How to Answer “What Motivates You?” (Sample Answers Included)

By Mike Simpson

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In order to get to the bottom of what motivates you, it’s important that you get a crash course in the specifics of motivation.


Motivation is a powerful tool.

It’s what we use to drive ourselves forward to complete tasks.

It can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from something physical (like the additional 10 minutes on the treadmill each time I work out at the gym so I can fit into the speedo I plan on wearing this summer in Hawaii) to mental (putting in the extra work on that proposal to your boss in the hopes for a promotion) and everything in between.

Motivation can be selfish (I want to become the best baseball player so I can humiliate the office jerk at the annual summer picnic) or altruistic (I want to work those extra shifts so I can contribute more to the family budget and let my mom retire a few years early.)

Motivation can be as simple as setting your alarm a few minutes early so you can swing by the coffee shop on the way to work for your favorite latte or as complex as outlining your entire career trajectory from junior high on in order to retire on a tiny tropical island in the middle of the Caribbean.

Motivation comes in all shapes and sizes and is limited only by your imagination.

Motivation is driven by personality, skills, expectations, drive, ambition, gender, age, needs, wants, desires…the list goes on and on…which is why being asked what motivates you can seem almost like an impossible question to answer…especially in job interviews.

Why Do Hiring Managers Ask “What Motivates You?”

So why do hiring managers like to ask this question? Is it because they like to see job seekers stumble? Do they get a sick thrill each time they see a potential hire break out in a cold sweat as they fumble for the right words? Are hiring managers really that…mean?

No.

While it might seem like the only reason behind asking this question is purely for the entertainment of your interviewer, there are actually several important things an interviewer can learn about the interviewee based on their answer, including just what sort of person they really are and how that matches up with what the company is looking for in a new hire.

Hiring managers want to know what you like doing and why you like doing it. They also want to know what you’re good at.

They’re looking for answers that show them examples of characteristics you possess that will help them decide if you’re going to be a great employee.

  • Are you a team player or a lone wolf?
  • Do your strengths align with the job?
  • Do they align with the company overall?
  • Are you applying for a position that you’ll want to excel at or are you just there for a paycheck?

To sum it up even more, they’re trying to figure out exactly how you view and approach success and what drives you. What motivates you as an individual is directly related to your goal-orientation and ambition levels.

Are you someone who is motivated to achieve more in life or are you comfortable doing the bare minimum? Are you willing to work hard for what you want or do you prefer a more relaxed approach to tasks?

Of course, that means there is absolutely a right way to answer this question and a wrong way… Good thing we’re here to help you figure out which is which and exactly what to say when confronted by this often confounding question.

So let’s get started!

How To Answer “What Motivates You?”

In order to give a good answer to this question, you need to understand that it is actually two questions in one…

First off, we need to examine exactly how this question is different from the more traditional interview questions. Because this question requires serious self-examination, it’s a question you should be asking yourself long before the interviewer does.

While many basic interview questions can be answered off the top of your head, the question “What motivates you” is one that covers more than just your career history or salary requirements. You’re going to have to look at the whole big picture and realize in some ways this question is actually two questions in one:

What motivates you in life…and what motivates you at work?

“What Motivates You in Life?”

Another way to ask this question is “What are you passionate about?” What is it that gets you out of bed every day with enthusiasm? Where does your mind go when you’re allowed to daydream?

  • Are you an avid rock climber?
  • A dedicated sport enthusiast?
  • What hobbies do you enjoy?
  • Are you most comfortable whipping up elaborate recipes in the kitchen?
  • Do you find satisfaction in creating art?

Now dig deeper. What is it about these activities that you enjoy? Is it the satisfaction that comes from making something from nothing?

Is it the sense of accomplishment after finishing an intricate project that drives you? Maybe it’s seeing how much others enjoy seeing what you’ve done?

Maybe it’s the feeling you get from helping others or leading them through something and teaching them new skills?

Maybe it was how you felt when you learned a new skill? Whatever it is, focus on that.

“What Motivates You at Work?”

Yes, we all know for 99% of us the primary motivation for most jobs is the paycheck, but for the sake of this exercise (and your future interviews) let’s just assume the hiring manager already know that and look at other factors that motivate you.

Is it similar to what drives you in life?

Do you love the sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing a big project on time and under budget?

Is it the glow you get from being told you did a great job on a difficult task?

Maybe it’s the feeling you get from leading a team successfully?

Look back on everything you’ve done both job and career wise so far. What was it about your best days that made them the best days? When you tell stories about what you do that highlight what you enjoy, what specifically do you tell people about?

Can you take those feelings and apply them to specific moments from your life and past work experiences? Remember, real-life examples make your answers not only more compelling to a hiring manager, but also give them a great idea of how you’ll behave in future situations as well.

