in: Behavior, Character, Featured

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

Become a Self-Starter: What the U.S. Marines Can Teach You About the Skill of Motivation

1942: U.S. Marines Guadalcanal Island.

After I graduated from law school, Kate and I decided to move to Vermont for an indefinite stretch of time. The trip was spontaneous and done just because — just because we’d always wanted to try living there, were looking to have an adventure, and desired a break from our normal life and routine.

Problem was, once we got there, we simply established our old, rather pedestrian routine, in a new environment. Sure, we went hiking a lot more and took in a few quintessentially Vermont activities, but we didn’t get out to local events very much, or do a lot of sightseeing. For example, Boston was only 3 hours away, and though we talked about going several times over the six months we ended up staying in VT, we never made the trip.

We said it was because we had very little money, which was true. But then we had an experience that made me realize there was something more going on. Kate’s Uncle Buzz, who lives in Montpelier, drew up the ultimate daylong road trip itinerary for us — a tour of the best spots in Northern Vermont. He gave us an exact list of things to do, and marked them on a map, along with the exact route to take to hit them all in a timely fashion. Following Buzz’s map and plan, we had a positively fantastic day — one that not only made me realize how much we had been missing out on, but why we really hadn’t gone to Boston.

When it came to capitalizing on our leisure time, we were perfectly willing to take action…as long as someone else did the legwork and spelled out exactly what to do. In the absence of such direction, we did nothing.

We weren’t great self-starters.

It’s not that I lacked the ability to self-start in all areas of my life — I had started a blog, and heck, had decided to go to Vermont in the first place. But in some areas, like getting out the door for family adventures, my personal motivation just seemed to hit a wall.

I don’t think I’m the only one who sometimes has a tough time being a self-starter; in fact, I think it’s one of the things my fellow Millennials struggle with the most. They have big dreams and goals for themselves, but lack the motivation to follow through on them in one or many areas of their life. They lack initiative and wait for someone to tell them what to do in order to get started. In the absence of this guidance, and of knowing exactly what steps to take, they feel plain paralyzed.

Unfortunately, the inability to self-start can have big consequences beyond whether or not you make it to Boston.

Mastery of the art of self-motivation has always been one of the qualities that separates the most successful and fulfilled men, from the mediocre and adrift. And it’s a skill that’s become more essential than ever.

Whether you want to live healthier, get your finances in order, or plan an amazing adventure, you need to be able to take initiative and get things going on your own.

What’s more, the ability to motivate yourself is becoming increasingly important in our changing economy. While Millennials desire 50% more coaching and feedback from their supervisors than employees of other generations, they’re working in an environment where less and less guidance will be forthcoming.

Back in 1980, more than 90 percent of American workers reported to a boss who told them what they needed to do and when it needed to be done. All you had to do was show up at the office or factory, and your day was scheduled for you. Today, more than a third of the American workforce consists of freelancers and contractors who have to figure out exactly how to allot their time, complete tasks, and promote their work on their own. Even many salaried employees, particularly in smaller, start-up environments, are simply given goals to work towards, and not necessarily much direction in how to get there.

It’s not surprising then that research shows that individuals who know how to self-start make more money, are happier, and have more satisfying romantic and family lives than those who don’t.

If the ability to be a self-starter is so critical to success, and so many folks seem to be struggling with it, figuring out exactly why we’re lacking in personal motivation and how to regain it is obviously crucial.

Luckily, the U.S. Marines have already diagnosed the problem, and formulated an answer.

Autonomy As the Key to Self-Motivation

The Marines have a 250-year-old legacy of being the first forces in and the last to leave in a conflict. They’re famous for their ethos of improvisation and independent, action-oriented thinking. But in the past decade or so, commanders noticed that many recruits coming in struggled with the same issue that’s hindering their civilian peers: a lack of self-motivation and self-direction.

Young Marines would wait until someone told them to do something before they did it and when they did take action, they put in the bare minimum effort. As General Charles C. Krulak put it bluntly when describing this new generation of Marines: “it was like working with a bunch of wet socks.”

Wanting to figure out why many modern Marines acted as they did, Krulak immersed himself in research on initiative and self-motivation. He found one study performed by the Corps which concluded that “the most successful Marines were those with a strong ‘internal locus of control’ — a belief they could influence their destiny through the choices they made.”

An individual with an internal locus of control sees himself as an actor, not someone who’s acted upon. He views himself as an autonomous being and believes in his self-efficacy — his ability to make things happen.

Someone with an external locus of control, on the other hand, feels as though things happen to him. He blames others or his circumstances for his situation. “If I didn’t have kids, I’d have time to workout.” “My boss is getting in the way of my promotion.” “I don’t have enough money to travel.” “I don’t have the connections to make it in this field.” Feeling like his life is controlled by external circumstances, he sees little point in working towards goals. What would be the point? His only recourse is to wait and hope for circumstances to change.

An individual with an internal locus of control, however, sees a high correlation between his personal actions and moving from where he is now, to where he wants to be. For this reason, he’s obviously much more motivated to take action in the first place.

