The Truth About Motivation: Push, Pull and Death

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Motivation to do anything comes in two forms: push or pull.


Push is generally about the avoidance of pain. It’s the “away from” side of the motivational spectrum.” You’re actively pushing yourself away from either a source of current pain or the perception of an anticipated pain.

So, if you’re overweight and feeling bad about it, stressed and suffering, unable to do what you want because of bodily pain, are in a bad relationship or a bad job, every day brings with it the experience of current, realized pain. You don’t need to be reminded of it, it’s there with you every step. And this can be a powerful motivation, it can push you to act to remove the pain.

The quest to remove a current pain can be an incredibly powerful push toward action. But there’s a downside…

Once the pain’s removed, the motivation usually goes away. Because it moves you from wanting to remove a current pain over to wanting not to experience or re-experience a future pain. It moves you from the quest for a cure to the quest for prevention. All you have to do is look at the lifestyle behaviors of the vast majority of people and the mountain of marketing research from healthcare and pharmaceutical providers to know that people respond far more aggressively to the quest to cure a current pain than they do to the quest to prevent a future one.

Preventative action, beyond teeth-brushing, is and always will be a brutally hard sell.

It’s just the way we’re wired. Even after major health incidents, most people revert to the behaviors that led to the incidents. Not all, but most.

So, the “proactive” push away from a potential future pain is an extremely weak source of motivation. And, though powerful, the push away from a current pain is a strong motivator, but it’s “reactive” motivation – it doesn’t kick in until things get pretty bad. And it generally goes away as soon as enough of the pain goes away.

Does that mean that most of us won’t do anything until we’re mired in suffering?

Not necessary. There’s still the “Pull” side of the motivational spectrum.


Pull-based motivation is about tapping the desire to achieve something.

It’s about establishing a quest and taking action not to remove a current pain, but to bring yourself closer to a deeply desired end. Maybe it’s completing a marathon or learning to play guitar. Could be hiking the Appalachian Trail or building a business that changes not only your life, but the lives of the thousands of people it serves. Maybe it’s becoming a chess master or creating a stunning collection of paintings. Maybe you just want to solve a big honking problem or make something insanely cool, because those are activities and pursuits that fill you up.

Pull is about activities and meaningful quests that, by their very existence, inspire action in the name of coming closer to the object of the quest. And the beautiful thing about setting pull-oriented motivational drivers is that they can be long-term, they can have intermediate benchmarks that serve our emotional need for intermittent reinforcement. And, once completed, they can either expand to create a new source of pull to an even cooler place. Or a new quest with an even stronger sense of pull that builds around the foundation of habits and actions laid in the prior quest can be set in motion.

Plus, done not from a place of blind ambition, but rather a sense of presence, engagement and joy, the mere experience of moving along the “pull-spectrum,” regardless of whether you actually hit the quest you’re working toward, can be immensely rewarding.


I once heard a story about the Dalai Lama. He meditated on death, I was told, six times a day. My first response was, “how morbid.” But, also, “how interesting” and, when framed as an honoring of the impermanence of everything…how life affirming.

Then I stumbled upon Steve Jobs now famous Stanford Graduation speech, where he shared:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

I’ve circled around to the believe that honoring your own impermanence on a daily basis, owning the fact that you’re going to leave the planet and you don’t know when, can be an immensely freeing experience. Saddening at times, yes. But freeing and empowering nonetheless.

Because what doesn’t matter drops away, creating more space to explore what does matter, to take actions and risk pushing the bounds of certainty in name of defining powerful pull-based quests capable of creating magic in both your life and the world around you.

So, I wonder, where do you fall in the motivation spectrum?

What’s driving your current behavior?

Are you happy with your answer?

And, if not…what next?

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33 responses

33 responses to “The Truth About Motivation: Push, Pull and Death”

  1. Chris Zydel says:

    I have definitely danced with both the push and the pull in my life. And I have noticed that the “push” energy always comes to a dead stop at some point. It’s not very dynamically alive. The pain ending equals the end of the push.

    But the great thing about the pull towards something that I want is that it feeds on itself. When I experience the fulfillment of desire it fuels my motivation and confidence. I want more and feel like I can have more. The pull becomes it’s own reward. And it just continues to grow in all kinds of wonderfully exciting and unexpected ways.

    I love that quote by Steve Jobs. Now that I’m almost 59 that awareness of my own death is becoming more and more of an intimate companion. And it helps incredibly to keep me focused on what I value the most because I clearly have no time to waste!!

