I was asked this question 4 years ago when I was interviewing for a role in one of the top groups in IB globally at the time. The MD sitting across from me had asked all of the typical interview questions you’d find on a number of resources online (as well as here) and finally looked at me and asked, “what motivates you?”...
This wasn’t a question I had prepped for and was caught just alittle bit off guard. I thought for a second and said that I was a person that was committed and passionate about anything that I got involved in. That my passion motivated me. Not competition, not money and not anything else, my passion. I was going to give an example when she cut me off and said, “well, what if you aren’t passionate about something? What if you aren’t interested in what you’re working on, or your interests change?”
My immediate response was that I was passionate about the group I was interviewing with. That I had gone out of my way to understand everything about the sector because it really interested me, but then again she said “yes, so you are interested in this sector, but what if you are working on something that isn’t in this coverage space.”
I was starting to sense that I wasn't giving the answer she wanted to hear and I also didn't know what else to say because I was being honest. I said that once I commit to something I put my head down and just do it, even if I’m not interested in it. As I was about to give an example, she didn’t seem to have found that response to her liking and instead of listening, sat back and asked me if I had any questions for her - effectively wrapping things up.
I left that interview thinking that the question had been about accountability and reliability, and thought I had covered those topics as best that I could by trying to discuss commitment.
Now that I’m no longer in investment banking and have spent the past year starting my own sparkling wine cocktail brand, I suddenly understand what the question really was about.
Passion is a fickle mistress
I get so many people who tell me how great it is that I’m doing something I love, now that I work for myself. How it must be so much easier to put in the 80-100 hr weeks now than it was as a banker...
They are wrong.
...having been both an investment banker and now an operator I found that motivation isn’t something that you can't leave up to passion or interest or something you love. In entrepreneurship, like in banking, there are days when I ask myself, why I am I working these 80 hr weeks? Sometimes, why subject myself to the unknowns of entrepreneurship instead of the job security, trajectory and paycheck of IB? There are days I hate what I’m doing and I completely lack any interest in my work. There are days when everything goes horribly wrong and there is no one senior to me to ask how to fix it. Does my passion keep me from being overwhelmed? I have to ask myself is the time commitment worth not doing as much socially? Does commitment to my goals solve the issue in these circumstances? Does the love for what I'm doing make things easier?
e.g. I actually loved being in investment banking, too. It was a career that was by all regards just what I wanted. However, when I was working at the desk, there was a period when I was having problems in my personal life, my health and I was distracted. I wasn’t motivated to be at work. I forced myself to go in because I had committed to it, but that passion had disappeared and I was focused on the other aspects of life and I honestly didn't give 100% for those last few weeks.
Over the past year, I was forced into the same motivational dilemma again, but this time I had to find another way to respond. I was dealing with health issues and laying in a hospital bed, a few weeks after leaving banking. I decided to start working towards getting my business off the ground at that inflection point. At first, I had the drive that this is my passion, it's going to get me through anything. However, as I spent the next 6 months laying in that hospital bed for about 20-22 hrs a day, and the next 6 after that trying to adjust to the new normals of my life and getting slowly readjusted to society from the almost complete isolation, I learned that my passion for my business wasn't going to help me get it off the ground. I had so many other extreme situations that were so much more pressing, from health to personal life, that why should this business be even any sort of priority? I had no commitment to force me to work on it? Add all of the other questions I listed above, you'll see how there was no reason for me to pursue a new business let alone anything... So I reflected and remembered the MD that asked the question, "what motivates you?," 4 years ago. She was right in seeing that commitment, passion, or even being surrounded by individuals who will make me want to be my best wouldn't hold up in the more extreme situations (this is especially important, when for most, banking already is an extreme situation and burnout is common).
What I learned is that motivation when left up to anything outside of yourself, is a fickle mistress. If you need passion, which many think is the ultimate happiness and driver, you still will be lost. Passion is still an external driver, as is money, or needing those around you to push you. You’re asking an interest and circumstance to unlock your drive and help you get through tough situations. Motivation needs to be an active choice, right here right now, that “I will give 100% everyday, irregardless of what the task and what the circumstances”. It’s a choice of who you are, and not a situational application based on interest or external circumstance. Once I started applying that lesson to my life and creating the habits around it. Even the wildly devastating and heart breaking life situation I was in, wasn't as overwhelming anymore. I was able to choose to give 100% to not only my business but to everything else around me as well. I started actively choosing to be here, right now instead of applying partial attention to all of the things that drew my attention and motivation.
This brings me back to if you're dependent on something to drive you, it will inevitably make you feel overwhelmed. If even for a second your motivator is lost or not to your expectations, you'll lose any and all ability to respond to the situation and to give to it anymore. That's burnout...beat it by creating your own motivation.
What motivates you?
If you are looking to go into investment banking or entrepreneurship or any career, ask yourself what motivates you. Go deeper than the superficial topics of, "this is what i'm interested in", or "the people around me and competition", or "long-term job security" (let's be honest this means money). Maybe if you peel back a second layer you'll realize what motivates you is the idea that hopefully everything you are doing today will make you happy, and allow you to be who you want to be one day in the future. It's your pursuit of happyness.
Once you find that it's all about getting to something in the future you'll realize that you can make that choice today. If you aren’t giving 100% in things that don’t interest you today, you won’t be able to give your all, when you do have everything, but are faced with a tough situation. No amount of your passion or hope for a future will help you, you'll have to make a choice to get up and give your all. This isn't to say that slave away and revolve your all, around the things that make you miserable, or that you shouldn't chase your dreams - it's to understand that if you rely on something to drive how much you give, you are dependent on that circumstance to determine your level of involvement. You're still shackled, but now its to interest and passion, and burnout will still happen, albeit in other unexpected ways; usually when you're overwhelmed and it gets toughest to juggle your career, personal life, etc. That's when your motivation gets tested and that image of the future gets murky (and it inevitably will be tested). If you don't need something to drive you, but you drive yourself, that's freedom. That's motivation of your own choosing. That will give you sustainability to run through walls and respond to situations, to beat out the burnout and being overwhelmed, and be the best you want to be, whether it's in banking, or whatever else it is that you're passionate about...
Your one line take-away:
Marry your motivation to your passions; don't make your passions, your motivation.