The motivation myth - lessons from North Korea
7 min read

The motivation myth - lessons from North Korea

The motivation myth - lessons from North Korea

Getting things done is not so much about finding motivation - it's about motivating motivation. Let me explain in the following roundabout way.

I've had the amazing fortune in my career to have been to North Korea five times, travelling the length and breadth of the country. I've seen places few North Koreans have seen, let alone outsiders.

I still remember the rush of excitement when I first caught wind of being sent there.

I was to go and document a flood emergency in the north of the country, and it was one of the very rare occasions the secretive government was allowing someone like me - communications guy - to visit.

Motivation to work hard on this project was no problem.

The North Korean colleagues were understandably suspicious and worried when I first arrived. To say the government is strict about taking photos of life in the country, aside from the few monuments of Kims in Pyongyang, is an understatement. They watched me like a hawk.

My aim was to not only get stories, but to also acclimatise my North Korean colleagues to communications work, hoping it would open doors to more potential story gathering visits in the future.

Shortly after arriving, before flying up to the -30C north in December, I conducted a workshop, addressing why we needed to tell stories in the first place.

It wasn't an easy audience to convince to say the least, everyone works for the government there. But they went along with it, they accepted my free chocolate, and the first baby steps were made in the right direction.

"We have a saying: seeing is believing," was something I often heard from North Koreans. I knew that they would only ever be convinced, if at all, once I showed how I work and what I produced.

It seemed to work.

They saw my questions to families were innocent, and they saw in my photos that I depicted people in a respectful way.  

News of this made its way up the chain in the government and they apparently felt comfortable enough to allow me return in non-emergency situations.

That was great, I was excited all over again. Yet, by my third visit, I noticed something wrong. My motivation was waning.

By then I'd had spent a total of seven weeks in the country, and I felt like I was treading the same path over and over again.

Change the energy

The interviews were the same. My photos were the same. Each hospital looked much the same. I felt like all my stories were just, the same.

I shouldn't have been too surprised of course. This is North Korea after all, you can only do so much.

On each visit I tried to gently push the barriers on what I could do, but it was mostly a series of 'almosts'.

I was once almost authorised to make a 360 degree video, only to be told I couldn't bring a GoPro because they contain forbidden GPS technology (my iPhone was apparently no issue...).

On another visit I did a full day training session with the government about video making, with the hope that they would be reassured that this wouldn't be anti-North Korean propaganda. I even had to introduce to them to YouTube.

They were convinced by the need for videos, yet sadly their superiors were 'almost convinced', but not quite.

Ahead of my fourth visit, I proposed a new solution: I would bring a Medium Format film camera with me.

This is a fully analogue camera, and a strange looking one at that as it's about twice the size of a normal camera. It was completely new to me, and would capture images in a different way.

I felt that just the act of holding and sing this camera would change the energy, both for me and those around me.

And that it did.

I visited a school and my plan was to shoot some portraits and ask the kids one simple, everyday question. Something we can all relate to: what's your favourite food?

I was keen to capture something relatable. North Korea is a strange place, but once you strip away the state and how that works, you are left with people: you talk about the usual things like food, family and football. I wondered if I could capture that, even just a little.  

When I arrived at the school, giant camera in hand, everyone gathered round. Some teachers laughed at the relic in my hand while pointing at cameras on their phones.

I asked the children what their favourite food was and began to take photos.

Then I hit a two issues.

One: Medium Format film is very large and you only have ten photos per film. And, being the disorganised person I am, I forgot most of my rolls of film back at the hotel.

To this day I do not know how I managed to do that, I still kick myself.  This was my one chance to get lots of children on film and I limited myself to only about 10-15 children (as I wanted a few shots per child).

Two: 'kimchi' was the answer to my question, every single time. This didn't give me much space to delve deeper.

I probably should have guessed. Kimchi is the most national of national dishes, and they say there are 1000s of varieties. It was the safe, easy answer - even for 6 year olds.

All in all this little endeavour didn't quite work out but it did rekindle that spark in me and I surfed on that wave for the rest of the visit.

The goal wasn't quite achieved, by the process itself was enough to increase my motivation.

Reconnecting with your passion

That said, my passion for photography has been on the wane in recent years.

It was something I loved and practiced often for half my life, but since it became a big part of my job suddenly holding a camera triggered feelings of duty rather than creativity.

I'm ashamed to admit that. If you asked 18-year-old Simon what my dream job would be, travelling to places like North Korea to take photos and write stories would have been at the top of my list.

It's not that I took it for granted, I'd remind myself often of how fortunate I was. But a drop of motivation and passion in the best of things can always happen.

I have a feeling you probably feel that in life and work at times.

Since COVID I hadn't taken many photos. However, this weekend I decided to dust of my Medium Format camera and take it for a walk.

Thanks to Phichai Kaewvichit, I saw a new way of taking photos that didn't have to involve people all the time. It felt different to work.

Once I got the photos developed, I felt pleased and excited. Despite some film rotting, and a bunch of overexposed shots, motivation started building inside me.

From my photo walk. 

That's the key. You don't need much motivation to begin something. You need to begin that thing and then motivation will follow. It comes after progress.

From my photo walk. 

Finding options

This all sounds pretty easy if you have control over what you're doing each day. But most of us - including me - have day jobs with bosses and colleagues who will have a big bearing on how we can act to increase our motivation.

One thing I've always strived for is to make sure I don't have all my eggs in one basket.

If all of my personality, by motivation, my sense of self is in the job, I'm leaving myself, and my happiness, very vulnerable to the whims of others.

Now, it's quite possible I have some sort of attention deficit disorder because I struggle to sit very long doing one thing. But I think trying out things such as photography, music, writing, making films, and even sketching (terribly!) helps me. They all offer a sense of progress, of action. And I learn a lot playing in these different theatres.

Motivation guru Jeff Haden said we should try and be an 'and' person, which I find to be an interesting concept.

If you can say "I am this AND this AND that”, your skills and indeed your identity broadens.

But through all of this, it's important to remember it's all about the process.

When my motivation started to drop on my missions to North Korea, I added something new to the process.

The original goal was not realised, by that didn't matter a great deal. The process energised me and I have that experience to draw from.

“If you dedicate yourself to working your process, you will make progress and then success is inevitable “ - Jeff Haden, The Motivation Myth

So, this is all a very roundabout way to say that motivation is something you can build up when you achieve small successes in any process.

If your to-do list has one point with 'produce a movie', you're going to struggle. If you break that goal into 100 things and start with 'write a 100 word synopsis', your journey begins with ease, and you have another 99 steps that'll make you feel good along the way.  

Take those ideas you have, break them down, and start. Once you start, you'll begin to feel good, and motivation will find you.

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