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Meaning Making Systems: Learning to incorporate what matters most into your art

If you’re feeling a lack of motivation you are likely also feeling a lack of meaning in your work. Meaning can often sound lofty and out of our control, but it is in fact something that we can construct for ourselves. One of the most powerful ways toward developing more meaning in your work is to powerfully commit to something.

Now exactly what you commit to will be incredibly influenced by your social context and culture, as well as your biology and innate preferences, emotions, and reactions. But along with those influences comes the influence of your own deliberate choice in what you think would suit you best. This article and this model lays out a wide variety of areas that can add depth, character, and meaning to any creative pursuit, if only it is deliberately chosen with commitment and zest.

Generally speaking there are two directions you can explore when looking for something to which you can meaningfully commit, and people tend to have a strong preference toward one or the other. Firstly, you can look outward toward something greater than yourself. Things that are beyond the boundaries of your ego that connect you to the world at large. Secondly, you can look inward toward your own self-reflective inner world. Experiences and feelings within yourself that feel satisfying and worth pursuing.

Each direction (inward, or outward) offers an enormous amount of possibility in terms of meaningful commitments that sustain motivation, help us to define ourselves, and help to clarify our work. Committing to things within the ego generally leads to what is known as intrinsic motivation which means the meaningful drive to create is coming from within yourself. Committing to things outside yourself generates what is known as extrinsic motivation which means the meaningful drive to create is coming from outside yourself. Each direction of meaning-making and both types of motivation can be very powerful in compelling us to continue with the work we’re doing, but they do have very real differences.

Intrinsic motivation has a mountain of research behind it suggesting that it is the strongest route toward sustained creative work over a lifetime, largely because it directly connects with your own unique vision for yourself and lets you do your work for its own sake, without stressful pressure to conform. However, a sole focus on inner satisfaction can lead you toward aloof isolation and a disconnect from necessary things like belongingness and relatedness. Extrinsic motivation has the benefit of being incredibly effective at changing behavior in ways that are culturally and socially praised, however, the pressure to conform can often be very stressful, and on its own rarely leads to sustained creative work over a lifetime.

Although intrinsic motivation is typically touted as a necessary ingredient to inspired, motivating, and engaging creative work, I recommend having your own personal balance of both inner and outer motivations. This approach can help you create your own personal network of commitments that provide you with the most meaning and creative energy.

It’s also important to note that this balance between the two isn’t static. Different points in our lives will demand an emphasis on one side or the other, for example late childhood and early adolescence comes with an intense drive to fit in and feel connected to family, friends, and community, whereas late adolescence and early/emerging adulthood demands we “find ourselves” as a focus on defining our inner motivations becomes paramount.

The list below is by no means exhaustive or complete, however, it can be a great starting point as you begin to identify the things outside yourself and within yourself that you would like to wholly and authentically commit to with your full being. Deeply consider each one and use your own intuitions and emotional reactions to determine which things you can commit to more fully, and which things you can begin to let go of.


Mastery: Commit to becoming highly skilled. Feel the drive to become insanely good at whatever it is you choose, and bask in the satisfaction of expert performance

Wisdom: Commit to learning as much as you can about your art, medium, or field. Unleash your curiosity, explore your yearning to learn more, and enjoy the process of intellectual stimulation.

Enjoyment: Commit to absolutely loving the experience of your work. Explore ways to combat boredom, mitigate anxiety, and fall deeply into a state of flow everytime you engage with your medium.

Self Knowledge: Commit to being unapologetically distinct by embracing your own uniqueness with compassion and genuine care. Fall in love with understanding your own tastes, preferences, interests, and true nature.

Autonomy: Commit to living life the way you want to by coming to your own conclusions and making your own decisions. Learn to enjoy sitting in the driver’s seat of your own experience with a strong sense of control.


History & Lineage: Commit to studying and understanding the lines of culture that lead up to the work you’re doing now by paying homage to those that paved the way for you. Acknowledge that you are embedded within a cultural lineage and represent it with pride. Fall in love with understanding the rich history and storied accomplishments of your culture.

Relatedness & Belonging: Commit to collaborating and engaging with like-minded peers and colleagues. Find specific communities, groups, and people with whom you can connect and identify beyond superficial markers.

Family: Commit to prioritizing your family by dedicating your work to them, and allowing them to be the inspiration and catalyst for new ideas, approaches, and themes.

Professional Clout: Commit to gaining the respect from others in your field by achieving professional recognition or accolades such as prominent exhibitions or performances, awards, or acknowledgements.

Natural Environment: Commit to using your work as a platform to showcase or advocate for parts of our wild and natural environment. Let the diversity of life be an inspiration as you use your creative process to embed yourself even deeper into the natural world.

If you found this helpful or interesting you can find more concept maps as well as many other creative wellbeing resources at


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