Self motivation, determination and professionalism

Contents:

  1. What do we mean by motivation?

  2. The starting assumption

  3. Don’t outsource your motivation

  4. Don’t typecast yourself

  5. All or nothing

  6. Don’t be weak (but weakness is not what you may think)

  7. You can only do as much as you can do

  8. Get ahead of the plane

  9. The burning inner core, obsession & exponentially

  10. Is work serious?

  11. Journey, destination

  12. Litmus test: the voluntary unnecessary improvement

  13. The motivation algorithm

This article is an in depth exploration of self motivation in professional contexts and it’s based on my experience working with myself and hundreds of other people. I will focus on personal motivation, our own motivation, and less so on the management perspective of motivation, that is, worrying about the motivation of others or about systems of motivation. By the end of it, I hope you will have a better understanding of how to understand and prioritize your own motivational factors, and how to maximize your drive and work satisfaction. I share my personal preferences as well, but I will be careful to clearly distinguish between what I consider to be general observations and my recommendations. In general I will suggest certain choices when it comes to what I consider to be professional behavior, and I will be neutral otherwise.

What do we mean by motivation?

We can think of motivation in terms of inputs, internal processes, and outputs. Inputs are the external condition, the context in which you operate: nature of your work, what you get for it, who you work with, how you’re treated. Internal processes are whatever happens in your brain and makes you tick, how you interpret and react to the inputs. Output is how motivation looks when you have it, how it manifests itself: that you are committed, dedicated, energized etc.

At first glance, inputs look more like external motivation, stuff outside you, stuff which happens to you, but I wouldn’t entirely agree with that: there’s quite a large degree of ownership we can and should assert over our motivational inputs. Contexts can at least partially be chosen, changed, adapted, negotiated and discussed. Some inputs are not fixed and there are degrees of control we can exercise over them and if we are too passive about our context then we are simply abdicating control over our motivational inputs, and that’s not ok.

Once you understand your inputs and exercise your chosen (and possible) degree of possible control over them, you move on to your internal processes, out of which the most important thing is to know yourself, primarily through introspection and trusted feedback, and to categorize everything that’s happening to you into one of three buckets:

  1. Your fuel, the things you love, the things you can’t get enough of

  2. The things you accept, which are not great, but are good enough, or simply unchangeable, so you just accept them for what they are

  3. The things you fight, the things you can’t accept and which you make a decision to confront, to change

You will have items in each bucket and that’s normal. What you should avoid is lack of self awareness and that diffuse feelings that you kind of don’t like something, but you’re not really sure how much you don’t like it, you’re not quite accepting it, but you’re also unwilling to fight it and you wallow in some kind of murky dissatisfaction with no clear way out. That’s a bad place to be in and it’s your job to get out of there, not your manager’s job or anyone else’s job. Sort everything, put it in one of the three buckets, weigh the buckets and decide if you’re staying or leaving or whatever else you need to do. Feeling bad without doing anything about it is not really an attractive quality, professionally speaking.

When it comes to output, the interesting thing to think about is will power, determination, grit. It’s a bit of a fashion to speak against will power (and it has its limits, that is very true), but the sheer idea of “just having to do it”, because we want to, because we need to, because we just feel like it, is powerful. When something is really important to us, we have a way of getting it done and the details and fine nuances of inputs and opinions fade away under the overwhelming force of “I have to” (an internally driven “have” ideally).

The starting assumption

This is about your expectations and your attitude and mindset towards what’s happening around yourself and what you expect of yourself. These expectations, implicit or explicit, are going to dramatically impact everything else about your motivation, because you’re going to see everything through their filter. Here are a few typical examples, by no means a complete list, if there even is one:

  • The beginner learner mindset. You expect almost everyone else to be better than you, because you’re so new, and you’re eager to lean and soak up knowledge. At the same time, you may get disappointed when stuff doesn’t work around you, because you had high expectations of everyone and everything. You were looking up to them.

