We all want an inspirational leader. Someone to look up to, to give us hope, motivation and direction. A leader who engages us as individuals and treats us well, but most of all makes us want to be better.

But what if that leader is you? And today you're feeling a bit blah. Everything's sort of “meh” and you'd like to just hang in there for the time being and let Future Self take responsibility for that.

instant inspiration zapping
Some days we just want someone to zap us with positivity and motivation

We all go through phases in life when our mood is uplifting, positive, dynamic and we feel like we could conquer the world. And then there's that “meh” moment, when everything is a little bland, and what would be really really nice is if someone else would just take charge and be the one to inspire and engage and buck us up.

To choose to switch your drive and motivation on so that you can inspire others, we're going to delve into the neuroscience of how your brain works, learn what drives you (and everybody else) and then we're going to take charge of the chemistry cocktail bar inside your brain.

The Neuroscience of your Get Up and Go (aka your Motivation or MOJO)

Your brain is not your best friend when it comes to feeling positive, enthusiastic and inspired. In fact, neuroscientific evidence shows that our brains are hard-wired to make us feel mentally crappy most of the time.

we need to understand the neuroscience of our brain to understand inspiration and motivation
It helps when we understand how our brain works and what is the science of motivation and inspiration

Let me geek out with some acronyms for a moment – it's interesting stuff. Briefly, your brain is survival focussed and it is controlled by the Sympathetic Nervous System (the SNS) and the Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPPA). Both the SNS and HPAA are reactive systems. That is, they register any (and every) possible threat and fire you up chemically to respond.

This is fantastically useful in keeping you safe but it has the rather unpleasant side effect of making you feel anxious, stressed, disappointed and generally low spirited.

Today's living environment for most of us, especially in urban areas means that both your SNS and HPAA are fired up much of the time in response to the daily challenges you face on your daily commute, in noisy, crowded offices, surrounded by beeping devices and with a boss imposing impossible deadlines… Modern life is taking a large toll on your peace of mind.

Yet, you have another system available to you called the ParaSympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). And when your PSNS takes charge you feel great: calm, relaxed, chill, tranquil, clear-headed, and well, happy.

Yes, the name of the Sympathetic Nervous System is a little misleading in our modern understanding of the word “sympathetic”, but it is the system that makes you feel stressed or basically, crappy.

OK, so a quick summary, your brain automagically, or rather, unconsciously, reacts to environmental stimuli through your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and/or your Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPAA) to prepare you to deal with any threats. Once the threat passes, or you choose to consciously engage it, your ParaSympathetic System (PSNS) switches on to calm you down and get back to other important stuff like digesting your food, maintaining homeostasis, slowing your heart rate and so on.

Just make a note that you can choose to consciously trigger the PSNS. I'll be back to this at the end.

Before that though, let's study what actually drives you. i.e. what gets you getting up and going? Or, What is your motivation?

We all have four basic human needs that are at the heart of practical neuroscience.

Of course, your brain is an incredibly complex organ and variations of human behaviour are an endless ocean of subtle differences. But we can identify four neuro-scientifically founded basic needs of human beings and how these influence our motivational behaviours and how we interact with the world around us.

As human beings, we have developed to use the environment to its best and allow for reproduction and the furtherment of our species – our survival and growth.

Our physiological needs that drive our physical survival: hunger, thirst and sleep, are well understood. Here, we focus on our psychological needs for our mental well-being and health: Self-esteem, Orientation and Control, Attachment and Pleasure Maximisation.

Your four drivers are:

  1. The need for Self-esteem, its protection and development.
  2. The need for orientation and control
  3. The need for attachment, and
  4. The need to maximise pleasure and avoidance of pain.
What drives you?
We all have four main drivers for our own life

Each of these stimulates different neuronal circuits and will activate different regions in the brain. Let me briefly share a little more about each of these needs and then we'll examine how we can consciously and deliberately affect them and hence, our FEELING of drive, inspiration and engagement. You can easily remember this using the SOAP acronym.


Every healthy individual is constantly seeking to increase and protect their self-worth.

Self-esteem is a specific human need and only possible through having the ability to reflect and be able to perceive this and bring it to conscious attention.

Our interactions with others enable us to form this self-image that is influenced by a complex network of interactions with others in the environment and their reactions and observations of us.

We therefore develop a perception of our self-worth and a need to be valued and for value.

(Cast, A.D., & Burke, P. (2002) A theory of self-esteem. Social Forces, 80(3), 1041-1068.)

When a friend ignores you (and you notice this), for example, it is likely that you will question your own value to them and hence the value you bring to the relationship.

When your boss tells you that you did a great job on that project, your self-worth increases and your value on that relationship increases.

As Dale Carnegie put it many years ago in the classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, everyone wants to feel important. That includes you.

