Tina Seelig
Oct 11, 2015 · 4 min read

A few years ago, as I sat through the presentation for a startup company, it wasn’t clear to me what was driving the business. There didn’t appear to be an overarching mission for the company and they didn’t seem to be addressing a specific problem. Genuinely curious, I asked the founder what motivated him. He was visibly flustered by this question, and it wasn’t surprising when the company folded a few months later.

There is a deep linkage between motivation and success. Those individuals and organizations with a strong mission are much more likely to succeed. In fact, our motivations influence everything we do. However, our motivations aren’t always obvious, and therefore our behavior is sometimes confusing, even to ourselves.

In my classes at Stanford, I often do an exercise designed to reveal insights about what drives each individual. I begin by drawing a large two-by-two matrix on the board with “Passion” on the Y axis and “Confidence” on the X axis.

Each student fills out four sticky notes, one for each quadrant, and places them in the relevant square. In the upper right quadrant each person puts an activity for which they have high passion and high confidence; in the upper left quadrant they affix one for an activity for which they have high passion and low confidence. In the lower quadrants they place an activity for which they have low passion and high confidence, and one for which they have low passion and low confidence. For many people this is a surprisingly challenging task, since they don’t routinely use these terms to describe the pursuits in their life.

Before reading any further, I suggest doing this yourself.

Once this is completed, we discuss the results. It becomes clear that those activities in the upper right quadrant are ones we spend considerable time doing. Practice results in mastery and confidence, and confidence reinforces our passion.

The upper left quadrant includes things we say we want to do, but usually don’t do, or things we have just started learning. We lack confidence because we haven’t spent time practicing these skills. Whether the activity is singing, skiing, or learning a new language, there is something holding us back from getting fully engaged. It is only by ramping up our commitment to this task that we will put in the time and effort required to pull it into the upper-right quadrant.

Those items in the lower left quadrant are activities we don’t have any interest in pursuing. We are neither passionate nor confident about them. These are great things to outsource to others who enjoy these tasks. Alternatively, if these are tasks that we need to accomplish, there are ways to reframe how we think about them. We can focus on the outcome as opposed to the process, find ways to make the activity more pleasurable, or plant rewards along the way.

The final quadrant includes items for which we have high confidence but low passion. This is the most interesting square since it includes items that we have already mastered but don’t enjoy doing. One option is to probe why we aren’t motivated. For some things, we give up on pushing ourselves once we reach a minimum level of skill or get bored with the repetition.

It is up to each of us to actively decide which items we want to have in each quadrant, and to determine what percentage of our time will be spent pursuing tasks that fall on one side of the matrix or the other.

To move from the left-hand side of the matrix toward the right-hand side requires an increase in confidence. The only way to increase confidence is with actions: practicing skills leads to mastery and confidence. And, to move from the lower half of the matrix to the upper half requires an increase in your drive. The only way to increase your drive is to change your attitude. This might mean making a pursuit a priority, throwing off anxiety that the goal is out of reach, or giving yourself permission to fail on the road to success.

We each control our attitudes and our actions, and thereby are a master of our own motivations.


This is an edited excerpt from Insight Out: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World, by Tina Seelig, published by HarperCollins 2015

Stanford d.school

Learning shared by the Stanford d.school community

Tina Seelig

Written by

Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Stanford. Author, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, inGenius, Creativity Rules http://www.tinaseelig.com/

Stanford d.school

Learning shared by the Stanford d.school community

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