  • The fixer mindset. You’re an expert and you’ve been brought in to make something work. You expect disfunction and it doesn’t phase you. You are tolerant of things not working, because you have no lofty expectations that things should work, that’s why you’re here after all, and you also have a precise, laser like focus, combined with a pragmatic attitude. You’re frustrated if you’re not allowed to do your job, if people are reluctant to adopt your fix.

  • The curiosity mindset. You not necessarily a beginner, you may even be highly experienced, but you enjoy finding new nuances, you look for the quirks, for the exceptions. Unlike the fixer, who’s always looking to get it done efficiently, you’re always willing to spend some time exploring some edge case or unusual situation. You are bored and eventually demotivated by too much predictability.

  • The teacher mindset. You’re going in with the expectation of having to educate and develop people around you. You expect them to need knowledge and experience, you are tolerant of mistakes, but you do expect a degree of willingness from them to learn and you’re disappointed if they don’t care.

  • The experimental mindset. You’re going to try new things, to innovate, to pilot new ideas. You expect some resistance to change and you expect most people around there to be more conservative than you. If you have too little support however and you can’t cut through the bureaucracy, you may give up.

  • The revolutionary mindset. Things have to change and they have to change now, because everything is changing and we can’t stand still. You tolerate mistakes, imperfections, people learning, the one things that will drive you insane is people choosing the comfort of the known instead of the excitement of the new.

  • The contractual precision mindset. You expect a very clear and detailed list of responsibilities and you want a fixed routine that doesn’t change. You will tolerate quite a few things, but lack of clarity and people asking you to do things you didn’t “agree” to do will get you very upset.

  • The minimal resistance path mindset. You’ve found your place in the corporate machine, you’ve understood the law of the land and you’re riding along minimizing “trouble” and maximizing smoothness. Knowing and using the system is what you do and and you will tolerate many things, but you will find it hard to express your individuality, especially if you have to go against the norm.

  • The perfection mindset. You expect all or the vast majority of systems and people to “just work”. Any amount of unprofessionalism, process failure or simply mistakes will upset you.

  • The entitled attitude. You think you’re a special flower just because you are you and your mamma told you you’re amazing and you expect people to listen to everything you have to say, to cater to all your needs to create the perfect environment from you. Lack of attention and praise upsets you.

It’s easy to see how the mindset you have going into a context (like starting a job) heavily influences your motivation, with everything else being equal. The same exact conditions and inputs will motivate some people and demotivate others. An innovator mindset will relish the exact things that will drive a contractual precision mindset crazy for example. A teacher mindset will enjoy the long and winding process of learning that will make a fixer feel like they’re wasting valuable time. A revolutionary mindset and a minimal resistance path mindset will find very little to agree on and an environment in which one thrives is an environment in which the other withers away, and vice versa.

I don’t think there is one mindset that is always best, I don’t even think that you need just one mindset: you could have different mindsets for different areas of your job. It’s about what best suits you and you context, but I can however recommenced a couple of things that I consider generally applicable:

  • First and most important, self awareness: know yourself and understand your own mindset and starting assumption. How are you going in, to do what, expecting what? The worst thing is not to even think about it. If you are interviewing for a job or considering a career change where you are now, write down the starting assumptions you’re going in with.

  • Second, avoid the entitlement mindset. It’s very hard to find something positive to say about this one. Start with the assumption that nobody owes you anything. I don’t mean to sell yourself short, by all means, ask for what you’re worth (money or otherwise), but understand that you are in the center of nobody’s universe other than your own. Don’t act like a spoiled kid.

Don’t outsource your motivation

More people than would like to admit outsource their motivation, usually to their manager, the department head, the CEO, or a combination of all of the above. Asked why they are or are not happy about something, motivated or not, they will frequently reply that this or that guy did something or didn’t do something or did it in the wrong way. Their motivation is in somebody else’s hands and, when they feel bad, they expect somebody else to make them feel better, ideally without them even having to ask for it. I call this the telepathic parental manager syndrome: the idea that managers should treat employees like kids and worry about every little thing they do or need, and that they should also spot any subtle change in behavior and proactively come asking, such that the employee doesn’t even have to say what they need.

