What Motivates You?

Purpose SignWhen was the last time you asked yourself this question? Has someone else asked you this question? Did you have an answer?

I often ask a very similar question to the students that I see: “What is your purpose?”, or “What is your ambition?” These questions can sometimes turn into an existential discussion about life, but they strike at the heart of career counseling:

  • career exploration; and
  • satisfaction.

Career counselors, myself included, will often talk to clients about interests, values, skills, and purpose when embarking on career exploration. While it may be easier to identify your interests, values, and skills, finding your purpose can be a bit trickier to quantify. Yet it is one of the more important concepts to master.

There is a direct relationship between high motivation, interest, and high performance level. And it makes sense; if you enjoy what you are doing and find it meaningful, you are more likely to perform that task well.

I remind students that if you choose to work 40+ hours a week working (which is a third of your work week, or half of your waking hours for some), you might as well choose to do something you enjoy doing. At 60 minutes an hour, 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, and 40 years, this equals close to 5 million minutes!

And it is important to not only choose something that you enjoy doing, but is something that is you. In other words, it must match your personality, values, and interests. Careers often help identify people as they mature into adulthood. Some say your career defines you; I prefer to say ‘who you are defines your career.’

I was recently reading some articles on The Harvard Business Review, when I stumbled upon How Will You Measure Your Life, written by Clayton Christensen. Mr. Christensen is a Harvard Business School graduate, a former consultant, and current professor at Harvard Business School. While Christensen is certainly opinionated, his article reminded me of the reason I went back to school to receive my Master’s Degree and to become a career counselor – to help people.

In his article, Christensen writes about how he asks his students near the end of the term, a few questions:

  1. How can you be sure you will be happy in your career?
  2. How can you be sure that relationships with your spouse and/or family will be a source of happiness?
  3. How can you be sure you will stay out of jail?

Motivation SignBack to the original question at the top of this post – what motivates you? Christensen’s first question is relevant to my first question. In his class, Christensen refers to Frederick Herzberg, a psychologist who studied motivation in a business environment. Among his many findings is his central theme that career happiness and satisfaction are derived not from monetary and material gain, but rather our need to learn, increase responsibility, help others, and receive recognition for our efforts. Money can often be a motivator, but it is very rarely the chief motivator, and is not an indicator or predictor of career satisfaction.

Those in management or studying management will recognize the need to create an environment in which team members learn, desire increased responsibility, help others, and receive recognition for their achievements. It makes perfect sense that managers are studying how to make their employees happy. Managers study how to make your job more satisfying (which will usually make you more productive and more likely to stay for an extended stint) once you have chosen your career and job. Employees need to study some of the very same principles to increase chances of choosing a career that is rewarding for a lengthy period of time.

Christensen’s second question, “How can you be sure that relationships with your spouse and/or family will be a source of happiness?” acknowledges that long-term happiness is tied to our ability to thrive in our relationships outside of the workplace. Each human being needs to have and maintain meaningful relationships – it is essential for survival. Each person may rely on different relationships to survive: friends, family, spouse, partner. If those relationships deteriorate, so does the psyche of the individual. As work hours, stress, tension, pressure, and anxiety increase, so does the strain on the relationships. Our ability to perform well at work and keep our relationships thriving is a component of career longevity and happiness.

Christensen argues that setting a purpose and keeping it in your consciousness, especially during college when most are figuring out to spend their time, is one of the most important things you can do. Finding your life purpose can bring clarity in almost any situation or pending decision. What is important to you?

Lastly, Christensen stresses the need to act not only in an ethical, but a legal manner. He describes how he went to Harvard Business School with a few peers that have gone to jail, most notably Jeff Skilling of Enron fame. He asserts that they were not terrible people, but people that failed to stick to their values and purpose in life. He relates the temptation of taking shortcuts to marginal costs, or the idea of being able to do it just this once. He argues that once the promise is broken, it is easier to justify doing it again, “it is easier to hold principles 100% of the time rather than 98% of the time.”

Learning is a lifelong process – it continues beyond college. Humility is a trait that he attributes to good management style, a quality that signals that a person is self-confident, but acknowledges that he or she can learn something from every person they meet.

How will you define success?

Success SignWhen you retire and look back on your life, how will you measure your success? If you create art, you might measure the ability of your art to emotionally move others. If you are a manager, you may measure your ability to create a work environment in which your team members are productive, happy, and work well with one another. If you are a teacher, you are rewarded by the students that have a breakthrough moment, achieve more than they thought previously possible, or students that come back to thank you years later for helping them achieve their goals.

Yes, you should do your job to the best of your ability. But there is something to be said for helping others better themselves. Your ability to impact others’ lives may be the key to long-term happiness.

What motivates you?



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1 comment for “What Motivates You?

  1. Heather
    June 16, 2011 at 2:18 am

    I know of a company recently that went through 2 new management positions and 4 associate positions within a 3 month period. That is really bad. I huge part of their problem is that the management team and company couldn’t meet the staff’s needs. If only some people took heart into finding out what makes their employees happy, the company itself would rise. It benefits the team and the market to help others in their needs and simple requests.

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