Finally, take a long look at the job you’re applying for and see how the things you’re motivated by in both life and at work matches up with the skills and abilities required.

Preparing an answer ahead of time that specifically addresses those skills and abilities will not only make answering this question easier if it’s asked, but will only help highlight you as the Perfect Candidate.

What Not To Say When Asked About Your Motivation

Now that we’ve gone over the subtext of what a hiring manager is actually asking you when they ask “What motivates you,” let’s talk about what not to say in response.

“I’m totally motivated by that fat paycheck I’m gonna get every 15 days.”

They know. What else motivates you?

“I’m motivated by the opportunity to get promoted as fast as possible and as high as possible because I love power and money.”

No. While wanting to do a good job and advancing your career is excellent motivation, try to find a better way to phrase it.

“My mom told me if I didn’t get a job, she was going to kick me out of the basement and I’d rather stay there than couch surf.”

We’re not even going to touch this one.

While these bad answers may seem obvious, it’s still a tricky question and it’s easy to make small mistakes when answering including:

Being too generic or vague in your answer.

Remember…specific examples and direct tie-ins to the position you’re applying for will highlight your position as the Perfect Candidate and make it easier for the hiring manager to see you not just as an applicant, but as a future employee.

Being too focused on the paycheck.

Again, we all know that’s a major motivator, but an employer wants to see beyond that. Of course, if you’re applying for a job in sales it won’t hurt to mention that you’re driven to increase your numbers every month/quarter/year, but try not to make that the focus of your answer.

Being dishonest with your motivation.

We’ve said this time and time again in countless past articles…be honest. While telling your future boss you’re motivated by the opportunity to interact with customers might get you the job, if it turns out you actually hate dealing with people, it’s just going to come back to bite you.

We’ll say it again…

Be honest.

Five Tips For Answering “What Motivates You?”

Now that we’ve covered what not to say, let’s look at what you should say! Here are five easy tips to help you prepare your own answer.

1. Be prepared.

Ask yourself this question ahead of time and outline possible answers as well as examples from your own past life/work history that relate to the job you’re applying to.

2. Be self-aware.

This goes hand-in-hand with being prepared. Hiring managers want to know that you’re genuinely thinking of what motivates you. A fast answer with a generic response isn’t going to win you any points. Take time to really answer the question by first really looking at who you are and what you love…and most importantly, what drives you!

3. Be enthusiastic.

This is what drives you! This is what you’re passionate about! Let that enthusiasm show! The more enthusiasm you have for what motivates you, the more enthusiasm the hiring manager will have for you!

4. Be self-motivated.

Hiring managers love self-motivated people. Even if the job you’re applying for has you working on a team, hiring managers want to know that you’re strong enough on your own to complete the tasks assigned to you. If all your motivation comes from outside forces, a hiring manager might feel some concern about your ability to complete tasks if not constantly supervised.

5. Be honest.

We’ve already gone over this but just in case…one last time. Be honest.

Three Example Answers to Guide You

In order to get you ready to craft your own answer to the interview question “What motivates you,” we thought we’d give you three example answers. Use these as a jumping off point for your own answers and don’t forget to tailor them!

EXAMPLE 1 – Sales job:

I'm highly motivated by seeing happy customers... customers that have appreciated the process as much as the actual purchase. In my previous job, I really tries to ensure that the customer was treated with respect and that they never felt pressured. Not only did that mean they were satisfied with the experience they had with my company but it also resulted in a number of repeat purchases. It was this approach to sales that helped me become the top earner in my district three years in a row, which further motivated me to continue to focus on customer experience.

EXAMPLE 2 – Design job:

I’m directly motivated by seeing the results of my efforts translate into a physical object. I enjoy every aspect of product design but nothing makes me happier than seeing the actual working prototype. That’s why I’m driven to be hands on every step of the way an why I’m so focused on quality control.

EXAMPLE 3 – Team job:

I love learning new things which is why I love being on a team. For every project we had at my last job, we had a half dozen different ideas and ways to tackle it. We would all work together to refine those into one final plan. Being open to what others have to say and seeing new and exciting ways others would think outside the box not only kept me interested in the work I was doing, but drove me to further my own education outside of work so I could continue to contribute to the group overall.

Putting It All Together

Remember that while there are right ways and wrong ways to answer this question, there is no truly single perfect answer to this question. Your answer will be as unique as you are.

Of course, knowing how to answer it will help bring you one step closer to going from a potential hire to an actual employee, which is why it’s so important to think about it before you get to the interview stage.

Just remember to follow our tips, craft your own response using your own specific examples and be honest.

And as always…

Good luck!

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