Don’t outsource your motivation, own it. Clearly, what other people do affects you and, most of the times, you can’t control their actions, but sometimes you can, and even if you can’t, something you can always control is how you feel about it or, to be more precise, what you decide to do with it. Own your reactions. What other people do is their responsibility, how you react to it is yours. When something outside of your control happens you can love it, hate it, accept it, fight it, stay, leave, whatever, but own it, make a decision and move on. Don’t linger in dissatisfaction waiting for someone else to detect your demotivation and “fix” it. That is not a professional attitude.

Don’t typecast yourself

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Typecasting is a Hollywood term and it applies to actors that have so much identified to one particular role, or a type of role, that they can’t believable play anything else anymore. Now, I don’t want to say specialization is necessarily bad: it isn’t. Nor do I want to say that knowing what you want (and avoiding what you don’t) is generally bad: it isn’t. What I am saying is that in order to preserve some kind of life long learner attitude (which is a good idea regardless of whatever other mindsets you apply at the same time), you shouldn’t artificially limit yourself. Typically this happens a few years into one’s career. Initially, as complete beginners, everything is confusing and difficult. With great effort, in a couple of years, most people start to get some measure of control over what they do and it feels great to finally kind of be on top of your work. The problem is that further evolution requires discomfort, and many are unwilling to go through it again, having so recently just escaped it. They are therefore limiting and typecasting themselves. I’ve heard too many people clinging to one particular tech choice like it’s a religion or saying all the time they’re not good with this, or that, or that they could never do X, or Y, and repeat it to themselves for years only to find out they were actually pretty good, and more than once great at it. Others can also typecast you by seeing you only in a certain way, and that’s something that you’ll have to deal with, but don’t be afraid to surprise them. I myself when I was highly technical in the beginning of my career never imagined I would ever end up working with people all day long. When I later became a manager of hundreds, that seemed like it would last forever. Entering local politics was never a possibility for me, until it was, and then getting out of it seemed unlikely, until that too became a reality. I am now a trainer, a consultant, I wrote a book about leadership, and if you would have asked me 20 years ago about all of these, I would have discounted them as near impossibilities. I would have laughed at the idea and I would have bet anything that it would not happen to me. Now, I’m not saying that everybody can be equally good at anything, no, but don’t be sure that you’ve already discovered everything there is to discover about yourself. Don’t think you can’t change. You can. We all can.


All or nothing

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While you are somewhere and doing something, you do your best every second you’re there. When you don’t want to be there anymore, you leave. You’re in or you’re out. Anything in between is unprofessional behavior. Don’t do sloppy work because you’re demotivated but somehow not demotivated enough to leave. In my book, that is unacceptable. You come in and you do your 100% until the moment you’re done. Even while, and maybe especially while you’re discussing your dissatisfactions, while you’re negotiating new terms, until the negotiation is concluded and you’ve reached a decision (stay or leave), you guessed it, you keep delivering at 100%. The way to ask for more is not to wet the couch and expect managers to give you more just so you don’t do it again (unfortunately, there’s no shortage of weak managers that will give in to this kind of behavior). The way to ask for more is to ask for more, while you keep doing your absolute current best (or more). By this I don’t mean that you should expect to always feel great and feel fully motivated every day and every second of that day, or that you should become fragile and easily upset. No, that is not possible, and you will have your questions, and your doubts and your frustrations, and quite a few of them, and there will be parts of your work that will love and parts that you will hate, and that’s to be expected, but that’s your problem and it’s your responsibility to deal with it. While these problems are below a certain critical mass (which you decide what it is), and you’re still in, your external behavior and performance continues to be at 100%. Yes, it’s ok to share your pain with trusted confidents, to ask for advise, to ask for help, but don’t make it an issue for people that have no time for it or interest in it. Bear it, fix it. A professional is a professional precisely because they deliver no matter if they’ve had a good night’s sleep or a bad weekend or if they’re feeling like the universe is smiling on them or not.

