By Douglas B. Richardson, Certified Master Coach
Each of us wrestles with the Great Question: "What Should I Do With My Life?" For those of us who define ourselves by our work, part of the answer is "find a career for which you are temperamentally suited, that motivates you and is enjoyable." First and foremost, successful people are self-aware, and successful career self-assessment requires each of us to draw a succinct "motivational map" – a practical and realistic template we can hold up to the real world to see if a job opportunity or career direction is indeed a "good fit" for us.
This is easier said than done. The whole notion of motivation may seem abstract and hard to translate into real-life choices and behaviors. "My whole career feels like I've been running around randomly kissing frog after frog, hoping one will turn into a prince," said one woman still looking for direction at mid-career. "If I don't find my prince-frog until I'm 80, I'll be real upset." Another executive described how hard it is to know where and how to focus: "I can't get my thought processes to hold still. My mind reminds me of a cat stepping on a remote – the channels keep jumping around." Another high-powered exec reports difficulty with "all this touchy-feely jargon. What's the connection between values and motivation, and real-world goals and objectives? Isn't there a flow-chart to help me with this stuff?"
We can at least try. At the heart of our motivational map is an inventory of our deepest, broadest, most fundamental values (rational thinkers may have trouble with the emotional charge of the word values. Suggest that they use satisfiers instead). What we are describing here are our basic emotional food groups – the kinds of psychological nourishments we need the most. These values differ from person to person, but for all of us they include the satisfactions we persistently seek (proactive motivators), as well as the experiences which pain us or turn us off (reactive motivators). Typically we describe our value-sets as "orientations," saying that someone is security-oriented, stability-oriented or relationship-oriented, etc.
A value statement can reflect a belief, a priority, a satisfaction, an aversion or a behavioral predisposition. But whatever they reflect, these values are usually described by nouns describing outcomes and endpoints – for example Achievement, Power, Affiliation, Acceptance, Stability, Self-Esteem, Self-Development, Knowledge, Growth, Spirituality, Excitement, Variety, etc.
Our most powerful and persistent motivators usually develop at an early age, building on our natural aptitude (nature), and the priorities we absorb from role models and life experience (nurture). Authors Timothy Butler and James Waldroop describe them as our "deeply-embedded life interests (DELI's)" which are "long-held, emotionally driven passions." Their "big eight" DELI's are: Quantitative Analysis, Application of Technology, Theory Development and Conceptual Thinking, Creative Production, Counseling and Mentoring, Managing People and Relationships, Enterprise Control, and Influence Through Language and Ideas.
But whatever you call these DELI's, it's worthwhile to try to distinguish between fundamental, long-lasting motivations – or "core values" – from more transitory priorities that may have short-term importance at various stages of your life and career. Why? Because once we have addressed such "values" in one way or another, they tend to disappear. Therefore if you construct your life around satisfying short-term priorities, you may suddenly find yourself with an empty building. Transitional needs are genuine and shouldn't be ignored ("This is just a phase"), but the trick is to align your short-term desires with your fundamental values. They should be the tail on the dog, not the dog itself.
Once you have distinguished between core values and short-term priorities, the next task in motivational self-assessment is to prioritize your core values. You have to ask: "Of all the things that are true of me, which are most true? Of all the things I want in life, what do I want the most?" There are a variety of instruments, templates, books and counselors that can help you understand your value system. The most effective, however, ask you to avoid creating an undifferentiated laundry list, and instead distinguish "musts" from "wants," assigning weights to each value to help determine which values are primary and which are secondary, which are fundamental and which are incidental.
The next step in our motivational mapping is to identify your "drivers" – the things you do to express and achieve our values. For example, achievement-oriented people are driven constantly to seek new challenges. Affiliation-oriented people constantly build relationships. Security-oriented people tend to avoid risk.
Your drivers are expressed in terms of behavior and action, representing the visible evidence of your values. Because our psyches seek to re-experience the activities or emotions that most gratify them, if you list, prioritize and then "deconstruct" your life's ten to fifteen most satisfying accomplishments, voila! – your most powerful drivers will surface over and over again. In addition, from the expression of those drivers you can usually see the underlying values they support. For example, if eight of your personal "top ten" accomplishments are anchored to verbs like designed, planned, envisioned or developed, it's a sure bet that one of your powerful underlying values is creativity.
In practical terms, that means that each of your most fundamental values must be expressed repeatedly in your work or personal life – or else you'll lose motivation. Many of us confuse what we're capable of doing with what we're temperamentally suited to do – we substitute competency for motivation, and then wonder why life is uninspiring. Or we do things that other people tell us we should do, without regard to whether they nourish our own unique values and drivers.
In the course of your self-assessment, you should look at each past major life decision or turning point and ask:
Your next mapping step is to look for patterns and connections among your values and drivers. Your values do not express themselves in a vacuum, but tend to support and reinforce each other. We don't reinvent our personalities every day; the process of growing up is an aggregation of experiences that teach us how to satisfy our motivational needs. In other words, we find that some behavior or attitude works to get us something we want, and so we employ it again. With re-use and refinement, our drivers become clearer, sharper, more sophisticated. Our motivational map takes on a solid shape, and our individual map begins to differentiate us from others around us: we see adventurers, creators, team-builders, initiators, finishers, loners, joiners, shouters, whisperers. We may find we get greater "gain" by becoming markedly passionate…or compassionate…or dispassionate. We develop a sense of our value boundaries and limits.
By the time we're in our early 20s, our values and drivers have solidified into a consistent orientation toward people, activities, roles and settings. They coalesce into a coherent, consistent operative style that helps us "operate" comfortably in day-to-day life. There are scores of assessment tools that can draw a pretty accurate picture of your operative style: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Birkman, 16PF, Life Styles Inventory, etc. These profile preferences and behaviors that tend to remain stable over time.
Because of this, as part of your self-assessment you can "work your operative style backward," prioritizing your major driving forces from your operative behaviors and preferences, as well as the strength of your assessment scores on various scales. From examining your drivers – the ones that inform and shape your career from beginning to end – you can infer the underlying values that each driver feeds. Now you can nail those abstract terms down and translate them into real-life incentives for yourself.
If you pursue this path rigorously, you should end up with a prioritized list of values. It should feel stable, consistent and right – because it's been built up over years of personal development. Now that you've nailed those abstract motivators down, you can translate them into real-life incentives – behaviors, settings, rewards and satisfactions – on which to base practical career and life choices. NOTE: It may seem redundant, but when you reach this point you should do another reality check to make sure your operative style isn't being distorted by transient factors – otherwise you may have to start all over again once those short-term needs have been met.
Not-so-incidentally, after you complete all this navel-staring and go out into the real world of work, relationships, goals and accomplishments, you may naturally "take" to some people more than others. People with similar core values tend to recognize each other (whether they be abstract values or behavioral norms), and experience the warm glow of "value congruence." Because of this they tend to like each other, saying things like "wow, this is a good fit."
In times of distress (such prolonged unemployment), it may feel natural to take shelter in the things you have in common with everyone else. But in the long run, your career satisfaction in fact hinges on your ability to identify, prioritize and nourish those fundamental attributes that differentiate you from others the most.
Douglas B. Richardson heads The Richardson Group, a nationally recognized leadership development and career management consulting firm in Narberth, PA. Doug earlier was an award-winning columnist for Dow Jones' National Business Employment Weekly and its online successor, CareerJournal.com, for over 20 years.