Cheap motivation

I’m reading this (so far – I’m blogging in the middle of reading) excellent piece by Charles Assisi in Mint On Sunday about motivation for careers. At the point where I’ve stopped reading his piece and started writing, I’m looking at this graph he has put on the source of motivation:

This reminds me of this conversation I had with a few classmates from business school a few months back. One of them is a successful brand manager for a large packaged goods company, and he was telling us that what gives him the thrills in his job is to see his product replace his rival companies’ products on store shelves.

It is a rather logical motivation – to see the share of the brand you manage improving. However, what was interesting was the way he put it (I’ve surely paraphrased here) – that the thrill came out of his brand doing well at the expense of a rival brand, and of watching the rival brand sink.

It got me thinking about what motivates us, and if motivations are as profound as we like to mention in either a statement of purpose or in an interview. When writing a cover letter for a job, for example, it is likely that you chart out your career path so far detailing motivations for each career move, and what motivates you to take up this job you are applying for.

With a few honourable exceptions, it is likely that it is all a lie, and that you have invented these motivations to retrofit your career progression thus far. Sometimes the real motivation could be as simple as money – you took up a certain job because it paid you well, but for whatever reason it isn’t politically correct to put this on a cover letter (it can work the other way also. I once interviewed for a proprietary trading position and the interviewer was surprised that money wasn’t my number one motivation).

For the most part, however, I argue that the real motivation for most things is something rather trivial – so trivial that nobody will trust you it can actually be a motivation. Like you join a hobby class because that allows you to stay out late. Or go for some other activity because it is near the house of someone you have taken a fancy for. Or you participate in an event because it allows you to travel to a particular city. I had once gone for a recruiting event because it was being held in a five star hotel and the agenda included lunch.

A trivial motivation need not always lead to results – the sheer triviality of the motivation means that you are less likely to generate good results from such processes. However, what trivial motivations allow is to expand the range of activities and opportunities you take part in, and the sheer volume of such expansion can take you to places you had never imagined you would get to. In other words, while at some point in time, you do use serious motivations, it is likely that the seed for such activities or pursuits had been set in more trivial settings.

So when you want to do something purely for the cheap thrills it gives you, go ahead – it might help you learn something about yourself that you’d not known before. And might motivate you to an extent well beyond what motivation you can get from profound sources.

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