The Motivation Behind an Earned Life

By Marshall Goldsmith

There are steps you can take toward creating an earned life. It’s a matter of being aware of certain qualities. People who are fulfilled do what they love. They enjoy life.  But how do they get there? Do they wake up all of a sudden and realize that the next step they take will be one that leads them toward fulfillment, toward an earned life? 

Most of us are not that aware of our inclinations, of how we act in the present. We concentrate on the future but often in a vague way, along the lines of, “Someday I’ll have a better job,” or something like that. 

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But I’ve been studying this for many years. In fact, I wrote my doctoral thesis on motivation, ability, understanding, and confidence, isolating them as the four cognitive and emotional qualities that people needed in order to be successful:

  • I defined motivation as the force that drives us to get up each morning and pursue a specific objective and also maintain that drive in the face of setbacks and reversals.
  • For me, ability was having the aptitude and skills required to achieve a goal.
  • I defined understanding as knowing what to do and how to do it, and what not to do.
  • And I defined confidence as the belief that you can actually accomplish what you set out to do, whether you’ve done it before or are attempting it for the first time.

Those four attributes are essential success factors. Take away even one, and you significantly increase your odds of failing. These are task-specific attributes — they’re not universal. For example, there is no such thing as a motivated person, because none of us is motivated to do everything. We are selectively motivated, driven to do one thing, but not another. 

The same is true of ability, understanding, and confidence. Each is task-specific—because none of us is able to do everything, or understand everything, or be confident in every situation. 

But forty years in the business world as an executive coach have taught me that these four attributes don’t provide a full picture. 

My thesis was incomplete.

Success isn’t simply desire, talent, intellect, and self-belief. You need support, as well as a receptive market for each of your specific tasks or goals.

Many personal assets improve your chances for success, such as creativity, discipline, resilience, empathy, humor, gratitude, education, timing, likability, and so on. I’ve identified six considerations for success: 

  • motivation
  • ability
  • understanding
  • confidence
  • support
  • the marketplace  

Without good answers for each of them, there is no next step. In this series of posts, I’ll look at each. 

First, motivation

Motivation is the reason you try to succeed at a chosen task. It’s “why” you do anything. In August 1979, Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter in his bid for reelection. Kennedy at the time was a favorite to defeat the unpopular Carter. He announced his bid in a widely seen TV interview with CBS’s Roger Mudd, who started with the obvious softball question: “Why do you want to be president?” Kennedy, infamously, flubbed the answer, offering a meandering, incoherent response that didn’t give people a reason to vote for him and essentially ended his campaign before it began.

Like millions of Americans who watched the interview, I remember thinking, “It’s not enough that being president satisfies some personal ambition to reach the top rung of the political ladder. In telling me why you want to be president, you must also reveal the specific things you want to do in the job, whether it’s building roads, feeding hungry children, or lowering interest rates” (they were hovering around 18 percent that year). I was hearing neither why Kennedy wanted the job nor how he would do it if he moved into the White House.

Motivation cannot be divorced from actually doing the specific tasks to achieve goals. That’s what makes motivation a misunderstood word regarding goals. I often hear people describe themselves, or someone they admire, as “motivated to succeed” or “motivated to be a good boss” (or teacher or father or partner or some other broadly defined role). Used in that context, “motivated” has no meaning—because I don’t know anyone who’s “motivated not to succeed” or “motivated to be a bad boss.” Motivation is being confused with desire. They may as well be saying “I want to succeed” or “I want to be a good boss.” Who doesn’t?

Being motivated is that heightened emotional state coupled with a supercharged impulse to do each of the specific tasks required to achieve that goal. The true test of our motivation is grounded in evidence. If we want to run a marathon in under three hours, are we motivated to do each of the necessary tasks that such an arduous physical achievement requires: wake up early in the morning six times a week to accumulate our mileage goals; reconfigure our diet so that it is in the service of maximum performance; put in the hours at the gym to build our strength and flexibility to lessen the chance of injury; and summon the common sense to take a day off when our body tells us we need to rest and recover?

Anything less and we’re kidding ourselves about being “motivated.”

As a coach helping successful people change for the better, it’s not my job to judge people’s stated motivations. My job is to establish their resolve. Our lives can be filled with ambiguous motivations. Rewards such as money, fame, advancement, awards, and prestige have the power either to make us try harder or to leave us asking, “Is that all there is?” 

Misunderstanding your motivation and overestimating your willingness to fulfill it may be the two defining errors you’ll face as you create your own life. But you need to anticipate a few other avoidable errors as you find your true motivation.

Motivation is a strategy, not a tactic. Motive is the reason we act in a certain way. Motivation is the reason we continue acting that way. In identifying your motivation, be sure to grade it on its long-term sustainability—and be realistic about your ability to sustain in the face of risk, insecurity, rejection, and difficulty. Two questions: How have you responded to adversity in the past? Why will it be different this time?

So how do you zero in on a specific motivation? 

Experience has taught me that there is at least one universal baseline motivation guaranteed to clarify your desire to live an earned life, and it is this: 

I want to live a life that will increase my fulfillment and minimize my regret.

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