Back to Podcast Index →

Motivation is Overrated


Motivation is overrated. It really is. 
Think about it:
1. motivation is NOT the key to winning-- we know this because the winning and losing teams are both motivated to win.
2. Motivation wants fast results-- but real excellence wants consistency over the long haul.
3. Boredom (or any number of other common challenges) can kill motivation.

Here are six things that will help you create the success you want:

1. Your environment
2. Your peer group
3. Habits and systems
4. Your self talk & self-identity
5. Changing your focus to consistency over grandeur 
6. A long-term vs. a short-term perspective


Ready for the Ivy League Challenge?

Take the Challenge today!


Too many people are overwhelmed, stressed out, and frustrated about college admissions prep. I created this podcast to help you build a standout college profile and boost your confidence. Enjoy!

– Steve Gardner, Founder

Listen to my podcast

Listen to other podcasts 

Success Mindset

The right mindset can ensure your success. Listen to begin building your own winning mindset now. 

Start listening

Build Your Confidence 

When everyone else is trying to fit in or go with the flow, learn how you can develop the confidence you need to blaze your own successful path. 

Start listening

Reduce Stress & Anxiety 

Stories, research, real-life examples... Listen to learn how my Harvard peers and I faced stress and overwhelm. 

Start listening

How to Stand Out 

Hard work and great test scores are not enough- but what kind of admissions prep activities will help you get in? It's not what you think... 

Start listening

Admissions Strategy 

Essays, rec. letters, curriculum choices, college visits, research, test scores, and more. Don't wear yourself out with a bad strategy.  

Start listening

Succeed In High School 

The best college prep will ensure you thrive in middle school & high school. Don't settle for stressful, unhelpful college prep advice. 

Start listening

Would you like to be notified when new episodes are launched in your favorite category?

Yes, sign me up


If you really want to write outstanding essays, the kind that helps you stand out that gets you more likely to be admitted to your dream school. I recommend you consider thinking about the professionals, the greatest storytellers in history, and certainly the greatest ones that exist today.

Perhaps to begin, you can think about your favorite story or maybe your favorite movie. And you might be one of those people who have five favorite movies. That's fine. Pick one; pick a movie that you would love to watch again, a movie that you've watched before and that you love. Or a story, if you prefer books. Every great story has a villain, a victim, a hero, and a mentor of some kind.

The role of each of these different people is different in the movies. The hero versus the villain versus the victim versus the guide or the mentor. Those are very different roles. And let's just go through them very, very quickly here. The first is we'll call the victim. The victim's role in the movie. The whole point of a victim in the movie is to elicit sympathy from the audience, right? They're being bullied, or they're being hurt, they're being terrorized, they're being tortured, something is happening, they're being threatened by the villain. And the role of the victim is to just be there and be threatened and then, in the end, to be saved by the hero. Interestingly enough, no transformation and no growth occurs for the victim in the movie. That's just not their role. The hero, on the other hand, starts out exactly the same as the victim. They don't know anything. They're being terrorized by the victim or injustice or by something else.

So they're facing the same challenge that the victim faces. But instead of waiting to be saved and eliciting sympathy from the audience, the hero chooses to face their inner doubts, face their fears, face their internal struggle, and take on the challenge. Do the thing, overcome the villain, do something to save the day.

Now, I think it's interesting that the hero actually starts out in a way that's very similar to the victim. The hero also begins with no special skills or special anything. In fact, they're often being tortured or abused, or hurt by the villain as well. There's some injustice in society that's being perpetuated by people or by some other issue. The hero is a victim. At first, the hero also suffers because of the injustice that occurs. The difference between the hero and the victim, though, is that the hero recognizes the challenge and probably is afraid of it, but the hero decides to face their inner doubts. They decide to confront that who doubt theirs interferes. And they decide to take the challenge, whatever the challenge is. Right? It may be having a difficult conversation. It might be getting in shape, so they can run a race or win a boxing match, or it may be defusing a bomb or saving a country, or it could be pursuing the love of their life. Whatever the challenge is, the hero's role is different from the victims because the hero chooses to face their inner doubts and take action.

Anyway, they choose to accept the challenge. Now, the villain is really interesting because the villain starts out just like the victim as well. The villain is abused or tortured or hurt or embarrassed in some meaningful way. But instead of staying the same and hoping to be saved or stepping up to the challenge and becoming the hero, the villain focuses inwardly; the villain's role in all of this is to focus on themselves and focus on the people who have wronged them.

The goal of the villain is to make themselves look and feel bigger by making others around them feel smaller. They do this in any number of ways. We've already talked about either torturing or abusing, hurting other people, and threatening other people. But, uh, on some level, the role of the villain is to elicit sympathy for the victim to raise the stakes in the movie so that the hero has some real serious challenge to overcome and to be resentful, right? The role of the villain is because they have been wronged. They now go out and try to make other people smaller and make themselves bigger through any no. A number of different means also in movies; there is a guide or a mentor, someone who was once the hero has already overcome these issues and now is in a position to train and teach the new hero.

