Silly Grins

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What Motivates Us

 (Part I of II)
On the theme of motivation

According to one of those passport-sized handy business management books found at an airport bookstore near you, there are five levels of motivation based on – from bottom to top - the following: physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization.


These needs are pretty basic, such as warmth, shelter, food, and sex. The modern "western" world is one in which all but the last seem to be readily available with no psychological or cultural baggage (here in the land of the rising sun, there is no concept of sin, let alone an original one). These physiological needs seem like the basics that are required to get by in terms of we human animals understand as the bare necessities.


In a nutshell, safety is our sense of security and the absence of fear.
I don't know how well I've got this one covered, but I try; I wear a seatbelt and haven't been in any fights (as an adult). Yet, there is a sense of insecurity that seems to trigger a feeling of fear. Maybe stress does this. Those quiet moments before fading off into never-never land are often filled with a growing sense of unease, an almost familiar feeling of anxiety, like the kind you would get if you were standing on a ledge next to a wall that is being pushed outward by some invisible force. I always fall asleep before going completely over the edge.

Social Needs:

Interacting with other people and having friends is another level, just above safety, a level that can be tough at times. The atmosphere of this particular hierarchical society is one in which the vertically based system of ranking seems to be carried out, at times, to absurd levels. Fortunately, as a foreigner, I'll never fit into the system, which allows me to get away with not having to master the intricacies of honorific speech; I'm not expected to have to speak up (or down) to anyone. This does not, however, mean that I am free of being judged or ranked by any number of scales according to the situation or whims of the observer. Making friends here is difficult, even for locals. Yet, living in a modernized feudal society isn't all that bad - at least not in the provincial areas. Deep South.


Appreciation or being well regarded by people in the community is where social status kicks in. Again, this is a difficult one for the foreigner who - unless he or she has made it well know which prestigious brand-name school they've gone to – isn't really on the social radar. One of the first things asked in the first set of questions when meeting people is often, "When are you leaving?" Living in a community that tends to view the outsiders' existence as peripheral and temporary (disposable?), the "appreciation" or pat on the back - a building block for esteem - is sorely lacking. Career wise, in practical terms, this often means taking on more than twice the amount of work for much less pay minus the social safety nets in addition to the lack of bi-annual bonuses and the promise of a pension upon retirement that everyone else in the field traditionally receives. This makes a big difference in terms of how I think about this place and the sober lack of denial in the attitude with which I approach and deal with potential conflicts.
I find myself preferring to live as I do, on the fringe or in the cracks.


Where we realize our individual potential, where we win, where we achieve – this is supposed to be the last bit, the pinnacle reached after the four forementioned needs have been met.

Well… so what?

My little world has come crashing down several times. The most relevant to the motivational issues mentioned above took place somewhere around 2001. At this time, the industry's financial environment in which I so graciously provided my services took a big dive. Roughly half of the workers at the local plant were laid off in the restructuring that occurred in the wake of the economic downturn. Although I work freelance, my main employer and sponsor of my visa, the highly esteemed entity that had so kindly stood in as my guarantor so that I could rent an apartment in a country that is renown for unflinchingly denying housing to foreigners who have been here for generations, let me go. Hearing promising words of intent to hire me back once the dust settled from the shakeup in management, I did not shuffle away without hope.

With just enough coming in due to my outside jobs, it looked like I would have the amount of yen required to cover the bills. I was single. And I didn't own anything that needed repairs or that I couldn't fix if I had to.

Still, I would have sunk into fear had it not been for my social needs being met through interaction with a friendly acquaintance.

The day after my ever so gentle dismissal, I took a walk to look at the ocean and sat on the steps along the promenade, facing the beach, right in front of a hotel that would have held a thousand guests if it weren't for the fact that the economic bubble of the 80's had long since burst and the yen had risen to levels that made overseas travel more attractive than staying at home. I was sitting there, in between the rotting carcass of the mammoth ghost hotel and the beach, looking out over the water, watching the late afternoon's knee-high waves roll in along the empty shores when my upstairs neighbor walked up to check out the surf.

Having left the cold waters of his English island nation maybe fifteen years before, my neighbor is known to be conversational from time to time, even if still prone to understatement (one of the many habits some of his kinsmen are known for). When he was asked how I was doing, I listlessly recounted – without taking my eyes off the water - what had happened, my velvet-glove dismissal the day before. I acknowledged feeling a little uneasy in terms of my indefinite employment hiatus. I admitted that, although my basic physiological and safety needs were still covered, I was still a bit shocked – if that's what the numb feeling was a sign of.

Far from asking for sympathy or soliciting advice, I was merely making an observation and stating a fact, kind of thinking out loud. All those long hours I'd been working, all those hours of the day that had been bringing in money, they were no longer to be producing income I could stash away for a rainy day; the verdict had been reached and the majority of the hours that make up my days were being sentenced to unbridled freedom. Some pastures are green; maybe mine was indigo. I just didn't know what I'd been looking at.

I glanced up at my neighbor, the older fellow, who was looking out at the water, surveying the breaking waves as if trying to decide if it was worth paddling out and waiting for a decent set to come in. Being less of a lad and more of a gentleman and having survived a few of the better years of his life in the land we found ourselves in, my gentle neighbor,  raised one of his eyebrows ever so slightly. Without looking away from the liquid blue that meets to horizon, he nonchalantly commented that, with the luxury of all the newly awarded free time, I'd be able to surf a lot more.

That was true... for a time.


  1. As a surfer/Dawn patroler..I gotta say having more time to catch waves is a good way to get out and away from folks...and think...or stop thinking...whichever is needed.

  2. A reason, not an excuse, for not being in the water most of this past year involves a surreal stay in hospital. Unfortunately my 'nurse experience' was not so pleasant. This year is a summer to look forward to.

  3. I was looking forward to explore new waves here in Shonan, but I am not too sure now anymore, with what's in the water these days.

  4. Not so bad where we are... which reminds me, I need to finish Part II as a way to thank the guy who got me out there. Although I would not say that I qualify for the "surfer" title, as things would have it, I found myself explaining to an older student that he's not going to have any fun if he tries to learn on a shortboard and that he really needs to learn to see what's going on and understand the risks (he didn't have a clue). I can see him broadening his horizons this summer and maybe learning how to enjoy life a little more. Enough for now. Cheers.