The Paradox of Motivation

Take away paradox from the thinker and you have a professor.
-Soren Kierkegaard

Learning a language is a project. It’s not something you can just do well “in your spare time” or while you are significantly committed to other things.

I was reading a blog the other day that talked about how language is not a fact, and therefore cannot be learned as a fact. Rather, language, as a skill, must be acquired.

This acquisition is a project.

As with any large project, the probability of success is dependent upon a number of factors. But with an project like language acquisition, it stands squarely upon the shoulders of the individual who decides to undertake it.

One of the key components to success in such an undertaking is motivation.

Are you motivated to learn a language?

I mean, really motivated? You’ve got to have the juice in you to take you through the slow spots, the dull spots, and the difficult spots. You’ve got to have the engine to drive your car uphill, into the wind, and against the grain. In short, you’ve got to have motivation. If you don’t have this, you will go nowhere.

But here is the paradox about motivation: it can actually grow with action.

Every experience is a paradox
in that it means to be absolute, and yet is relative;
in that it somehow always goes beyond itself
and yet never escapes itself.

-T.S. Eliot

Action fuels motivation.

Recently I have experienced a bit of a jump in my Spanish abilities (solely due to hard work), so that I have held Skype conversations that were completely in Spanish. I have found myself reading paragraphs of Spanish with no problem, and larger paragraphs only looking up 1 or 2 words… Do you know what this does to me?

It makes me motivated.

You see, when action leads to progress, a kind of release happens. It’s like a 2nd wind comes your way… And this leads to more motivation.

Why? Because on the other side of action, there is a great release of your own meaning and own destiny. You as a human being were meant to make decisions and take actions. Through action over time, you become aware of your growing potentiality… and growing potentiality is electricity for the soul.

The Result

So I am finding Spanish much more delightful. I can talk to people more easily, I can ask questions when I need to, I am slowly finding the art and rhythm of the language… It feels more like I’m going downhill than uphill. It is great! This makes me even more motivated to learn.

When I started to learn Spanish a few months ago, I was motivated because it was new. Now, I’m motivated because I have begun to experience progress.

Motivation preceeds action, but it also follows action. Motivation is the basis of action, yet it can also be the result of action.

This is the paradox of motivation.

  • I think it all comes down to attitude. With a proper, positive attitude, you can look at any situation and find motivation to continue, whereas with a negative attitude, your motivation is to quit. Thanks for the link!

    • Ryan

      True, Randy… And nothing like experiencing progress to give you a better attitude!

  • For me, it is about having confidence. If I’ve had a bad day or am feeling a bit off, I’m not having the confidence to speak as well as I should. But once you have success, you gain confidence that you can move up to the next step, whatever that may be.

    • Ryan

      Confidence is huge… It’s like in basketball if you start making 3 pointers, you feel a lot more comfortable taking more shots.

      Good to see you here Cynthia!

    • Bad days, having the flu, being a bit tired. All of these things are enough to make my brain pull the shutters down and for the Spanish to stop flowing. It’s important to remember how mentally and physically tiring learning a language is and to give ourselves a break sometimes. I spent my first few months in Spain absolutely exhausted even though I wasn’t working.

      • Ryan

        It can definitely be tiring! That’s true! I need to keep this in mind. Thanks Steve.

  • I think it’s more fun, and natural to learn a language by interacting with natives rather than from a book (or ‘tape’). The structure you get from an organised course is also great, but its funny with language how it seems to be spoken rather differently from the way it’s often described in materials. Even though I’ve still got a pretty limited Thai vocabulary, I can operate with that language a lot more naturally by picking up its colloquialism from native speakers.

    • Ryan

      Lach, it is definitely more fun to learn it conversationally. Wish I’d done more of it sooner… I’ve found a real breakthrough happens when you begin to crack jokes in the language and make the natives laugh… Enjoyment becomes a fantastic motivator!

  • I just read your post on Matt’s blog. I totally agree you need that plane ticket in your hand, and second, that the best way to learn a language is:
    1. When you’re very, very, young.
    2. Abroad.

    As a traveler, and speaker of three languages: French and Danish plus a little Spanish, my goal is to join the Peace Corps now that my three sons have left home. I’ve already investigated, however, they’ll probably send me to a French speaking country in Africa. Not sure my husband would like to go there, but I would. I used to live in Nigeria as a kid up to age six. Anyway, I need to find out more about your travels and other languages etc. Great blog.

    • Ryan

      Wow, Sonia! Sounds like you have some great experiences in traveling and languages! And I agree, being young and going abroad are the best way to learn languages. I’m so glad I’m actually going to a Spanish-speaking country… I couldn’t take too many more days of doing it in the US (though I am getting better at learning here.)

  • Great thoughts on motivation. One thing for me though is that no matter how much I want it to, my motivation always wains. Always. How do we push on when the motivation is no longer there for a season? What have you found that works for you?

    • Ryan


      I really don’t know how to keep going when there’s no motivation… But my strategy thus far is to take long breaks from whatever I have been concentrating on, just totally forget it, and take some time for leisure and thought meandering. After awhile I am renewed and I can resume the work. Also, small rewards for small milestones seem to help, and working on more than one thing rather than having a gigantic monolith.

      Here’s to keeping on keeping on, man!