right in.”  In order to prevent this “digging in” of behaviour, or abandonment by our muses, it is important, as a gesture of respect, friendship, even love, to interact with our situation and see what it has to say about our future.

The process of choosing a goal is important, not only so you know where you’re going, but also so that you can ensure you’ve got the fuel to get there.  By observing the world and interacting with our situation, we can see signs that point us toward success.  If I were to do this course again, I would start with the assignment outlining goals for the next year/5 years, record the frequency that I attend to each one of these goals within the first month of the course, and then choose a goal to focus on from there.  While it may not yield success, at least I would be following through on a goal supported naturally by my environment.  It may mean fewer uphill battles, and leave me with just a little gas left over to enjoy the ride.

Epstein, R. (1997). Skinner as self-manager.  Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 30(3), 545-568.

Garrison, D. R. (1997). Self-Directed Learning: Toward a Comprehensive Model. Adult Education Quarterly, 48(1), 18-33. Retrieved from

Malott, R. W. (1986). Self-Management, Rule-Governed Behaviour and Everyday Life. Behaviour science: Philosophical, methodological, and empirical advances, pp. 207-228 Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Marshall, R. (Director), Tolkin, M. & Minghella, A. (Writers). (2009). Nine [Motion picture]. USA & Italy: The Weinstein Company.

Wallace, I. & Pear, J. J. (1977).  Self-control techniques of famous novelists. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 10(3), 515-525.

Watson, D. L., & Tharp, R. G. (2007). Self-Directed Behaviour. Belmont, CA: Thompson.


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