Thought Leadership

Understanding Your Career Motivation

As toddlers, we have the seeming unending capacity to ask, “Why?” Yet by the time we reach adulthood, we’ve long since left it behind. That’s a mistake, particularly when it comes to choosing and evaluating your job and career. Understanding why you’re on your current path — specifically, what motivates you — is critical to career success, according to Kellogg clinical professor and Pritzker Group Venture Capital venture partner Carter Cast. If you don’t know the answer, he says, you may well find yourself in a situation that’s a bad fit for you and your company — and your career could easily go off the rails.

“Sometimes people derail not because of their interpersonal issues or skill gaps but because they’re in the wrong context,” explains Cast, who has recently authored a book devoted to the topic. “One of the best ways to understand context is to ask yourself if you’re in the right place culturally. Is it the right position for your motives? What gives you energy? What drives you?”

In Cast’s The Right and Wrong Stuff: How Brilliant Careers are Made and Unmade, he examines the many factors that do just that—make or break a career. And a key part of that mix is understanding your motivation: what you’re looking for in a position and why. Motivation breaks down into five fundamentals, with one or two usually being dominant in any given individual:

  • Achievement: you always want to improve and accomplish meaningful goals
  • Affiliation: you’re driven to be a team player who values collaboration over competition
  • Power: energized by status, you favor recognition and control over a team or organization
  • Autonomy: you seek control over your work and direction
  • Purpose: you desire to be a part of something larger than yourself
Understanding and appreciating which of these factors is — and is not — important to you could make a big difference in how successful you are in your next job and over the long term. Cast knows that from personal experience. After being promoted to CEO of, he realized that much of the job didn’t appeal to him. He’d actually enjoyed his previous position, which oversaw marketing and merchandising, while the new one distanced him from being hands-on with the product. Thus, it was time for a change in direction, which is how he ended up on the path to his current situation.

It’s all about understanding your motives (what energizes you) and your values (what’s important to you) and asking yourself if those things have changed throughout your career, Cast notes. For the most part, your values may change over the course of your life, but your motives often remain relatively static.

Getting a handle on what motivates you could mean looking forward to getting to work each day rather than forcing yourself to do a job you only took because you felt you were supposed to. There are all too many moves you could make simply because you’ve been led to believe others expect it of you.

With a clear view of your motivations, you can avoid that trap. “Perhaps, just because you can do the job doesn’t mean you should,” Cast stresses.
Carter Cast teaches entrepreneurship, leadership and marketing and works on Kellogg's leadership initiative. Carter has received the Impact Award from his students each year from 2012-2017. In addition to teaching at Kellogg, Carter is a venture partner for Pritzker Group Venture Capital, where he assesses potential investments and advises portfolio companies.

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