    Thanks for another great and thoughtful post.

  2. Julie says:

    Thanks for the reminder – particularly about Jobs’ speech…that never fails to motivate me to take the bigger leap and to leave any lingering fears behind. Perfect timing.

  3. Jenni says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you 🙂

  4. I have to say, Jonathan, this is perhaps the best post I have read in a very long while: your best and perhaps one of the best in general! Thank you so much for such a mature and meaningful post! Beautiful.

  5. Ann Marie says:

    Thankfully, I’m in a “pull” place right now. I’ve earnestly begun an exercise program, quite varied in activities, and have been faithful to it along with a healthy food plan.

    While losing weight and toning muscles are a goal, the real goal is a healthier lifestyle to avoid (or postpone) the physical issues I see my parents dealing with in their old age. They didn’t take care of their bodies and their mobility as decreased to a minimum.

    I just said to a friend yesterday that life is a terminal diagnosis; we’re all going to die one day. I learned the hard way that regrets are hard to live with, so when faced with a tough decision, I often frame my solution within the question: On my deathbed, will I regret not trying/learning/giving/trusting/etc. this job/person/opportunity, etc.

    I’m far from perfect with doing this, but I do try.

  6. Ethan says:

    This article perfectly articulates why I have so much trouble staying motivated in my corporate job. It’s 98% Push motivation for me, where the Push is for the Paycheck. Beyond that, the motivation is gone.

  7. Lynn K says:

    This is a fantastic post, Jonathan. Thank you.

    I’m in the midst of re-ordering my life, from obligation to passion. It seems like it should be easy: do what you love. I don’t know why its not, but I love every reminder I can find to keep my on my path to grasping life with both hands.

  8. Mark Silver says:

    I heard the story of a spiritual master who was also quite wealthy who spent every evening imagining everything he owned burning up in a fire, leaving him with nothing. Something to aspire to…

    For me personally, I find myself motivated by both ends of the spectrum. I’m definitely motivated by money… up to a point. And I’m definitely motivated by inspiration… up to a point.

    But my favorite source of motivation, when I’m most aware and awake, is simply “right action.” Meaning I have a sense in my heart of my path, and what is the right next action, without any gain or loss being a part of the motivation.

    The Sufis call it “Divine slavehood.” I’m aspiring to live there. But when I can’t, the old motivations come back in. And I’m grateful for them, too. The worst would be to just stagnate and fade away.

  9. Thanks for the inspiration, I feel I need it today.

  10. Doug Spak says:

    Sadly, and to a great degree, I believe we live in a push culture. We have so much abundance that we live a frantic existance to NOT LOSE it all. The more we have, the more it seems like we push…push for the next job, the next mate, the next raise, the next high. Our goals are less about betterment or improving the quality of something…and more about wanting/needing more. I quote T.I. from his song “Live Your Life”:

    “Your values is a disarray, prioritizin’ horribly.
    Unhappy with the riches ’cause you’re piss poor morally.”

    Good post Jonathan.

  11. Cory Annis says:

    YES! You nailed it! I’ve seen both forces in action in 20+ years of medical practice. “Pull” beats “Push” hands down. Push often feels punitve and fear-based. It runs out of steam when the threat or worry is diminished. This is the stance taken by the medical profession most often. However, nagging people about hastening their inevitable death a) is too abstract/unimginable to be meaningful and b) robs Death of it’s power to sweeten and strengthen the choices we make with each breath.

    Pull, on the other hand, tends to create its own momentum over time, the very definition of “renewable energy.” Pull is created by pursuing an endpoint that breathes for you. I look at what you will regularly inconvenience yourself for before making recommendations about optimizing your health. Entrepreneurs are a perfect example. You already grasp the benefit of pull in the ideas that get you out of bed every day. Health “pull” is created by seeing a large ROI associated with exercise, let’s say. The benefit to your “bottom lines” can be measured in days when the clear-headed-ness after a good run sets in.

    Similar to finding the work that does’t feel like work, finding the exercise that makes you forget it’s “exercise” pulls you right into it. Michael Ellsberg’s well-known passion for salsa dancing is a pull exercise. If you’d do it for the joy of it (like work you would do even if you weren’t paid) you have found your pull.

