Motivation is a big deal. There aren’t many things in life that feel better than peak motivation. It feels like riding a wave, sure of your ability to conquer whatever obstacles lie ahead. You start out on your mission with the picture of a triumphant ending already in mind. I go back to my mountaineering days and see myself looking down from a peak I just summited. You probably have a different image of yourself as a winner, but I’m sure you have one. Motivation is like rocket fuel — it accelerates your performance and that of your teammates. It’s contagious.
Motivation is also completely and utterly unreliable. You could be doing everything right only to have some external event throw you for a loop. It leaves you at the mercy of things you can’t control. If you’re anything like me, it can and will abandon you when you need it most. Motivational lows are as devastating as the peaks are intoxicating. When things go wrong, they tend to domino. Each setback saps your energy further, making the next failure more likely. Rather than charting your own destiny, you become a victim — defensive, insecure and looking for others to blame. We’ve all been there, and it’s miserable.
We simply cannot rely on what we cannot control. We need an alternative energy source to propel us forward — lack of motivation be damned. The word on the street is that when motivation flags, we should turn to routine. We can still be successful when executing behaviors that are trained to the point of being automatic, even when our head’s not in it. This, in theory, allows us to score some points, which in turn helps motivation to recover.
This approach, rooted in athletics, is a powerful tool. In a complex and fast-moving business environment, however, it’s not a magic pill. In training, we can always go back to the basics and call it a day. In real life, we’re expected to respond, on the fly, to the changing environment. It could be that the problems in front of us can wait while we’re building ourselves back up. It could be that our challenges lend themselves to a routine we’ve already established. We could be so lucky, but we simply can’t rely on that. We need to dig deeper.
At my company, we talk a lot about “my why.” A “why” usually comes in the form of a story, often personal. We are a genetics company, working to expand the use of genetic information in medicine. Our “whys” are often stories of people in our lives facing health crises and feeling vulnerable, alone and in need of answers. It’s a way to personify our purpose. A purpose is bigger than motivation — it’s a must-do, not a want-to-do.
I have met our patients, I have heard their stories and I know that what we do matters and why it matters. Maybe it’s a woman going through miscarriage after miscarriage and looking for answers. Maybe it’s the father of a sick child in the NICU that’s a day or two old and failing to thrive. Maybe it’s someone with breast cancer all over her family tree wondering whether or not she’s next. What unites most of our patients is that they come to us at their most vulnerable. They need our help.
When motivation abandons me, when the challenges in front of me seem insurmountable, when I question whether I have what it takes, I can always turn to my why — the reason I’m here, doing what I’m doing. It’s not that I don’t have lows. I do and they’re both painful and demoralizing. When they happen, however, I think of my own “why.” Years ago, I myself was that father in the pediatric ICU, full of fear and misery. I remember the difference that getting an answer made. This helps me put one foot in front of the other. Next thing I know, I’m making progress. This is when motivation returns.
Not everyone will have a why expressed in life and death terms. But I guarantee if you look, you’ll find something just as powerful. As leaders, it’s our job to help our teammates connect to their “whys.” This starts with the broader company mission. Over the years, I’ve learned that when I talk about coming change, new initiatives and the challenges ahead, I start and end with the mission. Being able to draw a line from your individual contribution to big-picture goals is massively motivating.
This is a good start, but it’s only a start. A true purpose is personal, and connecting with it is a journey. Here, the only way to lead is by example. You can’t take your teams down your path with you, but you can share your experiences, talk about your struggles and your sources of strength. As your immediate teammates find theirs, encourage them to share in turn, spreading the fire.
At Invitae, our “whys” come up in company meetings, when we’re onboarding new hires and in similar formal settings. More importantly, they come up all the time in casual and completely unscripted conversations. Our broader mission is deeply ingrained in our culture, but so is making it personal. This isn’t written down anywhere, it’s just something we do. And it starts with leadership.
Do this for yourself, and you will gain access to a source of strength that’s always there for you. Open up, model it effectively, and you will help your teammates find theirs. There’s no fast and easy way to do this, but the impact is staggering. A team where all the individuals have their “why,” where they connect to the mission in their own highly personal way, is a force to be reckoned with. When times are tough, you will slog it out and blow through whatever is in front of you. In good times, you will dominate.