How to find what motivates you

Discover your call to action and find greater fulfillment in life with these top tips from the experts...


We all have something that drives us, but we’re not always conscious of what it is. Learning how to find what motivates you can be the first step in a search for greater meaning in life, as Jenny Hulme writes…

During a balmy August evening, millions of people watched spellbound as 29-year-old Team GB athlete Mo Farah raced to victory across the 10,000m finishing line.

But for Farah, it soon became evident that his prime motivation to win came not from gold medals or the roar of the crowd, but from the ecstatic reaction of his family. There were emotional scenes as his daughter and wife, pregnant with twins, joined him on the track.

Later, he said that his wish was to win not one but two gold medals, one for each twin. A few days later, he did just that in the 5,000m event. For Farah, the desire to make his family proud of him was what spurred him on and kept him going through the tough times.

What triggers your call to action?

Whatever it is we think we want to achieve, we first need to tap into what it is within us that triggers that call to action. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ motivation, it’s more about finding what it is that really drives you to take action. If we look at the careers of people who achieve extraordinary things, there are usually indications that they were motivated by something bigger than themselves.

Past children’s laureate Jacqueline Wilson grew hugely popular only after she tapped into a desire to write about difficult social issues facing children. She had written some 40 books, including crime novels, before the breakthrough success of Tracy Beaker.

Likewise, for the war correspondent Marie Colvin, it was the drive to act as a voice for the many victims of oppressive regimes, particularly women, that spurred her on to visit conflict zones. It was this keen sense of urgency about publicising the message of civilians being slaughtered in Syria that led to Colvin’s tragic death.

Discovering what energises you

‘I think the first challenge for any of us is to discover what we want in life, what we’re actually motivated by,’ says Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.

‘A lot of people are inspired by the idea of winning. What they forget is the months and years of work, setbacks and failures, that went into achieving that. If you are going to become great at anything, you have to want to do it enough to fail again and again,’ says Bregman.

Find your drive

According to psychologist Ros Taylor, author of Confidence at Work: Get It, Feel It, Keep It and her latest book Creativity at Work: Create Confidence When You Need It (both Kogan Page), there are nine motivational triggers (see below) that, once identified, can bring a greater sense of meaning to our actions.

‘Discovering your drive and your motivational trigger is the first challenge,’ she says. ‘Ask yourself – and keep asking yourself – what is it that energises you? Is it the security you feel, the influence you have, or the freedom to follow your instincts? Is it making a difference to others via a campaign or charity, or having time at home?’ says Taylor.

‘Ask yourself what you loved doing as a child or student that you miss doing now. What do you strongly believe in, and how do you dream your life will be?

‘You can get more specific, too,’ Taylor adds. ‘Ask yourself: do I like leading people and running meetings, so would managing teams be the right job for me? Or is it when I am actually developing an idea or creating a product for a company that I lose track of time and feel a real buzz about my work – what jobs would satisfy that need?’

Ask yourself the ‘killer questions’

If you take time to ask yourself what Taylor calls the ‘killer questions’, it will help you sense when your drivers are the right ones (‘I really want to get that job’) – and when they’re wrong (‘If I get that job I won’t have any time to be creative, or work for the local charity that adds real meaning to my life’).

‘You’ll be more in tune with what is happening each day, too,’ says Taylor. ‘If you feel like you’re wading through treacle during the day, and feel no satisfaction at the end of it, even when you’ve achieved the apparent goal, what drives you may be wrong, or may have changed, and you will need to rethink.’

What do you yearn for?

‘When I was young I really wanted my own home, and the security that came with that, so working round the clock and climbing the ladder worked. People used to tell me I did long hours, but it felt worth it,’ says Fi, a computer analyst, who lives in Brighton.

‘But I carried on like that for five years too long. It was only when I took a sabbatical to write a training programme for the company that I realised how much I enjoyed being in the home I’d made, digging in the garden and cooking with the food I’d grown – and creating something for others. I loved working on the training programme. That changed the hours I did and the projects and positions in the company I went for.’

Reflect on what matters to you

Sometimes, you need to take time to reflect on what it is that really matters most to you, and one way of identifying that is to think about what is missing from your life. ‘I think motivation is yearning combined with a belief in what’s possible for you,’ says US life coach Martha Beck, author of the new book Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Four Steps to Fulfilling Your True Calling (Piatkus).

‘You can’t force yourself to want to do something, even if it seems to tie in with your goal. You have to find what you truly want and discover that yearning.’ In short, identifying what really motivates you can be the catalyst for meaningful change.

‘If you’re aware of what drives you, you can look at ways to do something spectacular within the arena you’re already working in, for example, or do something new in your spare time,’ says Taylor.

‘Take a head teacher who wants power and influence, but hates being a headteacher and loves being in the classroom. Tuned into those feelings, she might switch back to teaching, but start writing about education, or take a lead on a community youth project that will give influence and power in her profession and real fulfilment in life.

How to find what motivates you:

Rate each of the following out of 10. Those with the highest scores are your main drivers.

  • MATERIAL GAIN: Seeking possessions, wealth and a high standard of living. Material comforts matter to you.
  • POWER/INFLUENCE: You like to be in charge and feel more secure leading than being led.
  • SEARCH FOR MEANING: You are keen to feel that you are contributing to something larger than yourself.
  • ACCOMPLISHMENT: Excelling in a specific area, often requiring high levels of skill and specialist knowledge, is very important to you.
  • CREATIVITY: You enjoy working with your own ideas and talents. Original ideas often motivate you.
  • AFFILIATION: You get inspired by working with like-minded individuals and love being part of a team.
  • AUTONOMY: You thrive when you feel like you’re master of your own destiny rather than a cog in a wheel.
  • SECURITY: You yearn to create a solid and predictable future.
  • STATUS: You seek to be recognised and admired by others – colleagues, family, friends and neighbours. Achievement is extremely important to you.

Words: Jenny Hulme | Images: Shutterstock

More inspiration: How to stop negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself

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