    Thanks, Jonathan… Such a compelling post that I am abusing my thumbs to tap this response on an iPhone while on vacation! Gotta quit before I get a ” push” from my spouse! As always, thanks for holding this space

    Cory Annis MD

  12. Sharon Rosen says:

    Just found my way to you today and this post is most timely…and the concept of mortality is something I use in my own life meditations quite a bit. Especially helpful when I fall into pity party mode…

    I love the idea of push/pull and it resonates with my current shift in business name and brand — I’ve been with Heart of Self-Care for about 4 years, always with an internal focus on the heart part, but it does sort of sound like “more stuff to do.” Am currently rebranding to The Restful Heart, which is more of an aspiration and definitely has that pull feeling, something I’ve been longing for in what I present.

    Look forward to more and am now on your list — mostly I’ve been getting off of lots of lists lately, but your words feel rich and fertile and I’m pleased to join the conversation!

  13. Lisa says:

    Jonathan – you certainly got it right today! I’ve been experiencing a pull motivation lately where I’ve got my eyes fixed on a goal. What is making this motivation even stronger is that I’ve got another situation with push motivation… pushing me to pull harder!! Thanks for putting words to what I’m feeling at this moment!

  14. For all the years I’ve been a writer, push never worked for me. Progress was always with the pull – from my dreams and ambition. Your inclusion of awareness by honoring death was particularly relevant to me. My husband’s recent death made me acutely aware of what is, and what is not, important in life. Now that I am back to full time freelancing and to reviewing books, I agree that this awareness is indeed freeing and empowering.

  15. Thank you so much for this post.I’m intrigued by the concept of honoring one’s impermanence, and its potential impetus for pull-based quests.
    You’ve definitely given me food for thought today.

  16. Lisa Johnson says:

    I remember taking a psych evaluation in college as part of a class. The guy doing the eval said I had a “Pollyannish view” of the world. He meant it as a negative but I took it as a positive.

    I am definitely a Pull kind of gal. I never understood people who stayed in untenable situations, if it sucks, change it! If I have a failure of empathy anywhere it is that … people who stay stuck and don’t move forward somehow.

    I pick my projects and try to nurture them to maturity. My biggest failing there is picking too many projects, it’s like dribbing water on a plant when it needs a full glass, it limps along but doesn’t really grow. I have to be better at focusing!

    Nice post, as always, Jonathan. 🙂


  17. Andreea says:

    I really love the two perspectives. I think it is equally important how we do it, be it pull or push. I am often in the pull lane, and lately I got pulled a little too hard, that I got out of balance to the point that now I am in the push lane, looking over at the pull lane (if I am making any sense). So now I am motivated by pain, with a deeper understanding of how to maintain balance in life… once the pain is over and the lesson learned, I am hoping to always make time for myself, play more and not identify with my business. I am NOT my business 🙂

  18. Rob says:

    “owning the fact that you’re going to leave the planet and you don’t know when” – I think about that every day.

    I feel lucky enough to be motivated by the pull of life these days, after a long time motivated by push.

    A bigger picture.

    Following my heart.

  19. Christopher says:

    I’m a giant magnet.

  20. greg says:

    the question i have is what if what you “love” isn’t creating the sustenance you need to support yourself 100%. in the face of that adversity do you search for something that will or sacrifice your family’s and your own basic needs to support yourselves to keep on doing what you love.

  21. This is similar to a conversation I have with women when we meet 1:1 to discuss career change.
    I always tell them, if you just want ideas about where next and how to make that happen (push) then you’re in the wrong place. My work is to get you recognising what is making you unhappy in the first place, to get clear around that and THEN to see what your drawn to (pull). That way, we won’t be back here in a year’s time, looking for the next job to bring you happiness.
    It’s a different approach to changing your life and much more sustainable.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Sustainable – that’s really the key. Momentary disruption followed by retreat is pretty easy (thus the 95% of people who lose weight and put it back on). Sustained change is a whole different game.

  22. Jonathan Fields says:

    Great thoughts, as always, gang!

    I think the real challenge here is the work will both energies, and do so under the umbrella of impermanent to create an optimal flow of both push and pull that keeps you moving forward.

  23. Jonathan,

    Wow. Ok. Here we go. Push… Even though I knew and understood very clearly what I carried inside me from a very young age, no problem, I became a full blown working alcoholic. I quit drinking 7+ years ago. Push sent me anywhere and let me do anything at all, to avoid the pain. (Moved on.)

    Pull.. I believe this is where I live now. I know there is a reason. For everything. I know there is an incredibly good force in our world and if we can reach each other, and I believe we can, we can help and change the entire world.

