If you’re just starting out in your career, or you’re in the middle of changing careers, then one of the most important things you can do is to understand your own motivation. Not just to accept the things that you’re told you should find motivating, whether they’re inspiring words or big cash bonuses, but what’s really important to you. It’ll help you strive harder, understand what motivates others, and find a path that can satisfy you.

Living for Satisfaction

In principle, we all like the idea that we aren’t motivated by material rewards alone. When we’re not telling ourselves that there’s more to life than material success, we have Hollywood to remind us of the same idea. Like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, we all want to seize the day.

But this is more than just a piece of pop culture romanticism. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, first published in 1943, showed how human beings have many different types of needs, and it is only by meeting the higher needs, those of acceptance and creativity, that we will find satisfaction.

Material wants are universal – various combinations of more money for less time worked.

This was demonstrated in a career context in Frederick Herzberg’s seminal study of employee motivation, ‘One More Time’. Herzberg showed that having enough money and a comfortable place to work helps reduce dissatisfaction, but what really motivates us, what makes us feel satisfied, is meeting those higher needs. It’s finding the challenges that interest us and living up to them.

Working for Satisfaction

But if that’s the case then why do we so often use material rewards – wages, holidays, bonuses – when trying to increase motivation? And why do we focus on them when choosing jobs to apply for?

The answer is that it is easy. Material wants are universal – various combinations of more money for less time worked. But real motivators, the things we are passionate about, are harder to identify, and so, harder to meet. They are intrinsic to us as people, hard to measure, and in many cases unique to us as individual human beings. For employers, trying to understand those needs for hundreds of people is a logistical challenge. For employees it is something even harder – it is a deep psychological challenge.

It may mean accepting financial limitations for a more rewarding job, or uprooting your life to follow your dream. But it is the best thing you can possibly do for yourself.

Your own Satisfaction

Working out what satisfies you can be scary. It involves a great deal of self-reflection and a willingness to challenge expectations, both of which are difficult to do. It may not be what your partner, family or peers think should motivate you. It may mean accepting financial limitations for a more rewarding job, or uprooting your life to follow your dream. But it is the best thing you can possibly do for yourself.

We live to satisfy our higher needs. As Nobel winning economist Edmund Phelps has pointed out it is by meeting those higher needs, finding greater challenges, that we thrive economically. Following the motivations others expect of you may seem like the easy path, but it is the path to dissatisfaction and mediocrity. By looking deep inside yourself, finding the work you find rewarding, the challenges you want to face, you can find your true motivation. And you can inspire others to find theirs.

Article originally appeared on Switch and Shift: February 25, 2014. Link
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