As With All Things Zen

As an educator, coach, mentor, and supervisor of those who serve the public, I wonder sometimes about the motivation of my charges.  This curiosity has translated into my observations on leadership and change management and likewise into the thoughts, often, that form the Firehouse Zen blog.

The motivation of subordinates has been a challenge for the ages; we certainly weren’t the first society to believe generational differences exist and we won’t be the last.  But I can honestly express my personal confusion at the way certain individuals I deal with are less motivated than I ever have been in my life.  That confusion causes me to look at lifestyles, educational and emotional influences and any number of factors to get a grip on why that difference might be.

Motivation has long been associated with emotional intelligence, but more so in that those with a high level of emotional intelligence maintain a constant curiosity about other things- about other people, about life, about work, or any other experiences.

I am also not the first person to observe that there is an inverse correlation between those with low emotional intelligence and those who are successful.  People who are truly successful, not necessarily identified from the aspect of material riches, but instead gauged as people who are considered leaders, influencers, and role models, have an inherent curiosity about their physical and mental environment.  They don’t have to be directed to be curious, they already are, and they want to learn more and do more not necessarily because there’s a direct relationship to reward, but because the reward is in the experience.

Thankfully, as I have expressed to many of the people I interact with, those experiential rewards can be parlayed into tangible rewards like good jobs, promotions and raises.  For someone like me, and even better, these rewards are more opportunities to fulfill that curiosity.  Managed correctly, it can be a constantly fueling furnace of knowledge and experience.  For as every experience we obtain answers our questions, those experiences open up to more doors with more unanswered questions.  If you stand in a room with shut doors and don’t open any, you certainly won’t go anywhere, will you?

As a rookie firefighter going into a new experience over thirty years ago, I took classes not because of any promotion or benefit other than I loved what I was learning, the experiences were meaningful, and I enjoyed it.  Deep inside, I knew that these experiences also had the potential to translate into a career, but over the years I have always told people, while I enjoy being paid for this job, I’d gladly do it for free (Don’t tell my boss).

That’s one of the reasons, I suppose, that my frustration shows when confronted by an employee who resists taking classes, or eventually is sitting in my office explaining why they are without certain credentials to promote, or have not performed the duties of our organization in completing their probationary requirements.  Frankly, I never had that conversation with any of my supervisors, not because I was an employee who sought affirmation through doing a good job, but because I was always seeking more.  More experiences, more opportunities, and more answers.  

I personally question the rationale behind promoting anyone who has to be told what objectives have to be achieved.  If I hand you a book and tell you, “The answers for your test will come from here”, it seems logical that you would read the book.  If I tell you that to maintain your job you must experience and prove certain competencies, it seems very intuitive that you would do those things without being told again.  After all, we provide you with a road map, we tell you what you need to drive from waypoint to waypoint, and we give you a car.  All we ask you to do is drive it.  If you sit in the parking lot, you shouldn’t be surprised when we expect you to be in a certain place at a certain time and aren’t happy about your failure to simply drive the car.

I believe that success has its own rewards.  I am happy doing my job not because I am satisfying the needs of my supervisor, but because it is personally rewarding.  If I satisfy the needs of my boss, that’s all the better, but the reality is that I do things for the experience.  I won’t lie to you and tell you it is always rewarding, but it is truly the glint of precious metal, of knowing each day brings something new, that keeps me moving forward.  You have to seek the little things in life and find joy in them to keep your spirit renewed, and if your happiness is dependent upon others, or the only motivation you have is by way of material reward, if those fail you, there will come a day when you don’t want to move on.

Seek enlightenment in your experiences, not in the reward at the end.  If you enjoy the journey, getting to the destination ends up being just a stopping point before moving to the next journey, and the culmination of all those experiences ends up being a reward no money can buy.  Don’t wait on someone to tell you what to do; find out yourself, and do it.


  • Shane says:

    Great piece chief! I started a long response about my thoughts on your topic but decided I was spending way too much time reiterating your points. So instead I will share one of my favorite quotes that came to mind while reading your words; "we ought to spend more time chasing goals than dreams, because goals achieved are really the only pleasures that last".
    Stay safe!

  • Great concept- thanks for sharing it!

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