Orientation and Control

Everyone has a basic urge to be able to design and control their environment.

We need to know where we are going and how to keep ourselves on the right path to reach our chosen destination.

A situation that is unclear and ambiguous stimulates a negative reaction in the limbic system of the brain, specifically the amygdala. This in turn, will stimulate an immediate fear reaction.

If the resultant stress can be controlled and mastered this may stimulate reward circuits and be saved as a learned memory. Otherwise, this can destabilise the neuronal circuits and trigger a negative cycle of thinking.

(Whalen, P.J. (1998) Fear, vigilance, and ambiguity. Initial neuroimaging studies of the human amygdala. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7(6). 177-188.)

What may matter more, is not that you are actually able to control your environment but that you believe that you control it. This is known as having an “internal locus of control” When the locus of control is external, we'll blame everyone and anyone else and outside forces for what happens to us.

(Fournier, G. (2016). Locus of Control. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 3, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/encyclopedia/locus-of-control/).

The big downside of an external locus of control is that even if they are to blame, they don't give a damn because they are in it for themselves and their own locus of control.

In modern society our greatest punishment is to remove or reduce a persons ability to control what happens to them by imprisoning them, beating them or executing them.


Our need for attachment is laid down at birth in our brain and memory.

This means that our perceptions, behaviours and emotional reactions and motivations can be laid down very early in life.

This is directly linked to the availability of an attachment figure, usually one of the primary caregivers, for normal social and emotional development. When this is not the case this has a negative influence on the fulfilment of this need for attachment.

(Bowlby, J., Ainsworth, M., & Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory. Developmental Psychology, 5, 759-775)

Whether your primary caregiver wasn't there physically or emotionally doesn't make a great deal of difference.

Pleasure maximisation (and avoidance of pain)

We follow a simple logic to increase our pleasure and avoid unpleasurable, dangerous or painful experiences.

Our experience over time gives rise to a whole network of mostly unconscious triggers and associations that are linked to either positive or negative experiences and our resultant pleasure or pain.

You may be seeking hedonistic pleasure focusing more on the subjective experience of maximising personal pleasure and minimising personal pain, or a eudaemonic experience with a more rounded psychological well-being that encompasses the combination of the other three basic needs being fulfilled for a long term meaning or purpose.

Our subjective experiences colour our view of the world and each person has their own unique internal rating process based on our own unique previous experiences.

In short:

To be able to deliberately impact our feeling of drive, motivation, inspiration or engagement we need to be able to fulfil these four needs in a way that satisfies us personally. And to understand that, we need to get back to those chemicals I talked about earlier.

This is going to help us hack your thinking by knowing the main chemicals involved and what you can consciously and deliberately do to alter the cocktail mix that your SNS, HPAA (and PSNS) do unconsciously for you.

So now it's time to geek out on some chemistry.

What's chemistry got to do with my feeling driven and inspired?

Well everything!

How you FEEL in any situation is your conscious interpretation of the physiological response of your body, triggered by the combination (or cocktail) of chemicals released as a result of your conscious thinking and your SNS, PNS and HPAA and unconscious responses.

It's alot more complex than the five chemicals I'm talking about here, but understanding how these affect you will help you understand the essence of how a change in the balance of these chemicals inside you changes how you feel, and hence your motivation and desires.

Time to geek out on some chemistry and get to the root of feelings
Getting the mix of your brain chemicals right for you is your key to maintaining balance

You will already know much about adrenaline and cortisol – your key stress hormones. And just in case you don't, I have a wonderful little whiteboard video you can watch.

But you also have some “happy” chemicals. These are Oxytocin, Serotonin and Dopamine.

Five chemicals you need to know about:

Good times, bad times, you know I've had my share…

(whoops, a little Led Zeppelin slipped in there.)

When our thinking and perception of the environment is associated positively to our own experiences, this triggers the release of our “happy chemicals” : serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.

On the other side, when we feel stressed, anxious or upset about the fulfillment of our basic needs, this is the result of cortisol, norepiphrene (the brain's ‘adrenaline') and adenaline.

On the positive side:

On the negative side:

Your approach to your four basic needs may not be the same as mine of course. Generally speaking, I am a very positive and optimistic person. Someone else might be more negative and pessimistic about it. These approaches are known as your motivational schemata.

Motivational schemata

Motivational schemata are the instruments and methods that a person will develop through their lifetime to help satisfy their basic needs or to protect them. Within this there are two base schemata. On the one hand the approach schema which is a result of a person striving to fulfil their basic needs. On the other hand if a person strives to protect their basic needs this is known as an avoidance schema.

motivational schemata

What does this mean?