So all great movies have each of these elements in them, and you can just kind of think of harry potter, for example; I think most people listening in have read or watched the harry potter books and who plays the roles of the victims, the heroes, the guides, and the villains.

But I think this is where things get very, very interesting when you think about your own college essays and how you add complexity and nuance and thoughtful miss and self-reflection into those essays.

Think about these great stories; the crazy thing that you may have already noticed, the villain, the hero, and the victim, all begin the same way. They all begin as characters who face challenges and unfairness, and difficulty. They all face self-doubt and discouragement, and they're all oppressed by some kind of social injustice or some kind of injustice somewhere. All of them were wronged. But the way that they respond to that frustration and these injustices is what determines who they become in the movie. The victim responds by staying the same. The villain responds by becoming resentful and trying to take their anger out on others and make others look smaller. And the hero responds by facing their inner doubts and their interference and choosing to take on the challenge and believe it or not. Each of us.

Right now, as I'm speaking into this microphone right now, every day, I have parts of me that want to be a villain. I have parts of me that want to be a victim. I have parts of me that want to be a hero. So how do I decide how to act? Just like you, you have parts of all of those elements inside of you as well. How do we decide to respond to those parts of us, those different energy levels, or those different responses? Again, they all begin the same way, the hero, the victim, the villain; the differences in the way they respond to injustice, all of us face injustice at different times in our lives.

All of us face fairness and equity issues. But how do we respond to those issues? And a key that I want you to understand is that the way we respond is going to depend on how we self-identify at that moment. If I self-identify as the victim, I'm going to respond as a victim. If I self-identify as a hero, I'm going to respond as a hero and the same. If I'm the villain, we all play all of these roles at different times and in different contexts of our lives. We may look at a smart, capable student who behaves like a victim, and we're tempted to see them as lazy. Actually, they are simply self-identifying as a victim.

But why are they doing this? Well, there are lots of reasons, but one of the most common reasons is they care too much. If they try too hard and still don't succeed, that would be humiliating. And middle school and junior high, and high school for most teenagers. Is this a nonstop battle to not be embarrassed? Right? That's like the goal of life. It is much safer to pretend that you don't care. If you give minimal effort or zero effort, then you don't succeed. There's a clear reason that you didn't succeed. You didn't try your best. If somehow you succeed, despite not trying hard, that's evidence that you must be amazing. Right? So you can't lose. If this is something you really care about, then the best strategy for many people is to pretend not to care, to escape into social media or gaming, or other behaviors that just are obviously not filling your life with meaning. So if you have a friend or a child or you see yourself in the description that I just gave, you are not lazy, and you do not have something wrong with you. You're simply identifying yourself identifying as the victim in your own story.

Let's go back to that favorite movie that you have, right? I asked you at the beginning of the podcast to think of one or more movies that you could just enjoy watching. Imagine that you just start watching it right now, and you can go at any speed you want and then just press pause.

Wherever you are in that movie, you just began, or you're halfway through wherever you are. When you press pause on that movie, I wanna ask you a question. Is the hero of this story right now? Right? Where do you press pause at this point in the story? Is the hero enjoying themselves right now? If you're like, almost 100 % of the times that I've done this, the answer to this question is no, the hero is not enjoying themselves. They're facing their fears; they're confronting their self-doubt. They're choosing to learn new things, and they're getting beaten up as they go, as they develop new skills, as they get in shape, or as they challenge their old beliefs. It's a difficult journey. They're not enjoying themselves, but they self-identify as the hero they have chosen to take on the challenge.

And that's really the only difference. If you self-identify as the victim, then you decide to run away from that self-doubt, you decide to hide from those fears and you escape into some alternate world. If you self-identify as the villain, then you become resentful, become angry, and you lash out, and you try to make other people feel small so that you think you can feel a little bit bigger. If you self-identify as the hero, you choose to face doubt, you choose to face your interference, and you choose to take on the challenge anyway, knowing that you're going to make mistakes, knowing that you're going to fail, knowing that you're going to have challenges all along the way, but you're going to save the day.

Now to circle back to those outstanding essays, the kinds that really make you stand out, the kinds that make admissions officers much more likely to want to have you on their campus. Those essays buck the trend. Guess what most people do when they think about their personal statement or their personal essay? Most people try to find ways to impress the admissions officer. And their essay is about winning the shot or overcoming a challenge. It's about being the hero. And because the vast majority of these essays are all trying to impress the admissions officer, it comes across as being quite boring. The truth is you have lots of opportunities to become impressive to demonstrate how impressive you are in your application with the activities, with your impact project, and with the letters of recommendation, do not waste your essays trying to reinforce those impressive activities.

