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Why Some People Stay Motivated in the Face of Near-Certain Defeat

It’s all about knowing you tried

If you’re a Democrat, chances are you love hearing your state representatives talk about the upcoming Supreme Court battle to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh as though it’s the Alamo. Senator Elizabeth Warren says she’s “prepared to fight with every bone in my body,” reports The Boston Globe. Echoing her fervor, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer told CBS News, “I will oppose him with everything I’ve got,” reports The Washington Post.

It’s understandable why so many Democrats have chosen this particular hill — a hill with dried up soil and no sign of water — to die on: If Kavanaugh does get confirmed, it could firm up the court’s 5–4 conservative majority in a way that has Democrats worried they’ll lose all future fights over health care and abortion — and would do so for the next three decades. But by several accounts, the Democrats are clearly fighting a losing battle, which makes you wonder how people who choose to fight impossible odds stay motivated and maintain their “give me victory or give me death” disposition, in the face of almost certain defeat?

According to Michele D’Amico, a motivation and performance coach in L.A., it’s simple: Hope.

“Sometimes that’s all we have,” says D’Amico, who tells me that she works with a lot of people who have lost their jobs, but are still on the clock for a few more weeks. “I tell them to look forward and focus on the things that are in their control,” she says. “If you can take a situation like this and take the lessons into the next battle or the next job, you’re going to be better off.”

Decision theorist Jeremy Sherman agrees, but tells me that people can find motivation in collateral benefits. One in particular, he refers to as “consolation of thoroughness,” which he says can soften the impending defeat. “Knowing that you tried as hard as possible can reduce residual remorse,” says Sherman. “I first noticed it around struggling romantic partnerships, but it applies in politics as well.”

An additional factor, says Sherman, is proliferated most often in movies, which he suggests help motivate us in our daily lives. “It’s interesting how many movies are about long shots that succeed in the end,” he says. “That much exposure to that lesson tends to bias us toward undue tenacity as though the heroic thing is to never give up.” He believes that most people have a natural bias toward giving up too early, which is why movies help depict an alternative way of being. “The movies compensate for it,” he says. “We can be incredibly stubborn by nature and therefore find in movies affirmation for our natural tenacity.”

Still, D’Amico says that while it’s helpful to cling on to positive thinking in the face of certain defeat and block out any negative thoughts, it’s equally important to stay grounded in reality. “Sometimes you need the rose-colored glasses, but when you put on the blinders, that’s when things become difficult — that’s how you get into trouble.”