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How to motivate yourself

How to motivate yourself

Summary: At a time when the path to professional success is not only more fraught with competition but arguably more ambiguous than ever, professionals must tap the potential of two motivation drivers to deliver better results. The key is to figure out which of two drivers works best for you. Get that right, and your career growth efforts can truly become exemplary.

There is a critical disconnect between the manner in which many people change their careers and get results, and the way they could do it most effectively and efficiently. And while the majority of people believe there is room to increase their performance, most of them have no rational basis from which to challenge how to motivate themselves more effectively to take action.

We mistakenly assume we can only be motivated by positive stories and routinely fail to get that promotion despite feeling so inspired after listening to a great story. How do we overcome this inability to get results despite being motivated?

The solution? Understanding that you can motivate yourself with an aspirational or deficit model, based on how you are hard-wired. The important part is figuring out which model is right for you.

Fear of failure can be an important motivation

What we are going to discuss in this article is not unusual. It is grounded in management theory. Enter Robert Merton Solow, the 1987 Nobel Laureate for his contributions to the theory of economic growth, the MIT professor of economics, an academic adviser to the McKinsey Global Institute, and a pioneer in productivity studies.

Solow’s work showed that globalization not only allows countries to exploit comparative advantage, but is also one of the biggest triggers for motivating companies to fight for their place under the sun. When companies are exposed to a serious global competitor, the fear of being put out of business or losing market share is often that final push that spurs them to action.

In other words, fear is a phenomenal motivator.

This is a vitally important observation. Think of the American space race when the USA competed with the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1955-1972. The Soviets beat the US with the 1957 success of Sputnik 1 and later again in 1961 by sending the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin. And that fear that the Soviet Union would overtake them forced the Americans to respond.

Would a motivational and feel-good speech from the President have generated the same result?

Yes, soaring rhetoric came later from John F. Kennedy about how they are going to put a man on the moon but the trigger event was the fear of being left behind. And the response was motivation.

Two ways to motivate people to take action

One of the things you will learn quite quickly is that you and everyone else belong in one of two categories. You are either someone who is predominantly motivated by a fear of failure or someone who is primarily motivated by the possibility of success.

You have to figure out what is your point of motivation.

And when I say a fear of failure I don’t mean that to motivate someone who is triggered into action by a fright you need to exaggerate the looming failure they are facing. But you do need to describe a potential failure they face if appropriate actions are not taken.

Two motivation drivers: aspirational and deficit models

In consulting we call being motivated by the possibility of success an aspirational model and being motivated by the possibility of failure a deficit model.


Aspirational model: The aspirational model is where we point out the possibilities of success and the benefits of taking action to motivate clients.

Deficit model: The deficit model is one where we will point out the threat and the consequences of failure to motivate clients to take action.

In Firmsconsulting we are particularly careful about distinguishing what triggers clients to take action. If clients are motivated by a fear of failure we use the deficit training model. We subtly but consistently weave in the results of other clients and the challenges the particular client will face.

If a client is motivated by the possibility of success and needs to be inspired we use the aspirational training model. In the aspirational model we always focus on the positives and careful about critiquing any weaknesses. We point them out but do not over analyze them.

The results we get from each type of training are roughly the same. But it comes down to our ability to figure which model is most appropriate for a particular client.

And you have got to figure out which model is right for you.

Motivational books don’t work for everyone

Authors of almost all management literature today and most books about how to change your life try to inspire you. They try to motivate you by getting you to see the bright future.

Authors of those books imply or outright state that by being inspired you can take action and change your life, capture a desired future and earn millions of dollars. They are all the same.

We work with many clients around the world. What I’ve noticed is that everyone assumes that what will get them to act and change is if they will be inspired. They think, “Inspire me and I will do well”.

Yet this is not true for everybody. There are some clients, actually many clients, who are much more motivated by a fear of failure.

This is where the disconnect comes in. People who are primarily motivated by a fear of failure read motivational books to spur themselves into action. Yet, it is not helping them in the least because the trigger that makes them take action is not inspiration.

As Robert Solow’s work shows, a fear of failure is an enormous trigger for many people. In fact, it’s probably more of a trigger than inspirational stories for most people.

Why have inspirational stories grown? Because people want to feel good. Even people who are motivated by a fear of failure want to feel good. They wish they could change their lives by feeling good and they end up buying those books.

But reading inspirational books hoping to motivate yourself if you are predominantly triggered into action by a fear of failure is usually wasteful. You can’t change who you are. You can try, but it will not work.

How to motivate yourself based on what drives you

When you are thinking about how to make changes in your career, think carefully whether you are one of those people who needs a trigger of the promise of success to spur you to take action or the fear of failure to get you moving.

Acquiring this knowledge requires undertaking a diagnostic that reveals what made you take action in the past.

If you are usually triggered to take action by a possibility of success, to get motivated you need to hear inspiring speeches, talk about what your potential is, read inspirational books, meet role models and consider the benefits of reaching your targets.

If you are usually triggered to take action by a fear of failure, then to get motivated you need to consider a possibility of failure and the corresponding consequences.

