Lou Holtz once said, “Motivation is simple. You eliminate those who are not motivated.”

I suppose that for someone in a position of power or authority that is one possible solution to motivation. The head coach can always bench an unmotivated player, or increase his level of motivation with extra conditioning, or cut him from the team. The boss in the workplace can also fire an unproductive worker, or assign him to “the job that nobody wants.” I would think that sometimes this is the best way to motivate someone else. 

But not always.

There are three problems with this approach. First, you can’t always get rid of problematic people. Anyone who has ever coached a team knows that sometimes the lazy athlete may also be more popular than the coach. The athlete may be protected by a prideful administrator or by irate parents. The boss may not be able to fire someone because of contract issues, union protection, or simply because he can’t afford to go out and find better workers.

Second, there are often better ways of motivating others: Being patient with someone; showing someone a better way; offering further training or opportunities; making the workplace more internally competitive. All of these things might prove to be better motivators than the threat of being banished to a deserted island.

Third, this approach overlooks the fact that some of the greatest triumphs in life come out of situations that we cannot change. There are many circumstances in life that we cannot control. I may not be able to control my coworkers’ attitudes, but I can change mine. I may not be able to change the work that someone else does, but I may find a better way to do mine. And, when all else fails, I could learn to be content. Yikes!

The apostle Paul demonstrates this kind of thinking in his letter to the church in Philippi. At the time he wrote, he was imprisoned in Rome for the impolitic act of preaching the good news about Jesus of Nazareth. Some of Paul’s fellow preachers took advantage of his imprisonment and hoped that it would cause him distress. They apparently thought that since he was in jail this would create an opportunity for their own prominence. They thought they could gain some sort of competitive advantage with Paul out of the picture. They thought this would show him that Brother Paul wasn’t the only preacher in town.

Paul’s response? “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice” (Philippians 1.15-18).

Paul couldn’t control his circumstances. He couldn’t control their circumstances. He couldn’t change their motives or their actions. Nor could he fire them. So, he found the good in what they did, even if their motives were corrupt.

Maybe you can’t change someone else’s motivation, but you can certainly change your own. Maybe you can’t change your circumstances, but you can certainly change your attitude about them. Maybe you can’t get rid of your problems, but you can choose to thrive anyway. 

And that’s worth celebrating!