Don’t be weak (but weakness is not what you may think)

“Weakness”, understood in a certain sense, should be embraced, because it comes with learning: nerves, anxiety, mistakes, struggling, failing. All these are a natural part of growing and, as long as you’re learning, getting better, trying new stuff, feeling these things shouldn’t worry you too much, unless they’re getting out of hand and are affecting your general well being.

In my mind, in a professional sense, weakness is the following:

  • A passive aggressive attitude: not confronting when the decision was made or the discussion happened, not speaking up, but then not doing your part, the part which, through your silence, you’ve let people to believe you’ll do.

  • Personal gossip: Don’t talk about people behind their backs unless you’ve already told them the same, or you’re saying something good about them.

  • Dishonesty: of any sort. Lying, manipulating, using people around you for your own personal goals.

Don’t be weak. It’s harder than it seems. Not many of us will be outright dishonest, but you’d be surprised how hard it is to get rid of passive aggressiveness especially, and gossiping too. You first have to be aware that you’re doing it, because it’s so easy to “just let off a little steam”, and then a little more steam off, and then get comfortable with it and soon enough it’s second nature. It’s not easy to be strong.

You can only do as much as you can do

I’ve talked a lot about what it means to be a professional and to deliver, and that’s important, but there’s another equally important thing to remember: there is always going to be more work than you can do.

People talk about being a workaholic, which I define as working until exhaustion and being anxious and stressed out about not doing more. Workaholism is not simply working a lot, it’s working a lot and still feeling like crap about it. Simply working a lot is just that, working a lot. I myself derive enormous satisfaction from work and I frequently like working in excess, and I feel great about it. I may get tired but then I sleep like a baby and I can’t wait to get started again the next day. I don’t like just doing “nothing” and I don’t even know how that looks. I get restless and sad when there’s nothing to do, and I am not unique in this. However, I’ve also had times in the past when I worked a lot, but also felt really bad at the end of the day, felt like I was always chasing an impossible target and always failing to reach it. The difference between these two situations was my motivation and my control on the work I was engaged in. When I do things I choose and I like, I can’t get enough of it, I can’t stop. When I have to do things I don’t choose, for reasons I don’t resonate with, I do it, but medium-long term, it gets to me, and I have to make a change.

I for one make no real distinction between my “business” work and my “personal” work, and I mix it every day. If I deliver something to a client and I get paid for it, or if I fix something in the house, or if I take my beloved flying lessons, I approach it all the same: as well as I can, doing my best in that particular situation, aiming to always keep whatever promises I might have made, regardless if they’re contractual promises or if I told a friend I’d do something, serious but without taking myself too seriously, ready to give it all I have, and to occasionally fail, get up and try again. I always have a list for the day, I have a plan, I have a bigger picture. Sometimes that gets in the way of focusing on the here and now, and that’s something I’m still working on, because focus on the here and now is important. Planning ahead is critical, because that’s what gives you control and that’s how you become proactive and not only reactive, but once you actually start doing something, forget the plan for a minute and just do this thing right now right here, focus on it.

I know about myself that if I don’t feel productive then I can’t feel good. I know my list is always longer than my day. I am comfortable chasing a horizon I’ll never reach, because that’s my choice and my way of learning, but it took me a while to get here. For a long time I lived under the tyranny of my own list, and that wasn’t helpful.

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There’s always more work than you or I can do in our days, weeks, years or lives. My reaction to this is not to give up, but to do my best, and do those things that are important to me. You decide what your reaction is. The truth is that in any work environment, work is going to come your way from all sides at the same time and you will have to filter, prioritize, negotiate, sometimes say no, and find a way to do it while feeling good and without getting anxious about it. There is no way someone can control your professional context in such a way that work comes to you in the exact quantity to fit in a standard work day, not unless you are willing to remain in a very junior role and have others cut your food for you. Find a way to be productive, to drink from the hydrant with a smile on your face. Do your best, that’s all you can do.

