A few weeks ago, I sat outside around a fire alongside two highly successful entrepreneurs. Both, wonderful human beings.
As they began asking me questions about my work, the conversation steered towards minimalism. I shared not just about the work I do around the topic, but the profound, positive impact it has been on our lives.
My friends were intrigued—but surprisingly skeptical. They could understand the connection between clutter and distraction and even commented how clean they like to keep their garages.
But as we began to press deeper into the implications, the notion that one could maintain ambition without the pursuit of larger houses in nicer neighborhoods, more expensive cars, and an abundance of material possessions for their families seemed foreign to them.
One remarked, “I think I’m just too entrepreneurial. That’s just my heart. And my drive for nicer stuff keeps me motivated, which is a good thing for my business. I don’t think the minimalist lifestyle is for me.”
Quietly, I thought to myself, “Well, I’m an entrepreneur too, you know…”
But my audible response was this, “I’m not suggesting we lose ambition. I’m suggesting we can find greater ambition by redirecting it towards more meaningful pursuits than the accumulation of material possessions.”
That evening, I shared a modest list of alternative motivations that inspire me.
But as I’ve thought about that conversation quite a bit since then, I’d like to take a moment and provide a more comprehensive list of where we can find motivation and ambition apart from material possessions.
Perhaps we will all find it helpful.
Before we dive into this list, it occurs to me that not all motivations are equally fulfilling. Even though any number of pursuits can motivate us (and tend to do so), some are better than others.
In fact, my most recent book, Things That Matter, is about this very topic. The book is about recognizing and overcoming the distractions that keep us from a meaningful life. And every topic raised in the book exists precisely because it can become a motivating factor in our lives.
So let me divide this list into two categories (fleeting motivations and longer-lasting motivations):
Motivations Beyond Material Possessions (but equally less-fulfilling)
It is not uncommon for people to shift their focus away from accumulating possessions but remain focused on amassing wealth. In fact, some people embrace minimalism for that very reason. So let’s start here.
Someone can remove the pursuit of flashy possessions, but still remain motivated by the endless pursuit of increasing their net worth. It is understandable, common, and even encouraged in our world. I just personally believe there are more fulfilling goals to chase.
2. Early Retirement
Equally so, the dream of early retirement can be enticing, motivating individuals to work tirelessly. Again, some will embrace a minimalist lifestyle for the sole purpose of achieving this even earlier. And while the motivation to work may wane after retirement has been achieved, it can certainly be a major driver for a period of time.
Again, and why I place this motivation in this category, the pursuit of leisure can quickly distract us from fulfilling work and meaningful pursuits.
The pursuit of fame, recognition, and praise can drive individuals to remarkable achievements. In fact, as I write in Things That Matter, this motivation trips me up more than I like to admit.
There’s nothing wrong with receiving praise for a job well done or a life well-lived, but when that becomes the goal rarely do we achieve it.
A desire for influence, control, and power has motivated more than one man and woman in the world today.
Healthy competition can spur innovation and growth, for sure. But when winning, just for the sake of beating the other guy, becomes the biggest motivator in our lives, we can miss out on the importance of cooperation, joy, and lifting others up along the way.
This list of five motivations, all different than physical possessions, can move us to work hard and remain ambitious.
While these motivations can lead to success in some societal definitions of the term, they don’t result in our greatest meaning and lasting fulfillment. Even worse, they often result in regret at the end of our lives.
So let’s turn our attention to more enriching sources of motivation—passions with more meaning, more fulfillment, and fewer regrets.
Motivations Beyond Material Possessions (with more fulfilling outcomes)
6. Being the Best Version of Myself
The quest for personal growth and self-improvement is a noble journey. It encourages us to constantly evolve, learn, and embrace our fullest potential. With this as a goal, motivation never ends.
7. Setting an Example for My Family
The desire to be a role model for our loved ones can be a powerful motivator—especially children. It pushes us to embody the values and virtues we wish to pass down.
8. Making a Positive Difference
The aspiration to leave the world better than we found it motivates us to engage in acts of kindness and service—always working our hardest to achieve it.
9. Advocating for Justice
We have an ingrained desire for fairness. The pursuit of justice and equality in our communities and the wider world can drive us to take action, speak up, and contribute to meaningful change.
10. Solving Problems We See in the World
Whether it’s addressing a spiritual need, a financial need, a societal need, a health crises, or the impact of a natural disaster, the drive to solve problems—whether down the street or around the globe—can lead to a compelling motivation and sense of purpose.
11. Living Faithfully
For many, faith is a profound source of motivation, guiding actions, inspiring service, and encouraging faithfulness every day in both small and big ways.
12. Loving Others
A pure and simple love for others guides many of these motivations already listed when you think about it. Love inspires us to be the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be so that we can live for and benefit others.
13. Cultivating Relationships
Investing in deep, meaningful relationships with family, friends, and community members can be incredibly fulfilling and inspiring.
14. Impacting our Local Community
The desire to create or contribute to a sense of community and belonging can motivate us to engage in local initiatives, social events, and group activities that bring people together.
15. Creating and Innovating
We all have an internal desire to create. For some, this looks like art, music, or writing. For others, their creativity is expressed in parenting, relationships, systems, inventions, or problem-solving. The desire to be as creative as we can be can be highly motivating to us.
16. Living Up to Expectations
No one is here because of themselves entirely. We all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. While not always the case, sometimes we feel a healthy responsibility to those who invested in our lives and we can find constant motivation in living up to the example that they set for us.
No doubt there are even more motivating factors in life that I didn’t even think to add to the list: lifelong learning, environmental stewardship, personal passion projects, celebrating art and culture all come to mind. Perhaps you have others that you can add in the comment section below.
Minimalism is the intentional pursuit of our greatest values by removing everything that distracts us from them. We own less, so we can live more, focused on things that matter.
Some may use minimalism as a means to check out of life and go lay on a beach for the rest of their lives. But you’ll never find that promoted in my writings.
Minimalism allows us to live a more ambitious life. It is not about selling short. It is not about losing drive or ambition or that entrepreneurial spirit. It is about redirecting that ambition towards things that actually matter.
Because our lives are too valuable to waste chasing and accumulating material possessions.