Motivation, Imagination, and a Paper Clip Can Help Save the World

6 min read

Imagine waking up each morning, armed with the knowledge that your daily actions can play a pivotal role in the battle against climate change — an ever-looming threat to our planet. Despite our collective good intentions, the translation of these noble aspirations into tangible actions often proves elusive. It’s a paradox rooted in motivation, that hidden link between intention and action, which, in turn, hampers our ability to imagine a sustainable future.

This motivation dilemma is a two-fold concern. Firstly, individuals often voice a yearning to be more sustainably minded but lack a personal connection to the issue which makes climate initiatives an unimportant priority. Secondly, this very motivation crisis constrains our ability to think creatively, trapping us in a cycle of stagnant problem-solving. As psychologists, coaches, and educators, it’s our responsibility to unravel these complexities.

Reframing the Motivation Dilemma

Governments set ambitious climate goals, but change often blossoms from the collective actions of individuals. Motivation often stands as the bridge between intention and action, and its absence dims our vision of a sustainable future. Many, despite genuine desires to make a difference, stumble in maintaining commitment amid life’s daily demands.

To confront this motivation challenge, we must begin with self-reflection. In a recent discussion at a hedge fund, two engineers — Paul and Louise — showcased differing views. Paul deemed all climate actions a futile endeavor, while Louise placed faith in transformative technologies. Yet, both were stuck in the same stage of behavioral change — ambivalence, a common barrier that prevents personal pro-environmental steps.

Whether aligning with Paul’s “we’re all doomed” skepticism or Louise’s “the robots will save us” optimism, many imagine a sustainable future only to halt prematurely, daunted by global contributors like the U.S., China, and India. As these nations grapple with their environmental impact, thoughts shift from “what if” to a more defeatist “what is”, limiting how we imagine.

Navigating the motivation dilemma necessitates delving into personal meaning — understanding why pro-environmental behaviors matter at all. Regardless of personal convictions, uncovering the ‘why’ reframes motivations, shifts priorities, reactivates creativity, and reignites our ability to imagine a sustainable world. By fostering an awareness of the interconnectedness of individual actions with global efforts, we bridge the gap between imagined intention and impactful action.

Reimagine: What Is to What If

Divergent thinking, measured by the Alternative Uses Task (Guilford, 1967), gauges creative ideation—the ability to generate inventive ideas. Applied to everyday objects like a paper clip, this task reveals the richness of our imagination.

Two decades ago, I performed this exercise when I was an undergraduate at University, and being a hoarder of notes I have my original answers. You can try it now should you have a spare three minutes, a pen and paper, and an intrigue to know how you would compare. List as many things as possible you could do with a paper clip — go!

My answers: holding paper together, a bookmark, a money clip, a keyring, zipper fix, fishing hook, something to etch with, piercer for a carton, earring, unclog a glue hole, a Ninja killing tool, monopoly game piece, bread bag sealer, keyboard cleaner (14).

The average person generates around 12 ideas, with a large distribution from one (they got “holding paper together) to around 30, showcasing a wide range of ideas. The key isn’t the quantity of ideas but the diversity, especially beyond the initial two minutes when novel thoughts emerge. At this point we transition from common thoughts to the uncommon, pushing our minds beyond the ordinary to discover extraordinary solutions. It’s about overcoming the common to arrive at the uncommon.

Applied to climate and sustainability, this mirrors our need to uncover novel solutions. The Bounded Ideation Theory (Briggs & Reinig, 2014) suggests that, after encountering common ideas, our minds enter a saturation point. Breaking through this barrier unleashes a flood of innovative thoughts. From “what is” to “what if,” we must traverse the familiar to reach the extraordinary.

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Rethinking Climate Coaching

Let’s translate these insights into action through a new innovative coaching model: Meaning, Awareness, and Purpose (MAP; Rhodes et al., 2023). In the realm of climate change discussions, we recognize the necessity of starting with personal meaning rather than lofty goals. Merely providing solutions without delving into personal meaning often falls short in instigating lasting pro-environmental behavior change.

The MAP model takes a holistic approach, initiating with intrinsic motivation by uncovering personal priorities and significance — ‘Meaning’. Moving forward, the focus shifts to ‘Awareness’, honing in on imagery training as individuals (and teams) imagine and reimagine sustainable solutions. Picture this: if prompted to devise ways to save water, how many creative solutions could you list in three minutes?

Finally, the model addresses ‘Purpose,’ probing into the broader impact of our actions on others. While not a flawless climate coaching model, MAP serves as a foundational framework. It highlights the importance of intertwining personal meaning with traditional climate literacy training, shedding light on how measuring and training personal characteristics and skills can significantly enhance sustained pro-environmental behaviors.

Rewrite the Narrative

In the grand challenge of combating climate change, the interplay of motivation and imagination emerges as our guiding thread. Each morning, we wake up with the potential to rewrite the narrative of our planet’s future, armed not only with the knowledge that our actions matter but also the profound understanding that personal meaning is the compass directing us towards impactful change. The motivation dilemma, a global concern, is the bridge we must cross to reach the shores of sustainable action. It compels us to navigate through the common to the uncommon, fostering divergent thinking akin to the Alternative Uses Task. This process doesn’t end with imagination; it transforms into actionable steps through the MAP Model. As we delve into personal insights, we unleash the transformative power of climate coaching, turning intention into meaningful, sustained action. In this evolving narrative, we find hope, not just in the vast possibilities our imagination unfolds but in the collective steps we take today, as individuals, to save the world tomorrow.

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