Get ahead of the plane

Getting a sense of control over your work is essential. In aviation, there’s a saying: “get ahead of the plane”, and it means is to think ahead and picture what you will or might have to do next and be ready for it, rather than always being surprised and reacting: oh, I’m in this phase of the flight, so I have to do that, let me do it really quickly. Always reacting, always chasing a moving target, always one step behind, it keeps you off balance, if makes you feel like you have no control, your decisions making starts to suffer and your motivation suffers.

You can’t control everything but you have to control something. Maybe you don’t know what will be asked of you, but you have some clear way of triaging what comes your way; that’s also a kind of control. Maybe you have a certain day, or a certain time of the day, when you always do the same thing and nothing else. This is also a kind of control. A list, a system, anything. The smallest things can have a great impact. Get ahead of your work.

The burning inner core, obsession & exponentially

The truth is that there will be degrees of “hotness” to our motivation towards various things. Some of the activities we’re engaged in will never be more than satisfactory and when we deal with these things, the act of motivating ourselves becomes the process of making something be good enough, pleasant, acceptable. Yeah, I’ll go there with you guys over the weekend if I don’t have to wake up too early, if the weather is good and if you pick me up. In other words, I can get sort of motivated if some conditions are met, but this is not my burning inner core, I’m in no way yearning to do this, but I’ll do it if there’s nothing else better to do. On the other hand, I’ll fly anytime, anywhere, anyhow I can, any chance I get, no matter the discomfort required to get there, because this is part of my burning inner core, of the things that motivate me instantly and completely. It’s not easy to find your burning inner core and in my professional life I’ve had (very unpleasant) stretches where I had no burning inner core. That will happen, nothing lasts for ever. When I started out as a developer, coding was my burning inner core, when I later went into management the need to “get it done” was my burning inner core, but management is more vague and its roads more twisted and winding than coding, and after some time I lost it and it took me a while to get it back, to find it anew. I spent a full year surrounded by pleasant things, professionally speaking, and by good people, and I felt like crap, because I had nothing to really captivate me completely and absolutely.

Following your burning inner core frequently manifests itself as obsessive behavior and this may alarm some of the more “balanced” types around you, but you should gracefully ignore them and do you thing. When I was 14 I spend hours every day, for two weeks, after classes, outside the computer lab of my school, waiting for the head teacher to pass by so I could ask for, beg for access to the computers, because I had just seen one and I was smitten by them and I didn’t have one at home nor could I dream of affording one. It must have been embarrassing, it must have been stressful, I must have been hungry, tired, but I don’t remember any of that, I just did it, because I had to, because that core was burning white hot. Later, having eventually been granted that access, after many refusals, I spend countless weekends in those labs, from Friday evening till Sunday evening, sleeping on chairs, eating biscuits, hacking at and compiling Linux kernels and what not, and I thought nothing of it other than it was bliss. To this day, it’s rare that a week passes without me having a couple of 14 hour work days and I absolutely love it. I’m equally committed to my passions: just the other week, I drove to Brasov, spend two days there and flew for 6 hours during those two days, then drove back, because I wanted to accelerate my flight-school, and thought nothing about it other than it was great. I was sleepy so I drank more coffee. I was hungry so I ate something in the car. When that core burns, I can sit in its warmth until I literally drop and crash to sleep and I do it with a smile on my face.

At the same time, there’s some other things that I avoid like the plague. For my business, once a month, I have to gather and prep some documents to send to my accountant. It’s a consultancy business with corporate customers, so accounting is really simple. it doesn’t take me more than an hour a month, but that hour, oh man, I dread it, I fear it, I avoid it, I’d do anything else but that. To me, that is the hardest thing to do, it’s harder than the many other things I do that are objectively way more complicated, more impactful and more laborious. I do it, and once I get started on it it’s not so bad at all, but it is still something I dislike thinking about and would ideally like to avoid every month.

The difference in motivation between the things we love and the things we hate is not 5%, or 10%, or 20%, it’s 10x, it’s 100x. Find what you love and let it … burn you. Obsession has a bad rap, but obsession is great fuel and it’s the only rational response to something you absolutely adore to do. Don’t be afraid to get into something completely and lose yourself in it. Do it with some maturity, do it with some wisdom, plan a bit too, but do it.

