post # 276 — January 5, 2007 — a Careers post
Hereâ€™s a question I received by email that I bet many of you could help with.
David – I think I’m in a mid-career crisis. I love what I do and I’ve found a great organization in which to do it. Coworkers and clients are great and I’m asked to be more creative and given more autonomy (and more money, incidentally) than ever before. My problem is that I’m having trouble motivating myself to do my best work.I don’t understand it – I’ve worked so hard to get here, and I’ve enjoyed that hard work. I don’t know if this is burnout or not. I’m early 30’s, finished a master’s while working full time, worked in high-profile roles in a couple of Fortune 200 companies and have always been labeled a high-achiever.
How do I motivate myself, so that I can motivate those around me? I’m experiencing some pretty severe cognitive dissonance over this – my behavior just doesn’t match my idea/expectations of myself, but no one else seems to notice. Thanks in advance, L.
Well, L., the main thing I want to say is: â€œwelcome to the club!â€ I donâ€™t want to minimize the distress you must be feeling, merely point out that your experience is not at all uncommon. Certainly I have been through what you describe on a number of occasions, and I would be amazed if most high achievers had not.
Sometimes, you just reach a point where you need to lie fallow and let the mental â€œsoilâ€ regain its nutrients. Iâ€™m not qualified to comment on the science of this, and not licensed to be a therapist, but my own experience and my observation of others is that itâ€™s a necessary part of all creative activity.
Itâ€™s only scary if you start believing the falsehood that â€œyouâ€™ll never get backâ€ to your former dynamism, and those are normal fears to have. (Again, I know.) But the truth is that the odds that you will be stuck forever in a â€œI donâ€™t feel motivated to do anythingâ€ mode is very small. Unless youâ€™ve got a clinical problem, my advice is to forget about it and just enjoy your down time.
I know that sounds easier to say than do, but like many emotional and mental things, the key is not to try too hard. To take just one analogy: itâ€™s kind of like having jet lag after some intercontinental travel, and youâ€™re in some hotel room wide awake at 3am. Thereâ€™s no point â€œtryingâ€ to fall asleep if itâ€™s not gonna happen, and thereâ€™s no point adding worry to the problem of sleep loss. Youâ€™d be better advised to call room service for a snack or some breakfast, read a book, and go with the flow.
I wrote about the elusive phenomenon of motivation in MANAGING THE PROFESSIONAL SERVICE FIRM.
Hereâ€™s what I had to say there:
â€œEverybody must have had the following experience: You are responsible for a piece of work about which you just cannot seem to get excited. It is not that the task is too difficult, too easy, or even inherently uninteresting: just that the spark is not there. Nevertheless, being dutiful, you sit at your desk and try to work at it, being neither productive nor doing your best work. Then the next morning, for some obscure reason, you begin to see the work in a new light. You approach the work in a new way, and begin to delve into the problem. Gradually, what had appeared as mundane now has an element of interest, which grows into curiosity, into fascination and ultimately into involvement, effort and productive, creative work. No amount of procedural work plans, tight supervision or incentive schemes could ever substitute for the inner motivation described in this anecdote as a means to achieve productivity, quality and, not coincidentally, professional satisfaction in a job well done.
This link between motivation and performance in professional work results in an interesting and important phenomenon: the motivation spiral. The elements of this spiral are as follows: high motivation leads to high productivity and quality, which leads to marketplace success. In turn, this results in economic success for the firm, allowing the firm to be generous with its rewards, including high compensation, good promotion opportunities and challenging work. This atmosphere of ample reward breeds good morale, which results in high motivation: and the cycle begins anew.
Of course, the spiral effect also works, all too effectively, in reverse. Poor marketplace success means poor economic success which means fewer rewards available to be shared. With lesser rewards, morale, and hence motivation, is low. This, inevitably and inexorably, leads to poor productivity and less than top quality, which reinforces the lack of marketplace success. In professional work environments, success breeds success, and failure sets the scene for more failure. The spiral can begin, up or down, at any point. But once launched, its forces are hard to resist. In consequence, the motivation crisis is a very serious problem for any firm that allows it to take hold.â€
L., you may be in a spiral right now, but, as it says above, one morning, youâ€™re going to wake up and youâ€™ll see an element of interest in something, which will grow into curiosity, which will become engagement, then fascination, then true involvement. And you may never know what started the spiral upwards for you. Your main task right now is to NOT beat yourself up, and stay open to the possibility that something soon is gonna catch your interest.
Oh, and while youâ€™re not fully engaged, try and fill the time with something interesting, so that your down time has SOME benefits. Read a book, go for a walk, play at a hobby.
By the way, a book that you might enjoy is â€œExuberance: A Passion for Lifeâ€ by Kay Redfield Jamison.
Sheâ€™s a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and her book is a (well-researched but non-scholarly) description of people in history who have or had an extra dose of passion for life. Itâ€™s a GREAT read, and youâ€™ll see that â€œrecharging the batteriesâ€ was part of the life of all these people. You canâ€™t be a dynamo 24/7/365 every year of your life, and you shouldnâ€™t try to be.
OK everybody, please help L. Join in!
Mark Gould said:
I think the key to answering L’s question (“How do I motivate myself?”) is to work out what kind of things one finds motivating. I know this sounds a bit circular, and I am not qualified to talk about any more than my own gut instinct. However, I think that someone who is driven by the need to please other people (superiors, peers, clients or friends) will be more motivated when someone takes a genuine interest in their work, whereas that interest could be interpreted as “meddling” and demotivating by someone who works towards an abstract ideal of good performance.
Another way of putting this would be to ask whether something is missing from L’s role. (It sounds like this is a new position.) Is there less pressure to succeed now that a goal has been achieved? Are the objectives of the new job more vague or diffuse than the struggle to get the job in the first place? Once L has identified what is missing, and found a way to get round that (or replace it with a new source of pressure or more focused objectives), I would hope that the motivation will return.
One practical step, which I think is essential, is to let people know that things are not going quite as you had expected. It may not be appropriate to let them know that you are demotivated, but there should be no shame in asking for assistance in making a transition to a new role. (If that is the scenario.)
posted on January 5, 2007