If I asked you, “What motivates you?” what would you say?
Last week, I asked people on Twitter. Here’s what they said:
All of these are super logical, magnanimous responses. “I just want to help people!” Very laudable. IWT readers are so great, you guys.
However, how come nobody said…
- “I want to be a millionaire”
- “I want to make my ex jealous”
- “I want to have sex with more attractive people”
This can be really uncomfortable to admit.
It’s extremely hard to be honest about what motivates us.
Recently, I conducted performance reviews for a bunch of people on the IWT team, and specifically asked them this question:
What motivates you?
Lots of them were stumped, so I prodded them along with some ideas. It could be:
- Improving your craft
- Social approval
Most people struggled with this question. And rather than admit what we want, we use canned responses we know are “safe.”
Think about it: Sure, you want to “help people.” But what else? Is there a private little voice in the back of your head — the one that says, “I really want ____” — that whispers something over and over?
Maybe it’s having $1 million in cash in your bank account. Maybe it’s getting a 6-pack so you can have sex more often. Or maybe it’s being recognized on stage in front of all your peers — and making them envy you.
For a lot of people, those desires are uncomfortable to admit. Sometimes, the desires are politically incorrect. But it is real.
So how do we drill down and discover the reasons that really motivate us?
One technique to use is the 5 Whys Technique, where you ask yourself “Why?” over and over.
I want to help people — why?
So that I can feel good about myself — why?
And on and on.
Often, the desires end up being very simple: safety, love, or greed.
Here are examples of the differences between what we say motivates us (e.g. our 1st “why”) and what we really want (the 5th “why”):
Example 1: Me in my 20s
- What I said motivated me: “Helping people”
- What really motivated me: I was highly motivated by social approval. I wanted people to KNOW I was smart
Example 2: Writing my first book
- What I said motivated me: “Writing a great book” and “Selling a lot of copies” and “Helping a lot of people”
- What really motivated me: I wanted to write a New York Times bestseller so I could be recognized by my peers (no surprise, see above)
Example 3: Starting an online business
- What people say motivates them: “I want to help people accomplish their dreams and reach their full potential”
The real motivation:
- “I hate my job and want the freedom of working for myself at home” or
- “I want to be able to post pictures from Bora Bora on a Wednesday” or
- “I want $1 million cash in my bank account so I never have to worry again”
Notice how uncomfortable it is to admit that you want to post pictures on Facebook to make others jealous. It seems petty, doesn’t it?
And yet every single one of us is motivated by something like that. Maybe it’s photos on Facebook, or cash in the bank, or a better dating life, or peer approval.
For example, lots of people who graduate then go off to work at investment banks or consulting firms say the same thing: “I’ll just do this for a few years, get the experience, then I’ll have time to slow down.”
And even if you pointed out there are actually better ways to make enough money AND live an amazing life (like starting your online business), they wouldn’t give it a second thought.
Why? First, we do what others around us do. If your peers are going to work for management consulting firms, you’re likely to as well. Second, most of us are motivated by peer prestige a lot more than we like to admit!
And that’s fine!
I’d rather acknowledge the real motivation — and work to achieve it — than ignore it and mask my real desires in platitudes. (Click to tweet)
By the way, one of the greatest realizations I had was that you don’t have to tell everyone all of your motivations. You can have private motivations — money, desire, safety, love — and choose which ones to share publicly.
For example, you might want to have a million dollars in your bank account. Maybe your parents never had money, or maybe you want to have more than your high-school ex-boyfriend. Whatever the reason, you want it.
You almost certainly have other motivations, too, like doing the absolute best work you can. It’s perfectly acceptable to keep your million-dollar goal private, and share your goal of “focusing on doing the best work I can.” People understand that, they get it, and you can move on. Nobody wants to hear about your stupid ex, anyway.
The difference is, you’ll actually know all your motivations — not just the public platitudes.
I’ll show you an example from my life. I recently posted a before & after workout photo. After training for years, I was proud of my progress.
One of my friends asked me why I posted it. Before I could answer, she pointed out, “You probably wanted the likes.”
My instinctive reaction was no — I literally started my response with “No!” I said that I spent a ton of time training and I’m proud of the results.
But as I thought about it, she’s at least partially right. I did love the social approval.
Why not just accept it?
Why do we force ourselves to create lofty reasons for doing things, when sometimes, we just do them because we want to look good and feel good? (Click to tweet)
This was a valuable lesson for me. I hope it is for you, too.
By the way, I’d love to know: Would you be willing to share one thing that genuinely motivates you…but you haven’t admitted it until now?
If so, please share below in the comments. I read them all and I know others will, too.