A SERIES OF POSTS ON MOTIVATION: CONTRIBUTION

And finally, this week we’ll focus in on the sixth and last of the “Six Human Needs” I introduced a few weeks ago: contribution.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this one comes last, since in more ways than do the other “human needs” on this admittedly hyper simplified list, contribution interweaves with all the others.

Humans are pack animals. We evolved to work together in tight groups for our own survival. One cave man with a pointed stick going up against a wooly mammoth is in grave danger—of starvation, at least. Twenty cave men working together feed the whole tribe. Simple, right?

It is, actually—even if over the past hundred or so millennia we’ve created some amazingly complex and interrelated institutions, both formal and informal, to direct those impulses. But whether we’re trying to be a good member of the congregation, a good son or daughter, a good Democrat or Republican, a loyal American, or a diehard Trekkie, to some degree or another we feel we need to contribute to some cause in order to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem, however those may specifically manifest. We may work toward making ourselves feel significant or to combat uncertainty in our own lives, but more times than not, we do that as part of some team, family, community, etc. Or as Mark Manson wrote in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck:

“You know who bases their entire lives on their emotions? Three year old kids. And dogs. You know what else three-year-olds and dogs do? Shit on the carpet.”

Grown-ups do that to, at least figuratively, but when they do, the rest of us tend to turn on them. Breaking from the group can be the greatest sin imaginable, according to loyal members of the group. It can also be the greatest accomplishment, when seen from people who oppose that group—because by leaving that group, you’re joining or in some other way helping the competing group. But in the end, it’s about moving from group to group with individual behavior filtered through the groups’ expectations.

We form into and contribute to groups for all sorts of reasons, which can be tied back to the other five human needs. In terms of the split between certainty and uncertainty, we all contribute to a consensus reality, come together in groups of various sizes and goals, in order to feel sure of something, to feel secure in the knowledge that we’re part of a community of like-minded individuals who share our certainty of… whatever it is (Jesus Saves, rich people should pay no taxes, drugs are bad, and so on) in order to stave off the uncertainty of a complex and sometimes frightening universe. “For, after all,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, “how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?”

Contributing to the common good, or fooling ourselves into thinking we’re contributing to the common good, or tricking others into thinking we’re contributing to the common good, can motivate villains, in particular, who are simultaneously driven by a desire for personal significance. This is true of the over-reaching Dr. Haber in Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic The Lathe of Heaven:

It’s not that he’s evil. He’s right, one ought to try to help other people. But the analogy with snakebite serum was false. He was talking about one person meeting another person in pain. That’s different. Perhaps what I did, what I did in April four years ago… was justified… (But his thoughts shied away, as always, from the burned place.) You have to help another person. But it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough. You have to… be in touch. He isn’t in touch. No one else, no thing even, has an existence of its own for him; he sees the world only as a means to his end. It doesn’t make any difference if his end is good; means are all we’ve got… He can’t accept, he can’t let be, he can’t let go. He is insane… He could take us all with him, out of touch, if he did manage to dream as I do. What am I to do?

Contribution and connection are particularly intertwined, and for many of the same reasons we contribute to a common cause to combat uncertainty and gain certainty, characters can come together and act out of a sense of duty, a connection to “the corps” achieved by contributing to a common goal. Sometimes, that contribution can require a degree of deindividualization or even dehumanization, as seen in Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time:

Theories of reality clashed in the air, unknown to me. I saw things as I believed them to be. I believed that I was a clone of a man born on a boat in the Pacific Ocean, on Earth, across the galaxy. I did not believe I was placed in this colony to suffer, but to work hard and transcend. That is the life that was told to me: Work hard and transcend to other colonies.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo discovers and taps into an otherwise unknown reservoir of courage, not for his own sake, but to contribute to the greater good:

A sound, too, began to throb in his ears, a sort of bubbling like the noise of a large pot galloping on the fire, mixed with a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring. This grew to the unmistakable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

Here is a classic hero finding personal growth in contribution to a common goal.

So when considering the six human needs, don’t just look at each individually: Character A seeks personal growth, Character B lives in the uncertainty, Character C is desperate for a lasting personal connection… Look at how those mix and mingle, how they compete with each other for attention within that character, how they support or undermine each other. The whole point of the list is that these six human needs exist to one degree or another in all of us—and as fiction writers, we want our characters to feel, as much as possible, like all of us.

 

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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