A strong desire to win is a necessary ingredient in anyone’s formula of success. The only way to accomplish your biggest goal is to completely attack it with everything that you have. However, when you invest so much of yourself into a single goal it becomes easier for your ego to kill your confidence and leave you in a state of mental paralysis.
Being ego-driven isn't necessarily a bad thing if it is fed by the right sources of motivation. But your goals have to be born from within and only by the outside world. Those external motivators are in large part why we have a hard time getting over our failures. We tend to measure ourselves too much by what others have to say. If you define your self-worth by how you stack up to other people, you'll always be operating under an umbrella of insecurity because no matter who you are there will always be someone with more.
In the fall of 2004, I read a book by Wayne Dyer called The Power of Intention. I came to a section where Dyer wrote about giving up the need to win. My first reaction was, “Ha, ha, this guy has lost his mind!” Why would I give up my need to win? That’s what defined my life and motivated me to get this far -- it was the foundation of my entire athletic career.
But the statement stuck with me and I found myself coming back to it time and again. I began questioning whether my desire to win was actually hurting my ability to, in fact, win. I reflected back on my wins and my losses and realized that extrinsic motivating forces occupied too much emotional control in my life. All I cared about was beating so and so, having everyone like me, making money and achieving a level of notoriety.
After digesting this self-revelation, I became obsessed with figuring out ways to diminish the value that extrinsic forces had once occupied in my life. I did things that were completely out of my comfort zone such as help my fellow competitors with tips on course conditions and speak openly about my training secrets. This new way of operating began to allow me to stop focusing on beating others and caring so deeply what everyone else thought.
I began to focus more on what I wanted to get out of my sport, the athlete that I ultimately wanted to become and how I could get better at whatever I was doing. Ironically, I started winning much more often. The following year I won more consecutive world cup ski races than anyone previously had.
Learning to be internally motivated
Sometimes people get caught up living a life that is not true to themselves, and this can be difficult cycle to break. I had friends who pursued football or skiing only because they were living out the fantasy of their fathers. I’ve also seen people pursue various career paths only to appease family members.
Steve Jobs told the graduating class at Stanford in 2004:
If you're passionate about something, you should attack it and allow yourself to get in touch with the part of you that truly gets pleasure from what you're doing. Part of what helped me make the shift to intrinsic motivation was reflecting on my early love of skiing. I grew up skiing with my family, and it was fun. My grandfather taught me to ski by throwing miniature sized candy bars down the mountain. What could be more fun for a 3 year old?
In time, I began to double down on the philosophy of intrinsic motivation. When I skied for myself, I found it easier to compete at my highest level because my source of motivation was pure. Caring less about winning made it easier for me to block out external distractions such as the media and expectations.
I remember the moment it all came together. It was in Deer Valley, Utah, at a world cup in 2005. It was the third world cup of the year, and in the previous two, I had gotten terrible results because I was more committed to working on a few areas of weakness in my skiing than I was focused on placing in the top three. Then everything clicked and I won that day -- by a wide margin.
But the feeling was different. For the first time, I wasn’t excited because I beat other people. I was completely fulfilled because the parts of my skiing that I was working on finally got to where they needed to be. When I won my second consecutive world cup event the next day, I felt like I was skiing up to my potential and I had a feeling that I wouldn’t lose the rest of the year. I had complete mental clarity and my ego no longer had any effect on my preparation or focus.
Finding motivation in the workplace
It’s easy to focus on the idea that we want to beat our opponents in business, and I do believe that competition helps most of us elevate our game. But you should ask yourself: What is my definition of winning? Is it deeply rooted in beating others, experiencing notoriety or making money?
When people ask me what my exit strategy is at Integrate I tell them it’s very simple: “To make our customers wildly successful.” That's it. I know if that happens everything else will take care of itself.
Brad Feld, a partner at the Boulder, Colo.-based venture capital firm Foundry Group and my first investor, is an expert at understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. He also believes something I’ve really taken to heart -- that one person can’t truly motivate another, a concept especially important in business when you manage people.
“I can’t motivate another person, but [I can] create a context in which they are motivated, and part of being a leader is to understand what motivates other people,” Feld says. “Most people struggle to understand how somebody else is motivated because they do it based on what motivates them.”
You have the power to do the same thing for yourself. Others can guide you, but only you can determine what motivates you. A sense of personal pride from doing a job, taking initiative and/or making good decisions is a means of inner satisfaction that can build intrinsic motivation. Feeling competent at a task and having autonomy combined with satisfying relationships with others at the office can also become intrinsic motivation.
As a leader, there'll be times when you see your efforts paying off. It might be a sign of customer success or the completion of a new product launch. You'll look around, and you'll feel that inner sense of success and fulfillment. That’s when you feel a personal sense of accomplishment that comes from being intrinsically motivated.
From a leader’s perspective, building self-satisfaction in the workplace has been shown in numerous studies to result in an improved office culture and greater individual productivity. Intrinsic motivation also works in team situations, if each team member respects and understands his or her role and the roles of others. It’s about focusing on the team’s efforts and not on the competition or on getting your own individual praise. If nobody needs to be the star, then everyone can give their all to the team.
As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”
Some business owners start out being extrinsically motivated and make a transition in their approach when they realize the love of what they do is stronger than battling to be the best. From personal experience, I must say that it is a wonderful transition and the personal rewards are much greater.