On Motivation and Values

For many years, I worked without knowing why.

I thought I knew why I was working, in that I was earning money to support myself. But while that was a reason to have a job, as opposed to say, deliberate unemployment, it had nothing to do with the line of work I had chosen, nothing to say about the way in which I spent the majority of my waking hours or the primary influence on my consciousness. It explained my actions in a way so tangential as to be almost irrelevant, akin to saying that I chose to live in San Francisco because it had houses.

That’s not to say that there weren’t reasons why one would choose my career path. There certainly were, it paid well for one. A close friend summarized his purpose for working in our same job as ‘to achieve dynastic wealth’. I didn’t and still don’t feel that there was anything wrong with this, in fact it’s probably as clear a four-word mission statement as I’ve ever heard, it’s just that those reasons weren’t mine, they weren’t what drove me. To the contrary, I had never been motivated by money, dynastic amounts or otherwise. And yet, in the absence of having any real goals of my own, l gravitated towards people that were motivated, as if mere proximity to purpose could stand in for at least some portion of the real thing. It can’t. The knowledge of what drives us as is uniquely personal as the recollection of a dream after waking. It’s not something you can take from someone, it’s who you actually are.

I eventually reached a point where I could no longer compete in a competitive industry. The people with whom I was competing knew why they were working such grueling, long hours, and I did not. The difference was material, and it had nothing to do with intelligence or ability or experience and everything to do with internal alignment, a clear motivation, a tangible purpose that drove them to work the extra few hours when the marginal cost of those extra hours was extremely, extremely high. Lacking that, I was assured of mediocrity at best, and complete failure at worst.

It was only after I left that job and ventured out on my own, that I became aware of what motivated me, of what actually mattered to me. It was an epiphany that happened slowly at first and then all at once, a bolt of a realization that suddenly allowed me to decipher my own life, like the recollection of a long forgotten mother tongue. In my case, I realized that I had an innate and almost overpowering desire to build something that I could be proud of. To at least be a part of something that I could take great pride in. There is nothing inherently better or worse about this motivation than any other one. It’s just that this is what drives me. And having that knowledge suddenly allowed me to experience life in a new way and achieve things I previously couldn’t have.

I then realized something similarly crucial. That just as a person whom doesn’t know what motivates him is ultimately ineffective regardless of how talented he or she may be, an organization that lacks core values as its guiding principles is likewise destined for irrelevance. The moment a company points to its intelligence, or technology, or track record, as the reason why it will succeed going forward, it’s doomed. Not doomed in an immediate sense perhaps, but at best it will have a gradual and relatively painless decline into the future. And the thing about the future, is that it always arrives. To forget this fact, that our values are ultimately what decides our fate, is to invite hubris and wait idly for ruin.

This is certainly not a novel realization, to the contrary I believe most, if not all, great organizations have been built on the basis of this principle, but as with the first time you travel abroad, it’s one thing to read about it and another entirely to go through the journey yourself.

The fact that it took me so long to have this realization is likely a product of the fact that I had never worked for an organization that had core values, or really any values at all, at least not in the sense that they guided the organization in any way, or even in that anyone knew what they actually were. And I suspect many people are in the same position. It’s a mistake that I won’t make again, and I now encourage everyone to spend as much time as possible thinking about values. It’s more than time well spent. It’s the most important thing to think about. When I think about values now I think about meaning, I think about purpose, I think about pride, I think about everything.