Research from the fields of cognitive psychology and neurology bears out this connection between a sense of control and intrinsic motivation.

Psychologists from Columbia University found that when people believe they’re in control of their lives, they tend to work harder and push themselves more. They earn more money than their peers and even live longer than them.

Neurological research has presented an even more vivid explanation of the exact connection between a sense of control and motivation. It’s a connection that centers on one specific part of the brain: the striatum.

The striatum serves as a waypoint between our pre-frontal cortex (where we make decisions) and the more primitive basal ganglia (where movement and emotions emerge). When the striatum is sluggish, decisions we make with our pre-frontal cortex can’t connect with the action- and emotion-oriented basal ganglia. So we can think about how something is the right, rational, desirable thing to do, but we don’t feel driven to follow through on it.

Luckily, you can unleash a torrent of self-motivation by waking the striatum up. What is it that researchers have found does the trick?

A sense of autonomy.

In a study done at the University of Pittsburgh, individuals were put under an fMRI machine and asked to look at a screen which flashed numbers between one and nine. The research subjects were told to guess if the number was going to be above or below five.

When the researchers watched the screens where the fMRI results appeared, they noticed that the striatum of the participants would light up while they were guessing. What’s more, many of the participants told the researcher they genuinely enjoyed playing a game that had purposely been designed to be dull.

Curious as to why many of the test participants enjoyed playing such a boring game, head researcher Mauricio Delgado took the experiment a step further. He used the same game as before, but in this experiment, the test participants only got to choose the number to guess half the time. The other half, a computer guessed for them.

Just as in the first experiment, when the test participant actively guessed their number, the fMRI showed intense activity in the striatum. But when the computer chose for them? The striatum went completely silent. When Delgado asked participants how they felt about the game afterward, they told him they enjoyed themselves when they were choosing their own numbers, but when the computer picked the numbers, they were bored and wanted to quit the experiment because it felt more like an assignment. They mentally checked out.

What all this research suggests is that if you want to experience the drive of self-motivation, you need to feel like you have control over your actions and surroundings.

You need to feel autonomous.

Wither Autonomy? 

If a sense of autonomy is the key to feeling motivated to get going and take action, the next logical question is: why don’t guys today feel autonomous?

Part of it may be the economy; it’s hard to feel in control of your life when you’re buffeted by financial forces you have no say over.

Yet uncertain times are certainly nothing new in human history, pointing to the fact that something else must also be going on. In Krulak’s estimation, that something else can be traced to the way most kids are raised in America today. Many Millennials grew up with parents who took care of almost everything for them and tightly scheduled out their day. All they had to do was show up to school and activities, and let the pre-planned experience unfold.

Instead of roaming neighborhoods playing improvised games, modern kids take part in highly structured organized sports or pre-planned “play dates.” Instead of being allowed to do a crappy job on a science project all by themselves, parents do it for them so it looks professional. When teens apply for college, mom and dad help fill out the application. In short, many young people haven’t had the chance to make a lot of decisions on their own.

Childhood through college is thus experienced like a conveyer belt, where you’re just along for the ride.

But then comes graduation. The belt comes to an abrupt end. There are numerous paths to take (although they aren’t limitless!), all stretching in different directions. And to start down any of them takes intentional planning and action — nobody’s guiding or chauffeuring you along.

It’s at this point that many men run into a wall. They wait around, expecting their ship to come in — for external circumstances to congeal into the good things in life they’ve been dreaming about since boyhood. They don’t know how to take action without guidance. It’s no wonder there’s been a great rise in companies that offer to take you on pre-planned, guide-led “adventures,” service project trips, and gap-year experiences, and plenty of online courses and conventions that claim to teach you how to be an entrepreneur (note: if you need a class to get started in being an entrepreneur, the stuff that’s necessary to be self-employed is likely not in you).

But these kinds of hand-holding programs and resources don’t exist for every aspect of life, and knowing how to be self-directed and self-motivated remains crucial.

Fortunately, being an autonomous action-taker is a skill that can be learned and revived.

Discover Your Autonomy By Making Small Choices & Taking Small Actions

So let’s recap: to become a self-starter, activate your striatum, and experience the drive of motivation, you’ve got to feel autonomous — you have to see yourself as an actor, not someone who’s acted upon.

The last question we need to address then is this: how can you learn to feel more in control of your life?

The answer is that self-directed motivation is a skill — one you gain the same way you do any other: practice.

As Charles Duhigg says in his book Smarter Faster Better, “motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate that we are in control.” The more autonomous decisions you make, the more autonomous you’ll feel, and the more autonomous you feel, the more motivated you’ll be to work on your goals, and the more motivated you are, the more autonomous actions you’ll take. It becomes a positive cycle that builds on itself.

And here’s the thing: the choices that kick off that cycle don’t have to be big. In fact, they can be as small as deciding how you’re going to clean up a mess hall.

