An Exercise: What Motivates You?

Previously I wrote a Grand Unified Theory of Motivation where I attempted to pull together the the intrinsic motivators as described by Daniel Pink with the external motivators that I believe are necessary to have a complete picture of what motivates us. To briefly summarize: 


  • Autonomy – our desire to be self-directed
  • Mastery – the urge to get better at stuff
  • Purpose – making a contribution to something bigger than oneself


  • Influence – our ability to have an effect on someone or something (a.k.a. power)
  • Status – our relative personal, professional, or societal standing 
  • Resources – the money, materials, and other assets that we can draw upon 

Using this framework, here's an exercise that I've done with individuals and teams. It's simple. First, take the six motivators and describe how each would manifest specifically for you. Second, rank them against each other based on those examples. The introspection and honesty required for this to be helpful may not be as simple, but that's where the value comes from. 

The same motivation can be interpreted very differently. Status could mean "work for a big-name company", "have a big title like Principal Designer", or "be famous" for different people. Mastery might mean "get an advanced degree in my field" or "become an acknowledged expert." And so on for each of them. Then you prioritize based on how motivated you are by each one. 

Going through all of these, take the following hypothetical example for someone named Don. 

  1. Status – I want people to love me. 
  2. Influence/Power – when you're a star, they'll let you do anything.
  3. Resources/Money – can never have enough. 
  4. Autonomy – I do what I want when I want.
  5. Mastery – I'm already the smartest and best dealmaker there is.   
  6. Purpose – whatever. 

Don would prefer to feed their ego than feed their brain. He would prefer to gain and use his influence to get his own way and burnish his ego rather than stand up for something. The extrinsic motivators are more important than the intrinsic ones in this obviously hypothetical example. 

My team did this exercise earlier this year and many appreciated going through the introspective process. Nobody ranked the six motivators in exactly the same way; it's a good reminder for any manager that a one-size-fits-all approach likely won't work. Someone made an observation that about half had identified Purpose as one of the top two while Resources was often in the bottom two; it may be because it's considered somewhat gauche to publicly admit that money matters more than purpose, or that this group's Resource needs have been met so they can focus elsewhere, or some other reason. If people were asked to do this as a private exercise, maybe the results would have been different. 

I shared this exercise with another friend who did it together with his wife; as an immigrant who grew up with nothing and had to work for everything, Resources ranked the highest for him. He said the conversation was a productive one, and they were able to better understand themselves by doing it. That's exactly how I feel about it, too.