Is work serious?

I’m a big fan of both being serious about my work and having fun with it. How do I do both?

First, if I do anything of importance, and I strive to do things that matter, to my clients, to me, then it’s obvious that I must take it seriously and be careful and mature about it. This is part of being a professional. At the same time, I don’t like (and I think it’s counter productive) to stress out about every little thing all the time and to aim for a demeanor that is too rigidly professional in a superficial sense. To me, professionalism and seriousness is about the things that matter, about the promises that you make, about what you deliver, about how you treat people, and not about all the little trapping of what people think someone should act like. At the same time, I’m personally not a fan of the infantilization of work through excessive amounts of “gamification", silly HR team building ideas and what not. I consider myself a relaxed serious individual. I have a plan, I know what I’m doing and I’ll do it, but I don’t mind having a laugh in a meeting, cracking a joke, occasionally cursing, taking a risk, trying something new, sometimes failing and happily admitting it. Seriousness, if understood improperly, can suffocate, paralyze and ultimately limit one’s effectiveness. At the same time, one should also take care to not act like a complete child and go around like we have no responsibilities whatsoever, as that is about as useful as a an elbow growing out of your forehead.

Journey, destination

We are motivated by both journey and destination, but in different ways and in different proportions. I for one have traditionally been very goal driven and have, as consequence, been very tolerant of less than ideal journeys, because I knew where I wanted to get and why, and the quality of the road was less relevant to me. I have more recently learned to appreciate the journey more. What is the journey? Take for example the purpose of our business, Introspecials: “to develop strong, freedom loving leaders”. That is a destination, a goal, and a pretty high level and abstract one for that, if all you have are these words. This goal not something I will ever finish or complete, so in any given day, like today, as I’m writing on this article, how do I relate to this goal, specifically? For one, I’m hoping that those who will read this are going to be be helped by what’s in here to be stronger, freer leaders. That’s the destination part. At the same time, it helps a lot of I also actually like writing and sharing my thoughts on this topic. That’s the journey, and in this way, I have both journey and destination.

The journey is never going to be all happy. There’s no job or (meaningful) activity where 100% of what we do is things we love, but we have to find some satisfaction in the journey, or it will be very difficult indeed to get through our goal through sheer will power alone. Sometimes, satisfaction comes out of simply giving some work a chance and just giving it a try. We might find ourselves enjoying more things than we though we would.

Litmus test: the voluntary unnecessary improvement

How do you know if someone is truly intrinsically motivated? What’s a simple test for it, a quick way to assess the situation? The best test I know of is the voluntary unnecessary improvement. When people voluntarily engage in unnecessary improvements, they are motivated. By unnecessary I don’t mean useless or silly, I mean something that nobody is asking for or expecting now, that is not obviously needed and that you would lose nothing at all if you didn’t do it, so your act of doing it is purely voluntary, it’s not forced upon you by your circumstances. You already have enough work to do now, work that people have asked you do, that they are expecting you to do. Doing that well is hard enough, and if you find the energy and drive to also voluntarily make something better, fix something, improve something, something nobody is expecting you to do, that is typically a very good indicator of strong internal motivation.

The motivation algorithm

There is a motivation algorithm, a way to make sure you’re always as well positioned as you could possibly be in relation to your own motivation, and it’s just 5 simple steps that work for everybody:

  1. Understand yourself and your starting assumption, understand your inputs and your expectations.

  2. Bucket everything that matters to you into one of the three buckets: your fuel (the things you love), the things you accept and the things you fight.

  3. Weigh the buckets and decide what you want to do: accept, change, negotiate, leave etc.

  4. Repeat: it’s a continuous, iterative process.

  5. Above all else, avoid wallowing in diffuse dissatisfaction, unhappy but unwilling to act at the same time.

I’m not saying you should mechanically go through these steps every day, maybe you have a more intuitive flow for figuring out your motivation, but it’s a good framework to apply when you’re lost and unsure what the problem is.