How to Motivate People

A gorilla atop a motorcycle

The gorilla was chasing me. But I had a four-second head start.

Ninety minutes into a bike ride, my handlebars were so hot that I couldn’t change my hand position. I could smell the melting asphalt and feel the sun beating hard on my back.

The fields were full of baled hay, waiting to be collected by the farmers—but for me, the hay was already in the barn. My workout was done. I’d put out PR-levels of wattage, smashed a few PRs and climbed the leaderboard on some local Strava segments. I’d already won the day.

I had one tough climb left on my ride home. I didn’t plan to attack it. But Strava had different ideas: The app beeped on my bike computer to let me know that a race segment was approaching. I didn’t change my pace. The app beeped again to start the countdown: 100 m until the start, 50 m, 10 … and I held my recovery pace. I didn’t take off at the bottom of the climb.

But then things get blurry. I glanced at my bike computer. I saw that I had a four-second lead on my best time on that segment. I immediately notched up a gear and started pushing hard.

When you’re locked into maximum effort, you don’t process full sentences in your head. Heart rate spiking, wattage skyrocketing—you think in single words and pictures. And for the next 40 seconds, as I buried my body to climb that hill faster, these were the pictures I saw:

Newspaper—bikini girl—gorilla.

Two Kinds of Motivation

I won’t leave you in suspense. I missed a PR by a second. But I totally committed to the effort, destroyed any energy I had left and made myself faster for another day.

But what motivated me to go all-in after I’d already decided to coast? What changed my mind from “nah” to “hell yeah!” in a split second?

The secret is in an old joke about a newspaper ad for weight loss. It’s from a different era, but it proves the point—please change the genders of the people so the story makes sense to you.

It goes like this. A guy sees an ad in the newspaper: “guaranteed weight loss.” He thinks, “I need to lose about 50 pounds. If this is guaranteed, I have nothing to lose!” So he calls the number and a voice says:

“Five pounds lost for $100, 10 pounds for $200 and 50 pounds for $500.”

The guy says, “I’d like to lose 5 pounds!” and the voice says, “We’ll send someone right over.”

A few minutes later, the guy answers the door to find a redhead in a bikini and running shoes. She says, “If you can catch me, you can have me.” Then she starts running down the street. The guy chases her for two hours before he gives up. Then he gets on the scale, and—whaddayaknow—he’s down 5 pounds.

A week later, he calls the number again. “I want to lose 10 pounds this time!” and the voice says, “We’ll send someone right over.”

This time, he answers the door to find a gorgeous blonde in a bikini and running shoes. She says, “If you can catch me, you can have me.” And she starts running down the street. The guy chases her for four hours this time. When he gives up, he gets on the scale—and, bam—10 pounds gone.

A week goes by. The guy thinks, “Damn, I’m pretty close to losing all this weight! I’m going for it.” and he calls the number again.

“I want to lose 50 pounds this time!”

The voice says, “Are you absolutely sure?”

The guy thinks, “Hell yes I’m sure. I can’t wait to see what the 50-pound bikini girl looks like!”

An hour later, he hears a big truck backing up to his door. There’s a knock. He opens it to see a gorilla.

The gorilla has a sign around its neck: “If I can catch you, I can have you.”


Fitness Coach or Behavior Modifier? (Both)

In this series, I’m going to tell you how to motivate people.

We’re going to talk about the importance of clearly defined goals, why it’s important to feel as if the goal is really close and the power of a head start. I’m going to tell you how this affects adherence and retention in your gym and how improving those things will make you money. Then I’m going to share some data from live gyms to prove it.

The secrets to long-term progress for your clients don’t come from the world of exercise science. They really come from behavioral science.

We need to break goals down into steps.

We need to group steps into habits.

We need to turn habits into behaviors.

Then we can turn behavior into change.

In this series, I’ll tell you how to do it—and why the newspaper-bikini-gorilla tactic would probably work in real life.

Other Media in This Series

How to Motivate People: The Start
How to Motivate People Through “The Dip”
Motivation: The Dark Secret


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.