Motivation is for Amateurs

scalatoreTommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson recently completed an astonishing free-climb of the Dawn Wall, a nearly sheer 3,000 foot face of granite in Yosemite, one that is only slightly rougher than the granite countertop in my kitchen. It took them 19 days, and at one point Jorgeson tried and failed 10 times to make the crossing of Pitch 15. After the tenth try, he contemplated giving up but instead rested in his tent on the rock face for two days to let his fingers heal, and then made it on the eleventh attempt. Think about the magnitude of that—the incredible skill, sheer physical effort and the courage it took just to complete one section of 32.

At that point, was it motivation that got him through? I don’t think so. But who cares what I think? Here’s what Jorgeson said in a TV interview on the morning after: (it’s not an exact quote because I didn’t write it down) “What got me through was resolve. I would not accept failing.”

This wasn’t bravado after the fact—here’s what he said while still on the climb:

“After 11 attempts spread across 7 days, my battle with pitch 15 of the Dawn Wall is complete. Hard to put the feeling into words. There’s a lot of hard climbing above, but I’m more resolved than ever to free the remaining pitches.”

There’s that word again, resolve. How is it different from motivation?

  • Motivation gets you to the base of the mountain; resolve gets you to the top.
  • Motivation gets you through the first few weeks in January; resolve keeps your resolutions through December 31.
  • Motivation keeps your spirits up; resolve doesn’t care how you’re feeling.
  • Motivation is a glittering veneer that soon wears off under hard use; resolve is the iron core that remains.
  • Motivation can be fragile; resolve is antifragile because it gets stronger under pressure and duress. Like the calluses on a climber’s fingers, it gets stronger with use and challenge.

When I say motivation is for amateurs, it’s not that motivation is bad. Motivation will get you started, and an occasional refresher will recharge your enthusiasm. But when you’re attempting something truly difficult and worthwhile, there will be times when you hit a spot where motivation will not be enough, where all the best intentions you have won’t keep you going. That’s when you need good old-fashioned resolve. That’s where the pros come in.

Resolve may be easier to summon up when you have no choice, such as what Rob Konrad, a former Dolphin player who fell off his boat and swam 16 hours to shore, had to do. But the paradox is that you can choose to have no choice, if that’s possible. Jorgesen said he would not accept failing, and that choice left only one avenue open to him, to keep going until he succeeded.

There are plenty of motivational speakers, but no “resolve” speakers. That’s because resolve is not something you can have or show just by listening to someone else. It only comes from that voice inside you that refuses to let you quit. Resolve is what Kipling was referring to when he wrote:

“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them, Hold on!”


I hope you will never need resolve, because you only need it when times are tough—almost desperate. But let’s leave Jorgesen with the last word:

“I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day, and maybe they can put this project in their own context.”

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January 28, 2014
  • Dan, thanks for your comment; I especially like your oxygen analogy. I probably didn’t make the point clearly enough that motivation is still required: you do need it to drive towards your dreams as you said. In fact, motivation and resolve may just be the same quality, except that resolve is professional-strength motivation. You and I know dozens of not hundreds of people who get “motivated” all the time, only to abandon their goals when things get tough. I hope this “resolves” the differences.

  • Great stories. And great focus on the difference between “resolving” and just making “resolutions — one is an actionless noun and the other an active verb.

    Motivation isn’t the problem though. Motivation is like oxygen – you only know it’s missing when you are gasping for more.

    You can’t resolve without motivation. If resolve is the engine that drives you toward your dreams then motivation is the fuel that powers that engine. You can’t be resolved and unmotivated at the same time.

    Motivation isn’t happiness. It’s the reason you’re willing to do whatever it takes to be successful. Motivation isn’t glitter. It’s the reason you do anything meaningful in the first place.

    Motivation differs for each of us and is different for each of us as we pass through changing seasons in our life. It’s what activates that force inside your soul that says: “I will not be deterred”…


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