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What’s Your Motivation?

“What’s my motivation?” Actors have been asking that question for a long time. It’s not enough for them simply to follow the script they’re given: If they’re going to be convincing in their roles, they have to know why their characters say and do the things that they do.

It’s a question that applies to lots of major life choices. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on just one: career.

Why do people do what they do for a living — that is, people who live in times and places affluent enough that (unlike most people who’ve ever lived) they have any choice in the matter? Ideally, the answer is because they find their job to have value in and of itself, beyond the paycheck it provides: Their work is worthwhile, meaningful, fulfilling. But probably only a minority of us can say that. So what other motives are there?

For some people, it’s about family: They may not find the job itself meaningful, but they find meaning in providing for those they love. Others are driven by money itself, either by what it can buy or by the fear of not having it. Still others are driven by a sense of achievement: They care less about the work for its own sake than the fact that they’re good at it. In some (not all) cases, this includes a sense of being better than others. Their work is their source of identity and often an outlet for their competitive nature. (It should go without saying that people can have more than one motive.)

I’ve given a lot of thought to motivations because my career, frankly, has problems. I think and write about issues and ideas that I believe are important, and it’s very hard to make enough money at that to make a living over the long haul. So sometimes I ask myself if there’s something else I could be doing instead. And that, in turn, means asking what would motivate me to get out of bed every day.

If I’d had a family of my own, I think that would have done it; but I didn’t, and now I’m past that season of life. Money? I’ve never cared much about it and have a hard time forcing myself to think about it. Achievement and competition? I don’t care about those things either: My nature is contemplative, not competitive. Even if I did try to make a mid-life career change, would I stand a chance of success going up against people who are motivated when I’m forcing myself to do something which leaves me cold? I can’t see how. Which is why, as impractical as my current career may be, I think it would be more impractical to switch to a line of work that I simply don’t care about at all. So I keep trying to make what I’m doing work out and being thankful for every day that I can still do something I do find meaningful.

Your situation almost certainly is different from mine. Your interests, talents and personality may well line up with careers where you can make a living. And being young, you may have time to explore more than one option. (It’s a lot easier to do some jobs when you can tell yourself, “This isn’t forever.”) But at some point, it’s likely that you will ask yourself, “What’s my motivation for doing this?” Many of you have done it already.

So let’s hear about your experiences and your struggles with this question, past or present. What does motivate you in your career choices and goals? Has your perspective changed over time?

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About the Author

Matt Kaufman

Matt Kaufman has been a columnist for Boundless since the site’s founding in 1998, and did a stint as editor in 2002-2003. He’s also a former staffer and current contributing editor for Focus on the Family Citizen magazine. Matt is a freelance writer/editor who spent some years in Colorado, but gave up the mountains for the cornfields: He now lives in his hometown of Urbana, home of the University of Illinois. His house is a five minute drive from the one where he grew up, and he enjoys daily walks around the park where he used to play baseball.

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