Guest Blog: How Do We Motivate For Our Day of Labours? Through History!

Thought Leadership

August 7, 2015

In this Guest Blog, Paul Graham, the head librarian for Yorkville University, discusses how a look at our history can keep us motivated in our day-to-day. 

Our Living History

Beneath the veil of our night’s sleep, after the long slumber of the soul’s dreaming has taken us to the reaches of infinity and back again, we pierce through that sea of oblivion, we awaken from the darkness, and take in that first deep breath of consciousness.  We are back; we have returned.  Groggy, tired, sometimes confused, we navigate our bedrooms through the shades of dark and light that surround us, preparing for the day’s labours.  We have another day here on the planet; we have another day to succeed, or to fail, to endeavour to fulfill our life’s projects, to be more than we are or feel.   In other words, the day ahead of us possesses our potential.  Now it is up to us to make good use of it. It is a matter of motivation.  So how do we motivate ourselves for our day of labours?  More importantly, how do we motivate ourselves when we are all supremely busy?  We have bills to pay, children to dress, and busy, anxious lives. How can we motivate ourselves in such a world?  I will give you an answer in one word: History!  No, I don’t mean that you must become a scholar of history, or start reading thick tomes on world events.  It is clear to me that the great historical eras of our shared human history provide some of the most intriguing, and motivating examples for us to consider.

The Roman World (Cooperation with Others)

 Roman Senate

Our modern world is very impressive; we have the Internet, universal healthcare, and (hopefully soon) self-driving Google cars.  However, the long-lived Roman Empire provides instructive ways to motivate our own lives.  Although the Roman Empire (27 BCE to 476 ADE) was undoubtedly burdensome upon the daily life of its citizens, punctuated by slavery, corruption, and sometimes a brutishly short life, there were great contributions to art, literature, law, and engineering, to name a few.  Most visible today are the many Roman structures that are still standing, such as theatres, arches, bridges, aqueducts and even libraries.  We can tap into the Roman way of living for life’s motivation.

One of the greatest lessons we can learn from the Roman Empire is the power of unity and cooperation towards a common goal.   The Romans achieved much because they had unity of purpose.  The Romans built roads, expanded their territory, and enriched the lives of their citizens.  In our daily work with others, whether a group study session, or a professional committee, we can motivate ourselves with a unified vision of our objectives.  We see this manifested today in the mottos of universities, school spirit, and a sense of place: honour, integrity, excellence!  Embrace the spirit of the common goal for finding the motivation to achieve your goals.

Even with a common sense of purpose, the Romans were the ultimate adapters.  They integrated and absorbed the technology of all those cultures they encountered, most notably the Etruscans and Greeks.  This is a lesson to us in our studies and our work life to be always considering ways of living we can incorporate into our own routines.  Today we might call it “professional development” or “self-improvement”.  Or, we can say we’re being good Romans!

However, it is worthwhile to note that the Romans also knew about work-life balance more than most.  At the end of a hard day of work, Romans would head to the baths for cleaning and socializing.  The evening was a time for rest, meeting with one’s friends and family, and having a cup of wine.  Even the most powerful empire known to human history integrated a work-life balance.


The Renaissance (Individual Passion)


The Bubonic Plague (or Black Death) ravaged Europe during the late middle ages, wiping out almost half of the population.  From this devastation arose one of the most inspirational moments in the history of human endeavour: the Renaissance.  The very meaning of the word Renaissance gives us a clue to how we can (and should) live our lives.  The term “Renaissance” literally means “Rebirth” (Encyclopedia Britannica).  The Renaissance gave a sense of excitement, but also danger, in the uncovering of lost learning of the dark ages, and the reviving of an enduring human spirit through learning and art.  The Renaissance also gave us an impressive polymath by the name of Leonard Da Vicini.  He was a “painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, astronomer, cartographer, botanist, historian and writer” (Wikipedia).  Very impressive!  He gave his curiosity full freedom! Though we may not think of ourselves as geniuses like Da Vinci, we must be willing to learn from Renaissance values.  Being a great student or an excellent professional in your field of study is a praiseworthy goal, but don’t forget to develop the entire Self.  This is one of the messages of the Renaissance.  You can learn an instrument, study a second language online, or write a poem.  By turning to Renaissance values, we motivate ourselves to be more involved in the world with richer experiences.

The Enlightenment (Communicative Action)


The great earthquake of Lisbon (1755) not only shook up the countryside causing mayhem and destruction on a massive scale, but also shook up the belief systems of Europe.  The application of logic and science to this catastrophic event in the aftermath was simply another step forward for a movement we call… the Enlightenment. (Encyclopedia Britannica)  The Enlightenment saw the rise of the city state and individual rights, such as the freedom to argue and discuss events openly.  More people learned to read; more people followed popular events and culture. Education was employed to reduce the power of the aristocracy.  In the enlightenment, you are valued for your ability to think and do, rather than who you are in the class structure.  This era punctuates the power of reasoned argument.

In your life, you may indeed have challenges communicating with others.  Remember that no matter how passionate you are, you will have to convince people of your skills and talents.  Today we may call it providing “evidence based reasoning”.  Seeking motivation from the Enlightenment directly reflects our commitment to reason and logic…to vigorous debate with our colleagues on reason and evidence rather than emotional reaction.

All of History is Waiting for You!

We all want to succeed in life, and finding motivation can be challenging.  One of the answers is to consider our shared human experience through history.  All of the great eras of human existence lie open to you as a reviving spirit of motivation.  The Roman Empire was a brutal but innovative era. We can take the best from this moment in history, and embrace the spirit of cooperation with others, and set spirited goals for a common purpose.  The Renaissance reminds us to be curious, and try to find time for our personal interests that refresh our spirits.  The Age of Enlightenment motivates us for reasoned argument and communicative action.  There is much innovation and wisdom in the past; all of history is waiting for you.