Once Gen. Krulak made the connection between autonomy and personal motivation, he decided it was time to change the way Marines trained new recruits. In addition to the usual push-ups and running, he threw in tasks that involved exercising autonomy and practicing the skill of making self-directed decisions. One task was something as simple as cleaning the mess hall after lunch.

New recruits are simply told they have to clean the mess hall. No further instruction is given. Whenever they asked a drill sergeant for advice (typical wet sock move), they just got yelled at and told to get back to work figuring it out themselves. So the recruits are left on their own to decide what leftover food they should keep or chuck, where to put the tables and chairs, and how to best clean the dishes. For some of these young men, it represents the first time they have to exercise this kind of self-direction.

Not surprisingly, they mess up. Leftovers that should have been kept get tossed out, and chairs get put away in the wrong place. The process they come up with initially isn’t always effective. But the drill sergeants don’t care. What’s important to them is that the recruits exercise their autonomy. Or as Krulak put it, the Marines are teaching recruits “a bias towards action.” He wants them to see that they’re able to take control of a situation and how good it feels when they do. “Most recruits don’t know how to force themselves to start something hard,” Krulak says. “But if we can train them to take the first step by doing something that makes them feel in charge, it’s easier to keep going.” This growing sense of autonomy that comes from deciding how they’re going to clean a mess hall awakens a sense of motivation that many of these recruits have never felt. And it carries over to other areas.

By making a bunch of clueless recruits clean a mess hall, Krulak is training the skill of motivation.

We can train our own skill of motivation in the same way by focusing on taking small, autonomous actions that instill a sense of freedom, independence, and control.

So what are some practical ways of doing so?

Duhigg gives a great example in Smarter Faster Better in regards to email. For many folks working information jobs, answering email is a chore and something that they’re not very motivated to do. I’m a notorious email put-er off-er myself. The reason we might not be very motivated to answer email is that it often gives us a sense that we have no control over our lives. Most emails are requests from others to do something or provide information. Facing a daily barrage of such solicitations can give a person the sense that they’re besieged by forces outside themselves.

To counteract the learned helplessness-inducing aspect of email, Duhigg suggests skipping the pleasantries you usually start with and beginning instead by writing a single sentence in which you exercise a decision. Then go back and fill in the rest of the email.

So if Jim from PR is asking you to go to a meeting you don’t want to attend, but you’ve been putting off answering because you hate letting people down, start off the email with a single sentence exercising your autonomous choice. It could be something like:

“I can go, but I’ll have to leave after 20 minutes.”


“I unfortunately won’t be able to attend the meeting.”

Don’t hit send yet.

Do that with all those other emails you’ve been putting off. Write a single sentence in which you exercise an autonomous choice and nothing else.

Once you’re done with your single sentence replies, go back and fill them in with the usual email pleasantries, and send them off.

Duhigg noticed two things when he implemented this practice:

“First, it was much easier to reply to an email once I had at least one sentence on the screen. Second, and more important, it was easier to get motivated when that first sentence was something that made me feel in control. When I told Jim that I could only stay for twenty minutes, it reminded me that I didn’t have to commit to his project if I didn’t want to.”

While this kind of exercise might seem inconsequential at first blush, each time you begin doing the hard part — exercising control — you’re lighting up your striatum and training the skill of motivation. Think of this as “greasing the groove” for your motivation muscles.

Look for other ways you can exercise your self-direction by making small, autonomous choices throughout your day. And by small, I mean minuscule. Researchers have found that nursing home residents who have the fewest emotional and physical problems are the ones who find ways to exercise control in an environment that doesn’t offer much of it. In nursing homes, schedules and food menus are very rigid. The residents who thrive are the ones who rebel against the strict structure in small ways like trading food at the dinner table so that they design a meal to their choosing instead of just eating what’s put before them. One resident even gives away his cake, despite the fact he likes cake, because he would “rather eat a second-class meal that I have chosen.”

Likewise, if you’re currently at a job that doesn’t offer you a lot of autonomy, you can still find little ways to exercise control — proposing a new project, re-negotiating a deadline, requesting a different desk, asking for a raise, etc. Heck, when someone asks you where you want to eat for lunch, instead of saying, “I don’t know. Whatever you want is fine,” state a preference. Make a choice. After awhile of exercising your autonomy, you may gain the motivation to move into a better job, or moonlight your way to self-employment.

Kate and I ultimately broke our problem of leisure time inertia by committing to an 8-week “microadventure challenge” where we did one little adventure each week. Doing something small each and every week broke the dam of our old excuses, and let us see how easy it was to choose activity over passivity. Even after the challenge was over, our newfound sense of autonomy kept us motivated and we continue to do new microadventures (check out our Instagram page to see many of them!) nearly every week.

That’s the beauty of this approach to developing personal motivation: as you make more and more autonomous choices, your motivation muscle will be strengthened, and you’ll begin to naturally take action in all kinds of situations without the need for outside prompting and guidance.

Instead of viewing the world as something you have no control over, you’ll start looking for opportunities where you can exercise your power to take charge of your life and make things happen.




Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

Drive by Daniel Pink

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