Depending on your approach, you may be someone who continuously seeks to fulfil your personal needs, or someone who focuses their attention on avoiding the bad things. The way you speak, as in the words you use habitually, often reveal your schemata or approach.

By the way, neither is right, nor is one necessarily better than another, expect to say that we tend to get in life, what we focus on. Thus if you focus on avoiding pain, you'll probably experience (or be aware of) more pain than someone who focuses in the exact same circumstances on pleasure.

Dale Carnegie summed this up beautifully:

Two men looked out from prison bars, One saw the mud, the other saw stars.”

Jill in jail
Happiness is a matter of perspective

Are you happy or unhappy?

Happiness is a perception of how well the world matches your expectations and desires.

There are days when we don't feel as if we are progressing towards our purpose. Heck, many people don't consciously know their purpose, but unconsciously we are all aware of those days when something just isn't right. we have no sense of progress or fulfilment. These are the “blah” days. the days when we don't feel like “getting up and going”. The days when we have lost our mojo.

Well those days are days we have incongruity between our perception of the world and how well you have fulfilled your basic needs.

Any mismatch between your current motivational schemata and your perception of the world defines your feelings, behaviours and actions. Whether you act with the intention of fulfilling your needs or protecting what you perceive that you have.

You sense a need for change.

And maybe, just maybe, the world will see fit to make that change happen to you. Some call this luck, or karma or synchronicity. But in the 99.9% of times when that lady luck doesn't happen to call on you today, you'll want to be able to pull yourself out of that funk and reignite your engines.

As a leader, it is your job to inspire others, to engage them and motivate them to do the things that matter. And that's awfully difficult to do when you are not feeling inspired, engaged or particularly motivated. And you already know that it's unlikely that someone else is going to lift you up right now.

Sure it would be nice, and I know that you deserve it, but here's the rub: your boss isn't inspiring you because they ain't feeling it either. So let's choose to take charge of life and choose to switch the motivation engines on.

turn on your motivation and inspiration engines

We can even measure how well we are aligned to our basic needs by assessing how much each of the four needs matters to use personally and how well that is currently being fulfilled.

I'm sharing a simple SOAP assessment tool that you can use to measure the congruity between your current work environment and your preferences:

Now this is going to be a whole lot easier for you if you already (consciously) know your own life purpose (that is you are a eudaemonite). Per chance you don't have clarity on that then here's a podcast and guide for you. In the meantime let's switch on your shall we?

If you're busy paying attention to something else right now, like emailing, facebook trawling, driving a vehicle wait until you can take five minutes out. I'll need your complete attention.



Yes, I said: “Breathe.”

Deep, long, slow breaths. In through your nose and blow it from your mouth.

Surely I'm kidding you? You've been doing this all the time and feeling “meh”. Yes, there is more to it, but right now just breathe.

Give it a few more seconds of deep breathing.

Powerful huh?

Breathing is your first step

Now as you continue focussing attention on your breathing, I'd like you to touch your lips with your (clean) fingers. You might like to lick your lips with your tongue.

Now, you can choose what to do for the next four minutes.

Choose one of the five. I like to spend my time meditating on a verse from the Bible and praying to God.

Whatever you choose, be aware of your breathing, deeply in through the nose and blowing sharply out through your mouth.

Pause the podcast and do it now, safely of course. Come back when you are done and I'll wrap this up with why it works.

Good to have you back (or maybe you're going to do it later.)

What just happened?

Your brain needs a lot of oxygen because it burns a lot of energy, 20% of your body's calorific burn for a 3 pound mass! You just increased the availability of oxygen in your body and hence available to your brain.

Breathing out sharply through your mouth reduces cortisol in your body, which reduces your stress and anxiety.

Because you have taken executive control (by deliberately choosing what to do instead of your body reacting to the environment) you have reduced adrenaline production. The threat must have passed if you aren't concerned about it!

With the two key stress hormones reduced, you then touched or licked your lips, which triggered your PSNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System) to get working – remember this is the system that slows your heart rate and calms you down. You're clearing your thinking brain to consider positive, uplifting thoughts and ideas.

Touching your own body (especially the lips) also stimulates the release of oxytocin – better still when you do this with your life parter. This makes you feel more loved, trusted or cared for and increases your feeling of attachment.

Thinking positive, uplifting thoughts stimulates dopamine and serotonin production and you are believing that you have taken charge of the situation, which increases your self-esteem and sense of orientation and control.

You will also begin to feel greater pleasure whilst reducing pain through this very simple exercise.

To find your Mojo again, Take 5

All it takes is 5 minutes to breathe and either pray, meditate, be mindful, or simply be relaxed to regain that sense of control, to engage and re-ignite the fires of your motivation.

And if it doesn't happen in the first 5 minutes. Take just 5 more.

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