How to Find Out What Really Motivates You

Alex Boswell

Ask yourself these 3 big questions.

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Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

Many of us spend our time wandering through life without much direction, not really knowing why we do the things we do — we just do them because everyone else is. After we’re born, we go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, get old and die. At least, that’s what the mainstream ‘ideal’ life is like.

The problem with this idea for many people, myself included, is that it’s not specific enough. Without knowing how this cycle (or other life patterns) apply to your life, it can lead to losing your sense of purpose, which is an important aspect of overall health and wellbeing.

So what do we do when we’ve realized the job we’re doing, the subject we’re studying, or our personal lives aren’t fulfilling our self-actualization needs? Meeting needs beyond those for survival? At this point, in the past, I turned to the advice I saw online, which was to “find your passion!”

However, “finding your passion” was always extremely difficult because I like to do lots of things. Judging from those around me, I’m not alone. It’s quite rare to find someone who is entirely focused on a singular path/vocation in life. If you’re one of those people I envy you, however, if you’re more like me, then what do you do?

You take a step back and find out what motivates you. When you can determine where your motivations come from, it’s much easier to guide yourself towards a sense of purpose.

Why “Finding Your Passion” Doesn’t Always Work

The simplest answer I can give, from someone who has formally studied and practiced lots of different vocations (like music, art, marketing, linguistics, data analytics, etc.) is that what we’re passionate about can change over time.

Sure, some passions might be stronger than others, but our feelings about them are fluid. For example, until relatively recently, I spent my formal education studying music but switched at Master’s level to marketing because my passion for making music waned. But I still love the way listening to music makes me feel.

You could also talk to anyone who’s made any big career switch, ask them why, and chances are their answer will be something along the lines of: “I realized I didn’t want to do X anymore,” or “I enjoyed my job, but I’ve always wanted to give X a shot”.

As you can see, passion is a complicated emotion. It’s not always easy to understand, never mind build a life around it. But what about motivation? From personal experience and reasonable assumption, it’s often the case that ‘passions’ are led by underlying motivations. So it stands to reason that we should start from there.

Where Does Motivation Come From?

We could draw this information from several motivation theorists, such as Herzberg, McGregor, and McClelland. However, none are more popularly quoted on the internet than Maslow with his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. You might have seen it from time to time. According to Maslow, our ‘needs’ look something like this:

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These ‘needs’ describe the patterns where human motivations generally move and grow. However, the problem with Maslow’s theory, which has been heavily criticized in academia over the years, is that there is little evidence of his theory's hierarchical nature. It also doesn’t consider different kinds of cultures or circumstances.

In other words, needs (the origins of motivation) continuously overlap and coexist, rather than depending on the pyramid's bottom sections to be fulfilled before the next. So in reality, for the average person, your needs probably look more like this:

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With that concept in mind, we can examine our own motivations a little more clearly.

Examining My Own Motivations

As I mentioned before, when I had gone down the path of “finding my passion”, all I ever found was more things I enjoyed doing. Nothing really called out to me as being particularly special.

It wasn’t until I examined my motivations that I realized what the cause was. Each time I picked up something new (or thought of something to pick up), I had a burst of energy. And I dreaded the idea of being stuck doing one type of job in one field for the rest of my life.

I started asking myself questions, which I’ll detail further, that led me to realize one thing. I am motivated by learning. It was never really the new thing itself, whether that’s learning to code, language learning, or a new art medium. It was the process of challenging my brain to learn.

So why does that matter?

When I realized this, it allowed me to reevaluate my situation with a greater perspective. I knew a standard 9–5 wasn’t going to be in my life for very long. And to create positive (and rather challenging) change, I quit my job to go full time into my Ph.D. and freelance writing.

As a result, I’m finding life a lot more fulfilling, and I’m learning something new all the time. I’m better able to understand myself and make decisions with the right motivation guiding them.

Does my story sound at all familiar to you? Then you might want to have a go at examining yours too.

How to Find Out Your Motivation(s)

Going back to our newly designed Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, imagine for a moment that you’re living comfortably. You’ve got a roof over your head, food in the kitchen, a good social circle, and money in the bank. You don’t need to spare a thought about your finances; in fact, you don’t even need to ‘work’.

So we’ve covered our super basic needs to survive and thrive as a human being in that scenario, but what’s missing is the ‘self-actualization’ bit. Your full potential. How do we imagine that?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • If the above scenario were true, how would you spend your time?

Try to think about your daily life where all your basic needs were met. When I asked myself this question, the answer was “spend my life studying at University getting all the PhD’s”. I know that’s the idea of hell for some people, and it sure does tell me a lot about myself. But it’s my idea of a fulfilled life.

Let’s say, for example; you’d want to be writing novels. That act also tells you a lot about yourself; you’re a creative storyteller who likely wants to leave some mark on the world, a little piece of you left behind when you’re gone. Keep that in mind as we move to the next question.

  • When did you feel the most pride or happiness as a result of your direct actions?

This question can be a little tricky. After all, it’s far easier to imagine an ideal future self than to look at our actual past selves with honesty. It can also be hard to think about a situation that came about directly because of you. Not because of luck from an outside force (like winning the lottery).

For me, it was completing my Master’s degree in a subject quite different from my undergrad with the highest grade in my class. I worked hard, and my efforts paid off. I was both happy and full of pride when I graduated.

In the case of a budding novel writer, perhaps your moments are related to publishing a short piece or winning a literary prize of sorts. Maybe it’s not related, but here we move onto the last question.

  • Is there any overlap between the answers to the two previous questions? If so, ask yourself why.

For me, it was pretty clear. I love to learn, and most of the time, the more challenging it is, the better. For the budding novelist whose favorite moments are related to publishing or writing, theirs is pretty clear too. Their motivation is to freely express their creativity (and perhaps be recognized for it).

Here, the concept is that you’re thinking about the ‘why’ behind your actions rather than the ‘what’. For me, it’s not necessarily about ‘what’ I’m learning, but the act of learning itself. For the writer, it’s about expressing themselves, not necessarily the medium of novels or a specific genre.

What about you? Do you have a better idea of what motivates you yet?

Potential Pitfalls

What if your answers to the first two questions weren’t related to each other? Let’s say, for example; you imagined a life where you were doing extreme sports and your most prideful or happy moment as a result of your actions was the birth of a child.

As amusing it is for me to picture someone snowboarding whilst hauling a baby in tow, it doesn’t quite make sense, does it? So we need to look at what IS similar about these situations. Both require some form of adrenaline, and often it’s dancing on the line of life and death, asking lots of what-ifs, and the relief you feel when all is well.

In this scenario, I’d conclude that this person’s motivation would be something like ‘to experience an uncertain/exciting life’. From there, we can derive that the ‘what’ doesn’t necessarily matter, as long as it brings some form of excitement or uncertainty of the outcome. However, your reading of the situation might be different.

So what is important in finding your motivation in life is deep introspection by asking a lot of “why’s”.

Conclusion

So you’ve gotten this far, we’ve looked at why “finding your passion” might not work for everyone, where motivation comes from, and how you can determine what motivates you.

Hopefully, you’ve got some ideas to take with you and think more deeply on. If so, you can take that information and see where you can take action to increase your sense of purpose.

Sure, you might not be able to quit your job as I did, but you’ll be able to get a better idea of what kind of job would satisfy your motivations and go from there. And if you’re one of the people who, like me, struggles to “find your passion”, then perhaps instead you can reframe it as finding “motivational inspiration” based on what you’ve learned today.

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Writing about human experiences and life lessons everyone should know about, but don't.

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