Secret of my Success.

This week’s post is by a guest blogger, Kate Allen. Kate is a writer whose first book, Love. Life. Liturgy celebrates beauty and spirituality in the everyday. Kate also blogs at, where she shares thoughtful discussions about her faith and her calling to the priesthood. She can also be found at and

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Last week, the N.Y. Times featured an article on two kinds of motivation: inner and instrumental. Studying over 11,000 cadets at West Point in the United States, researchers sought to examine the relationship between these kinds of motivation and success. The cadets who were driven primarily by inner motivation (e.g. the desire to be trained as a military leader) were significantly more likely to graduate from the academy and become commissioned officers than those motivated primarily by instrumental motivation (e.g. wanting to get a good job later in life).

As a woman in discernment to become a religious minister, I find myself seeking my own deep motives. Am I drawn primarily by instrumental motives (e.g. the desire to be respected, admired, revered as a result of my future position), or am I drawn primarily by inner motives (e.g. the desire to serve my God with my whole life)? Does it make a difference? Does that difference apply equally to other professions? Why?

These are questions I wrestle with, not just in terms of my own vocational discernment, but in terms of rearing my two toddlers. What am I to teach my daughters about making the most important decisions of their lives?

One thing I’ve discovered in these last several months is that inner motivation may indicate a strong relationship between one’s deepest desires/skills and the path one wishes to take. The path itself is valued, rather than particular outcomes, so unexpected outcomes have minimal power to change one’s path. With instrumental motivation, a particular outcome is what is valued, and when the path itself seems to make the outcome impossible, both the path and the desired outcome may rather easily and simultaneously be tossed to the side forever.

I don’t want to dictate to my daughters what path they should take in life, but I’m learning something important that I want them to hear loud and clear as they grow up: finding a path one loves, and remaining faithful to that path, matters more than any particular outcome. The path is where one discovers the stuff of which she is made. The path is where one’s shadow side may be met and one’s light may find fuel to burn with fiery brilliance. 

For me, this is a hard lesson. I have long been oriented toward achieving specific outcomes and dismissing what lessons might come from paying attention to the path itself. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig paints in sometimes vivid, sometimes subtle strokes the disparity between instrumental motives and inner motives. When outcomes are valued more than the path, one might become one’s own roadblock, one’s own inability to move forward. In the case of two of Pirsig’s leading characters, they want to keep going for the sake of getting to the end, and the art of going in itself is ignored or angrily dismissed when it presents an unexpected difficulty; in the case of the other lead character, the going itself is the goal, and roadblocks are a chance to find alternate ways of going when the usual ones fail.

As I learn about my own motivations, I find that the path itself–with its joys as well as its hardships and profound struggles–is what teaches me about who I am and who I most deeply wish to be. And it seems to me that no outcome could be more vital or rewarding than the knowledge I gain from faithfulness to the path to which I am most insistently drawn.


3 thoughts on “Secret of my Success.

  1. Pingback: Secret of my Success. | ugiridharaprasad

  2. This is a great post, Kate! I find this to be something that is quite antithetical to the way we usually go about career and life choices, too. So often we’re directed towards jobs which will give us long and successful career paths, but that’s quite a narrow view of success, really. It’s taken me a while, but I’m convinced that doing something I love is much more worthwhile, and who knows? Perhaps success will also come from that!

    But I also wonder if I’m just lucky to be in a position where I have that choice available to me? Is this something that’s available to everyone, and if not, what would need to change in order for it to happen?

    • Thanks, Bec!

      I think your question gets at the heart of the study: is someone oriented toward a path alone, or toward a particular goal on that path? To attain a particular job or livelihood might be an instrumental motive, whereas the desire to be formed to do this or that kind of work, skill, or hobby would be an inner motive (and would potentially apply to anyone). So, for example, my desire to be ordained as a priest would be an instrumental motive, whereas my desire to answer the call I hear to priesthood would be an inner motive. The success of the former would be a goal that’s determined largely by others (their opinion of me, their power over me, etc), whereas the latter is determined largely by me (my dedication, my commitment, my determination in the face of varying circumstances, whether or not I’m perceived as worthy of ordination by the church I’m in at any given time).

      I look at myself and see how easily I’ve given up in this goal or that goal because my motivation was instrumental, and I also see how much more endurance and resilience I’ve had in going through/around/over failures related to a particular goal when driven by inner motivation. I face failure after failure, roadblock after roadblock, doubt after doubt as I move forward in my discernment as a priest, but those failures remain distinct from my sense that I am called to become a priest. In other cases, where inner motivation was minimal or non-existent, I burned out once or twice and just didn’t want to try again. The goal wasn’t worth going after (even though I probably could have done it in the end!) because my heart wasn’t in it.

      It would be interesting to see an analysis comparing cadets who came from situations of social privilege and cadets who came from situations of social disadvantage, and see if the conclusions of the study (concerning the relationship between success and kinds of motivation) remain the same.

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