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.

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18 responses to How to motivate yourself

  1. Hi Alexandra,

    We will very soon publish a video about it.


  2. Hi Michael,

    Is it possible to have a look at the earlier publication with such a curve?

    Thank you,

  3. Hi Jojo,

    Thanks for the great comments. This article is referring only to self-motivation. I would completely agree that motivating someone else through fear is NOT at all recommended. When someone else does it to you, it is always going to be negative.

    So keep that in mind. The deficit model is not about fear. It is about realism. It is the difference between explaining a situation to a child and adult. One will receive the facts and the other is told what is needed to soothe them.

    Fear should not be a motivation tool. Fear of failure could be but must be managed well.

    It is not a well researched area which means that the many people motivated this way have very little advice.


  4. Hi Alexandra,

    That is a very insightful way of looking at it. In fact, we have such a curve in management consulting and this article is based on that curve.

    We have published it earlier, but it will definitely come up in a future video.


  5. “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 would be too late.”

    This could not be more me. What is worse is that the more I’m able get myself out of dire situations, the more I learn that I can do that and consequently get more complacent. Upside: I am not as panicky in crisis situations anymore. Downside: It pretty much takes a crisis for me to get the best out of myself.

    That is why I think it is important for me to work in an ultra-competitive environment. Theoretically, I might have a better shot at being more successful in a smaller, less competitive pond but I know that I’ll take plays off there and will likely not give my best. If I see people around me constantly trying to get better (not that people in smaller ponds don’t do this, they just might value other things more) the fear of being left behind will drive me to action.

    As for the question, I’m with Zander on this one. Motivation through fear is perceived to be negative, almost evil dictatorish. If you’re doing that to yourself, the perception is that you not happy/satisfied/content or any of the other things wise folk would have you believe are essential to success. Nobody wants to be THAT guy!

  6. Hi Michael

    Thank you for this very interesting article. I was thinking that another dimension (optimism vs. pessimism) might complement the story of what motivates different people. Accordingly, I see four basic types:

    Type 1 (possibility of success + optimism)
    People of this type are self-confident and largely self-sufficient regarding their motivation. They are mainly interested in content-wise guidance. Aspirational guidance and outside pressure may even have a demotivating effect.

    Type 2 (possibility of success + pessimism)
    People of this type are probably the key target audience of the traditional self-help literature. They look for aspirational guidance to overcome their pessimism.

    Type 3 (fear of failure + optimism)
    While people of this type are mainly motivated by the fear of failure, they do not really question their self-efficacy. Some outside pressure helps them to excel.

    Type 4 (fear of failure + pessimism)
    People of this type strongly prefer contexts in which they have a realistic and predictable chance not to fail. Facing a tough challenge with an unpredictable outcome, they may even pre-emptively engage in self-sabotaging activities just to have an excuse for their potential failure. They need a mixture of aspirational guidance and outside pressure to perform.


  7. You are most welcome Jag.


  8. “99% of people seek motivation. You should be seeking a trigger for motivation” – That sums it all. Thanks Michael !

  9. Good point Mat. It is a spectrum that blends in. The idea of a 2×2 matrix makes perfect sense to me.


  10. This is a inspiratonal article (pun intended). Here are some deepening points.

    Described motivation is not one dimensional, with fear of failure and crave for success on the poles. Each one of them is a separate dimension. If we made matrix out of it, we could plot people’s style in 4 quadrants, depending on how much a person is motivated with each driver.
    Also, I think people will be motivated more by one or another depending on a situation and time.

    For many FC readers they had to meet a consulting partner/colleague (more aspiration) to realise how different their life and career might be, from a challenging childhood (more deficit). Than they worked hard to get into studies, not willing to let people who believed in them down (more deficit), etc.

  11. Hi Corwin,

    You are in good company. I am also completely motivated by a fear of failure. Maybe it is more correct to say a fear of obsolescence.


  12. Femi,

    Great comments as usual.

    You are right. The whole idea of a “motivational” industry is we assume we must hear positive stories before we can take action. In economics we would call this a carrot model. We also know a stick model works just as well.

    To each his own.


  13. Hi Michael,

    This is a great piece! Why do I say so? It is one article that addresses a game that EVERYONE has a skin in! For me, this is probably the most important part of the article: “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 would be too late.” I have been at that bus stop several times in my life. Such a tell-tale sign of my life! 🙁 Another reason why I think this is such a great piece is, even though I have (unconsciously) used this principle to motivate others to action, I have never REALLY held my life to scrutiny, in its light, until today.

    To answer your question as to why many people do not realize what motivates them. I think we can implicate two issues. First, our lack of “training” in self-awareness and this will probably find roots in culture, religion or spirituality, parental upbringing etc. Of course, I am using myself and my cultural situation as a case in study. Second, the “motivational speaking industry” has sort of nested our world within what you call the “inspirational model,” and that limits our willingness to explore the fundamental motivators in our lives. There’s a lot of motivational speaking “noise” out there!

    Overall, I think such article as this brings the conversation to the fore and will probably push people to become more self-aware.

    This is one contribution many people will find helpful. At least, I did!



  14. Michael,

    Really enjoyed this article. A few things came to mind as I read this. The first is that this idea of motivation being driven by fear of loss or desire for gain isn’t so new. John Grinder has been talking about this since the 70’s. The concept or idea that were always moving toward or away from something. Thrust away from death or toward survival. The other piece is research such as this That I’ve had to learn the hard way as a leader I can’t always “buy” my way out of motivational problems.

    My key take aways were this. First when managing others, identify what motivates them, success or survival. The other thing was this really brought forward the fact that I am motivated mostly by fear. Having grown up very poor and without financial stability, I’m always growing to not have to be in that situation. This article made me feel like it was okay/normal to be motivated by that. It seems as thought all motivation as you mentioned is “postitive.” Maybe it’s okay for me to be motivated by fear?


  15. Hannah,

    Don’t confuse what marketers, like Steve Jobs, tell you with what they really think. No one knows what motivated him.


  16. Hi Michael,

    Very interesting post. My thoughts are:

    1. These 2 models are not black and white, and one will have mix of the 2 at various degrees.

    2. I’m surprised to hear that most people (at least referred to here) belong to the deficit model. I would think that highly innovative people (think Steve Jobs) are the aspirational type. I would also argue that the more aspirational one is, the higher the impact the work will be. Failure is always there, but one shouldnt let it get in the way, success should be the main driver (I disagree with you and Zander on this point, but everyone is different so I’m okay with that).

    3. Regarding the question: I would say that people already know what drives them, they just didn’t know the labels. Some examples:
    -When I first read the description, I knew right away that I’m the aspirational type. I plan and live for future successes.
    -People already know whether they usually do just enough, or go beyond what is necessary.
    -Having labels makes it easier to understand, identify and distinguish. It’s the same for personality type (extrovert/introvert), learning style (audio, visual etc). If you don’t know the categories, you struggle to understand yourself. So knowing the types really is helpful, thanks for the article Michael.



  17. Hi Zander,

    You raise a good point though I was mainly referring to people whom are not happy with their lot in life.

    You are quite right: we are taught that fearlessness is to be revered. That is probably why this happens. We think even acknowledging fear of failure is a bad sign. Which is a pity since we all think about failure quite often. It is a normal human response.


  18. The question of the day is interesting. If someone is comfortable with their station in life, there is no pressure to change, so they don’t need to understand how to motivate themselves to make change. On top of that, people seem to think fearlessness is good and fearfulness is bad, so there is social pressure to hide, deny, or avoid fear instead of facing it, owning up, and learning to use it as a strength.

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