    Death.. I woke up. That is the best way I can describe it. It is going to happen. You hear people say “oh, just have fun, that is most important”. Hmm, I don’t think so. Death is coming to each and every one of us.

    I believe we can make things better. For whatever hardship and sadness. By surviving and helping each other. We will continue to learn, grow, accept people without predacious hatred, share and help each other. To be there and be strong, to supply people with what is required of survival. From goods to intelligence.

    This is what drives me.

  24. Jonathan:

    Great post.

    I think your “push” “pull” and “death” concepts provide a great framework for how we think about what we do (and contemplate doing). Whether it’s something on the physical or mundane side (like losing weight or reliving some sort of pain) or on the aspirational side (like running a marathon or turning an idea into something real) – why not phrase all of it, in our minds, as “pull” endeavor?

    In other words, why not view everything we do as as an important part of our whole effort to become our best selves and lead our best lives? Thinking this way completely changes things, because our internal monologue isn’t about avoiding or preventing anymore, so we’re not zapping our own motivation anymore.

    Also, not sure if you’ve seen Denzel Washington’s commencement speech at UPenn: It’s thematically similar to Steve Jobs’ now famous speech in that Washington talks about ghosts at our bedside when our time comes, who ask us why we didn’t bring them to life. It’s “death” motivation: the good work of minimizing those ghosts.

    Great post, as usual. Thanks.


  25. This is a thoughtful perspective on motivation. I love looking at (and feeling this) from a mind/body, or somatic, viewpoint. Pushing requires lots of effort, which you can feel in the body. Imagine pushing a boulder up a hill…whew! Lots of energy needed. You literally have to get behind a push. But with pulling, at least moderate pulling, there’s a greater ease in the body. You can “allow” something that’s pulling you. It’s similar to when we say that something is “tugging” on us; another force exerts itself, so we don’t have to do all the effort alone. Some might call that other force “spirit” or “assistance,” or some other name, but when there’s a pull, we don’t have to work quite so hard as when we push.

    It seems to me that when it comes to work, especially work we love, feeling the pull is a way of knowing that it’s aligned with us. And pushing, beyond an initial amount to get the momentum going, can indicate that our work is out of alignment with what we really desire. I think many of us are socialized, particularly through school, to push-push-push, and we could stand to learn how to allow that pull to arise.

    Thanks pulling me in here, Jonathan!

  26. Audrey Fried says:

    Amazing post Jonathan! I’d love to see more discussion of the relationship between push and pull. As you put it, the secret is to work with both energies – a combination of a push to get you going followed by the adoption of a pull goal. I love Lisa’s comment above about how she’s in a situation that is “pushing [her] to pull harder”.

  27. It’s always such a treat to visit here Jonathan because I know I can count on a top quality read every time, this one being no exception.

    Great questions to ponder as well. Thank you

  28. I really like this. I think I’ve definitely been running from pain instead of pursuing passion; the World Domination Summit & Chris Guillebeau have been really helpful in getting me to chase the “hell yeah!” moments instead. I don’t know yet where that will lead. We’ll see!

    Thank you for the inspiration. And I’m still using the meditation app, so perhaps I will try meditating on impermanence 🙂


  29. Hi Jonathan.

    I really like the concepts of “push” and “pull” and how you’ve described them in your well-written post. Although they can be seen as polar opposites, I like to place them on a continuum as I think there are moments in life where suspension is the perfect gravitational force. In life transitions, we sometimes force pushing or pulling without allowing ourselves to be in a force field that is energetic but not directional. It can be a very grounding and instructional place.

    I was blessed to be diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer 2 years ago and I know what staring in the face of death looks like. Neither pulling or pushing. On the flip side, I am extremely healthy now and have resumed my life with light pulling. The priorities are clear and yet I hold my desires lightly — not need to tug too hard in any direction.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  30. Matt R says:

    That’s a good way of putting it. Much of my intrinsic motivation has been push, so it’s a good way of seeing the specific type of motivation. And then try to progress with pull.

  31. David Lapin says:

    Jonathan, I have always taught that all human change tragically comes only from discomfort. The discomfort is caused either by circumstance or it is self-created by the dissatisfaction with the status quo that aspiration and ambition create. Bill Gates’ awareness of inevitable death is the ultimate driver of human accomplishment – it gives value to time.

    David Lapin
    Rabbi, Leadership Advisor and Author: Lead By Greatness (soon to be published)