Here is an interesting fact. If you are someone who is motivated by a fear of failure, no amount of inspirational talks, no amount of the feel-good speeches is going to get you to move.

You may be motivated only when you are staring a crisis in the face. Yet, unfortunately, it is not a good idea to manufacture crises all the time. Instead, learn to position or interpret things from the perspective of what could go wrong.

When you need to nudge yourself into action start by asking, “What could go wrong and am I prepared to live with the consequences?”. If the answer is, “Not a lot can go wrong, and I can live with the consequences”, then there is no fear to fail. You will not do anything about the situation, which is not a problem because there is no reason to do anything about it.

If you are someone who is motivated by the possibility of success and need to motivate yourself to take action, start by asking yourself, “What is possible out of this and why do I want what is possible out of this?”.

One is looking at the downside and the other is looking at the upside.

But the key thing here is if you are someone who is motivated by a fear of failure you are not going to take action, no matter how promising or inspirational the benefit is, if you are only looking at the upside.

If you are someone who only responds to a possibility of failure, the way to motivate yourself is to put yourself in situations where you are constantly being challenged.

On the other hand, people who are driven when inspired don’t have to be constantly challenged because they challenge themselves. They set targets and they move towards it.

I would say most people are motivated by a fear of failure, which is why they only take action when things are about to go wrong. Yet, over time and as they become successful, and because they don’t realize they are motivated by a fear of failure, they seek out aspirational leadership and their success rate drops.

In fact, they can end up failing. Their careers break down.

They naturally wonder why they are not successful when the trigger is the issue. Gaining more inspiration is not the answer.

That is why it is important to know what triggers your motivation. If you are motivated by a fear of failure, understand the way you need to analyze situations. This way you can be proactive as opposed to waiting for things to breakdown to trigger your need to change.

If you acknowledge you are motivated by a fear of failure, you must be able to analyze the situation and predict, “Things are going to breakdown. It’s not going to work in six months, a year or two years. So let me respond now.

If you do not forecast ahead you will end up only becoming motivated to respond when things are so bad they scare you into action. This is the danger of those motivated by the fear of failure. The fear may only arrive when, and usually after, the failure has arrived. That may be too late.

Most people are unaware of what motivates them

The great tragedy is that most people don’t realize they are motivated by a fear of failure. So they try all the wrong things to get themselves motivated.

The key is knowing what motivates you. And I think many people are principally motivated by a fear of failure. I would say I am predominantly motivated by a fear of failure.

In fact, most people who go into consulting are hyper achievers who are primarily motivated by a fear of failure.

Why do we end up working so hard in high school, making sacrifices to get into a well regarded university and score good grades? Because we don’t want to be left behind.

But what happens is, once we become relatively successful and somewhat stable we forget that what motivated us to get this far is actually a fear of failure. We start saying, “You know what? I need to change. I need to become more positive. I need to inspire myself to take action.

But you cannot inspire yourself to take action if you are predominantly motivated by a fear of failure. And you also can’t be particularly positive while being motivated by a fear of failure.

It doesn’t mean you are a somber person who looks like they are going to funeral every day. Optimistic people can be motivated by a fear of failure. A fear of failure is what your fear is. It’s not what your personality is. You can be a cheerful person, just wonderful to be around, yet be driven by a fear of failure.

Therefore, you cannot determine if someone is driven by a fear of failure based on their personality, and even based on how difficult their life was in the past.

However, the circumstances of one’s life influences how person is motivated.

If, for example, you grew up in a family whereby you experienced hardship, lost a lot of things, your father went bankrupt, you are more likely to be hard-wired to not want to experience those things again. When you see any possibility that can happen, you immediately react to it.

Sometimes if you had failure throughout your entire life you just don’t want that in your life at all. So you only look at positive things and you are extra focused on avoiding any failure since you know how low you can fall.

Know what drives you. You need to know what type of analyses you require when you need to get yourself to take action.

Motivating others

Some of our clients realize they are motivated by a fear of failure but they think it’s a bad thing because every book says you have got to motivate people and we are culturally wired to equate motivation with being positive.

But some people get motivated by a fear of failure and some people get motivated by a promise of success. At its core, motivation is about getting people to take action. We equate the word motivate with something that is positive, yet it is not always positive.

Everyone can improve their level of motivation

Not everyone can be easily motivated. Some people have limitations so no matter how much you inspire them or point out looming failure to them, they just don’t take action.

But you can always be a lot better than you are right now. There is always room for improvement.

You may not necessarily get to the highest level of performance. But you don’t have to get to the highest level of performance. There is a band of achievement. As long as you are within that band, you are fine.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: Why do you think most people don’t realize what motivates them? Please let us know in the comments.

WHAT IS NEXT? If you have any questions about our membership training programs (StrategyTV.com/Apps & StrategyTraining.com/Apps) do not hesitate to reach out to us at support @ firmsconsulting.com. You can also get access to selected episodes when you sign-up for our newsletter above. Continue developing your strategy skills.

Cheers, Kris

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

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