Those activities can speak for themselves. The letters of recommendation plus the impact project are just clearly defined. That will speak for itself, and you will be very impressive. Instead, show your thoughtfulness, show your self-awareness, and ability to reflect by demonstrating that you can choose to be the hero. But sometimes, all too often, you choose to be the victim, or you choose to be the villain.

So the best essays recognize that we actually don't play the same role our whole lives. I'm not 100 % the hero, even though I wish I tried to be. But there is inside of me right now; there is victim mentality, there is villain mentality, and there is hero mentality. I have all of those proteins inside of me. I have all of the capacity to be any of those roles to play any of those roles. The only difference is how I decide to self-identify. Do I choose to step up as the hero in this situation? Or do I choose to be the victim? Or do I choose to step down into a villain role? Those choices are based on my self-identity. And to recognize that within me, sometimes I self-identify as the victim, but other times as the hero and other times as the villain, that takes an incredible amount of self-awareness.

So those essays, if you want the best essays possible, you want to be finding those moments that demonstrate lots of complexity and nuance, that demonstrate contradictions within you that demonstrate areas where you've messed up. And you've learned the most. These are the essays that show the most self-awareness, the most reflection, and the most thoughtfulness. These are the essays that really demonstrate complexity and nuance and just a deeper level of understanding, especially understanding of self. Those are the essays that stand out and make you amazing. And it's not just this one theme, this hero versus villain, versus victim versus mentor. Right? Each of those personalities exists in each of us multiple times throughout the day. We may bounce back and forth between playing the victim and then the hero and then the villain. And sometimes, we've already been through something. And so we can play the guide or the mentor for someone else or even for ourselves. That makes an outstanding essay that makes for an amazing theme that shows the complexity and the nuance and everything else. There are other ways to do it. But I chose this theme because I want the double value of challenging you, the listener of this podcast, whether you're a parent, a teacher, a college counselor, a teen, or a friend of a teen.

I challenge you to look inwardly as well right now and think about how much time and attention you give to the villain within you, to the victim within you, and to the hero within you. To realize that we all face challenges, all of us, that probably every day, we face self-doubt and we experience fear. And yes, it is scary to go out and try to be the hero but then fail. That's scary. Yes, we have our doubts, and we have our fears, but if you choose not to face those doubts and overcome them, what are you choosing instead? You're choosing either to be the victim or the villain and to be honest, a movie about a victim, if the main character in a movie is the victim, the whole time that's a really boring movie, that's a really boring story. Instead, choose to be the hero, the hero makes for a great story, and that's why all the movies and all the great books are about the hero.

The main character is always the hero or the villain. And here's another twist. Oftentimes the hero in the villain can be the same person; it just depends on the context depends on the circumstances. But I want to choose not to make others around me feel smaller in an attempt to make myself feel bigger. I want to choose to be the hero and eliminate as much as I can. That villain persona is within me. How do I do that? You may have heard about the story of the two wolves, the wolf of injustice, the wolf of justice, the wolf of evil, and the wolf and good, how each of us inside of us have two wolves that are constantly fighting. They're constantly battling over control of our thoughts.

And the grandma who tells this story to the granddaughter who shares about how we always, at all times, have two wolves inside of us fighting for dominance. And the granddaughter asks the grandmother which wolf is going to win. How do you know which one will win? And the grandmother wisely shares; it's the one you feed; whichever wolf you feed is going to get stronger and is going to win. It's the same way with our own decisions to be the hero or the villain, or the victim in life. Whatever we feed, whatever we choose to embody, and whatever choices we make more often, those choices become reinforced and become more likely to be our default decisions.

I Challenge you to recognize the fears that are within the self-doubt and all of that, be fully transparent and aware of it, and recognize that it exists nothing to be ashamed of; every one, in fact, faces those same fears. It's just that some people ignore them and hide from them.

So everyone around you is also experiencing that self-doubt and that fear. But you can choose to be more thoughtful and more intentional and choose to be the hero. Face your fears and begin making progress. How do you begin making that progress? You feed the hero persona by giving it extra attention and choosing to play that role. One podcast that I would recommend that you listen to really quickly at the end of this is the podcast that I did about starting small and building momentum rather than committing to changing your entire persona overnight and becoming a radically new person, which is an approach that often fizzles out and leads to disappointment.

I recommend that you start small and build momentum, start small and build momentum. Just do one thing that challenges self-doubt, do one thing that challenges one of your fears, choose to enable the hero within you in one tiny way, but do it consistently start small and just build momentum? Focus on being the hero a little bit more today than you were. Yesterday. Music for this episode came from. We hereby declare p I'm Steve Gardner. If you like what you heard, please subscribe and share with a friend.

Thanks for listening.