Walt Disney famously said: “If you can dream it, you can do it. Always remember that this whole thing was started with a dream and a mouse.” Is that true? Or is the secret of success to “rise early, work hard, strike oil,” as J. Paul Getty advised?
Certainly, many of us assume that successful people simply “struck oil.” That view takes away our responsibility to be masters of our fate. However, research seems to side with Walt. Dr Anders Ericsson found that successful people in professions such as sport, music, chess, dance, or business, had put in the most hours practising their craft. He suggests: “It takes 10 years and 10,000 hours to become an expert.”
Other research has shown that the longer someone is in a career, the less important innate ability (i.e. intelligence) is and the more important motivation becomes. In other words, successful people just keep on going longer than the rest. Why is the relationship between motivation and success so robust? Perhaps because it is motivation that keeps us going when the external feedback is showing no improvement. Change in people and organisations does not happen in a linear way, but more like a virus. For long periods, nothing seems to be improving, and the work continues with little external validation or motivation. You might recognise this from your experience of dieting, getting fitter, learning the piano, being an effective manager. Without internal motivation, this period (known as The Grind) is where many New Year’s resolutions fail.
Many business people, when they reach this point, either ease up or give up because it is just too hard. Truly motivated business people reach The Grind and keep on going to the magical point where the change “goes viral” and the external feedback becomes overwhelmingly positive.
We can explore motivation along two dimensions: internal vs. external and positive vs. negative. The resulting quadrants create very different experiences and outcomes:
- Internal-positive: challenge, desire, passion, satisfaction, self-validation (outcome: successful, fulfilled, and happy).
- External-positive: recognition and appreciation from boss and co-workers, financial rewards, stable life (outcome: some success, mostly fulfilled, dependent on others for continued success and good feelings).
- Internal-negative: threat, fear of failure, inadequacy, and insecurity (outcome: considerable success, high rate of burnout, unhappiness).
- External-negative: fear of loss of job, insufficient respect from boss and co-workers, financial pressure, pressure from significant others, unstable life (some success, anxiety-ridden, unhappy).
The ideal type of motivation is internal positive because the motivation is coming from a place of strength and comfort. However, many successful business executives seem driven by insecurity or need for attention, suggesting that an internal-negative or external-negative motivation can lead to a narrow definition of success (though rarely enduring happiness). If you are going through The Grind, then keep the faith and if your motivations are not in the internal positive quadrant, re-evaluate them.