Jeff Haden: The Truth About What Motivates Us

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden

I spoke to Jeff Haden, author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win, about why he wrote the book, what surprise him from his research, how to create a process around motivation, examples from top leaders he interviewed, how to stay motivated despite setbacks, and his best career advice.

Haden is's most popular columnist and one of LinkedIn's most widely-followed Influencers. In 2017, his online articles for Inc. alone attracted more than 20 million readers. He’s also ghostwritten a number of bestselling books and even more articles, presentations, scripts, and reports.

Dan Schawbel: Why did you decide to write a book about motivation? While researching for the book, did you discover anything that surprised you about the topic?

Jeff Haden: I was talking with Venus Williams about her career and her various pursuits and she said she had never had this lightning bolt moment of inspiration or motivation. She didn’t suddenly think, “My life’s purpose is to be the #1 tennis player in the world.” She just wanted to be a better tennis player. 

Then I thought about all the people who tell me they hope to accomplish something big but are waiting for that lightning bolt to strike. And I realized that only in rare cases do incredibly successful people suddenly find their passion and life’s purpose. Most of them develop their passions and interests slowly, over time, simply by trying something, wanting to get better at it… and getting daily doses of motivation through enjoying small successes.

In short, motivation isn’t something you get — motivation is something you create, on your own, by following a process that allows you to improve, bit by bit.

That thought alone is incredibly motivating, because it means you already have everything inside you that you need to achieve your goals.

Schawbel: How does one create a process around motivation and will that process be different for each person?

Haden: The key is to create a process that guarantees a series of small improvements. Usually that means the process isn’t that different. While, as Monty Python says, we are all individuals, there’s also no need to reinvent perfectly good wheels. 

That’s why one of the chapter is Do What the Pros Do: Pick someone who has achieved something you want to achieve, deconstruct their process, then follow it. Along the way you might make small corrections as you learn what works best for you… but never start by doing what you want to do, or what feels good, or what you think might work. Do what is proven to work. Otherwise you’ll give up because the process you create won’t get you those small successes that keep you motivated — and feeling good about yourself.

Schawbel: Who are some great leaders that you have interviewed, or written about, that have created a process around motivation?

Haden: Interestingly, most of them instinctively create processes that focus on the day to day and not the end result. If you focus solely on your goal, you realize just how great the distance is between here, where you’re staring, and there, where you hope to someday be… and that gap is so wide that it’s incredibly demotivating. If you want to run a marathon and today you can only run a mile, thinking about someday needing to run 26 miles is hugely daunting. Think about it too much and you’ll quit.

That’s why Venus’s dad kept Venus and Serena from playing too many junior tournaments. He wanted them to focus on developing their skills, not on winning or losing. In the early days of Metallica, Kirk Hammett was still taking guitar lessons from Joe Satriani and rode his bike 25 miles one-way to get there. (He didn't have a car.) Bert Jacobs and his brother John started Life is Good by driving a minivan up and down the coast, selling t-shirts out the back. The list goes on of people who focused on creating a process that would lead to long-term successs… and then working that process and finding motivation in small, day-to-day successes. That’s how they kept going when others would have quit.

Schawbel: Everyone goes through some form of rejection, criticism or obstacle, in their career. How do we stay motivated despite all of this?

Haden: The best way is to realize it up front and built it into your process. Another chapter is Work Your Number; it’s a strategy that lets you succeed through the power of repetitions. If you know your number, all you have to do is hit it. 

For example, the co-founders of a startup told me they were discouraged because it took an average of 5 cold calls to land one new customer, and they needed at least 10 new customers a month. I said, “Then you know what you have to do. Create a process that allows you to call 50 potential customers a month.” Of course they should also work to improve their message, etc, so that hopefully their success rate would improve over time... but for now, if your success rate holds, you just need to make 50 calls.

While that sounds simplistic, it’s not. And it builds in an automatic buffer against rejection. If you know you’ll hear “no” a number of times, and it's part of your process… that rejection is a lot easier to take.

As for obstacles or failures, the best approach is to realize that the past is just training. It doesn't define you. Think about what you didn't do well, about mistakes you made, but only in terms of how you will make sure that next time, you know what to do to make sure things turn out the way you want. Ultimately, obstacles are just opportunities to learn.

Schawbel: What are your top three pieces of career advice?

Haden: I only get three? (Smile.)

  1. Every day, do one thing no one else is willing to do. The easiest way to be different — and to succeed differently — is to do what other people are unwilling to do. Just pick one thing the people around you won't. It can be simple. It can be small. Doesn't matter. Whatever it is, do it. You'll instantly stand out from the pack. Then keep going. Every day, think of one thing to do that no one else is willing to do. After a week, you'll be uncommon. After a month, you'll be special. After a year, you'll be incredible...and you definitely won't be like anyone else.
  2. Data comes and goes, but feelings last forever. Facts and figures are important. Explaining the logic and reasoning behind a decision can help create buy-in and commitment. Charts, graphs, tables, results, etc., are useful--and quickly forgotten. But make an employee feel stupid or embarrass him in front of other people and he will never forget. An employee made a comment in a meeting, and I instinctively fired off a sarcastic comeback. (For a long time, I was like a sarcastic-comment sniper, who figured that if I had the witty shot, I should always take it.) Everyone laughed but him. And our working relationship changed forever. I apologized on the spot, and apologized again later, but the damage was already done. Spend twice the time thinking about how employees will feel than you do thinking about data and logic. Correcting a data mistake is easy. Overcoming damage you cause--whether intentional or not--to an employee's self-esteem is impossible.
  3. Don’t forget that you can always outwork everyone else. Yes, you should work smarter. But if you truly want to succeed, work smarter and harder. Like Jimmy Spithill, skipper of America's Cup-winning Team Oracle USA, says, "Rarely have I seen a situation where doing less than the other guy is a good strategy.” You may not be as experienced, as well funded, as well connected, as talented...but you can always out think, out hustle, and out work everyone else. (As I like to say, the extra mile is a vast, unpopulated wasteland.) Even when everything else seems stacked against you, effort and persistence can still be your competitive advantages — and they may be the only advantages you truly need.
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