Sunday, June 29, 2008


Traditional thinkers will tell you that “What gets rewarded gets done.” However, Kouzes and Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, suggest that this well worn statement is a little off. In their minds it should read “What is rewarding gets done.” (p. 40 The Leadership Challenge). This thought goes to the heart of what drives a successful organization – motivated people doing meaningful, rewarding work.

Peter Koestenbaum has said that “The most powerful sources of motivation are not money or fear of punishment, but rather pride, honor, self-respect, self-development, and a sense of accomplishment. …(U)ltimately, only you can motivate yourself.“ (p. 160-161 - Leadership The Inner Side of Greatness, 2002)

If it is true that motivation comes from the inside, that you are responsible for your own motivation, and ultimately the quality of your life, then the real question is: What motivates you? And, why have you chosen to do the job you are now doing?

In his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea – Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte wonders at how we can “…spend a third of our lives preparing ourselves for our work, and find ourselves forgetting the original inspiration behind all that preparation the moment we take a seat at our new desk.” (p. 164) (See a previous post on this blog “Applying the Diamond to Life” for an additional reference to this work.) Our own motivation brought us to this point, but somehow, once settled behind Whyte's proverbial desk, we allow our motivation to wane and we attempt to substitute the motivation and goals of others for our own.

But true motivation comes from the inside when we are doing what we consider to be “good work”. Whyte says that

“The stakes in good work are necessarily high. Our competence may be at stake in ordinary, unthinking work, but in good work that is a heartfelt expression of ourselves, we know, in the end, we are our gift to others and the world. Failure in truly creative work is not some mechanical breakdown but the prospect of a failure in our very essence, a kind of living death. Little wonder we often choose the less vulnerable, more familiar approach that places work mostly in terms of provision. If I can reduce my image of work to just a job I have to do, then I keep myself safely away from the losses to be endured in putting my heart’s desire at stake. (Crossing the Unknown Sea, p. 13)

By choosing ordinary, unthinking work we may find ourselves in a career path that provides no motivation beyond safety and low risk. These may initially be strong motivators, but in the long run, a safe and risk-free existence may not prove to be fulfilling. Finding work that provides a "heartfelt expression of ourselves" may mean stepping out of the safe and cool shade of uninspiring work into the light and heat of work that provides meaning and a vehicle for us to share our gifts with those we serve.

These authors tell us to shift from believing that others are responsible for our energy, happiness, and motivation to recognizing that we are in control of our own destiny. Understanding this is a key to gaining control of your life and ultimate happiness.

So, the questions become - What motivates you? Are you doing "good work"? Or, are you waiting for others to come along and light your motivational fire?