Motivators for Work and Growth, and How to Cope When Achievement is Constrained

Why do we work and want to achieve? What holds us back even when our goals are growth and improvement? 

Perhaps a lot of you are managers and have an MBA but are trying to become more innovative. 

Whether you’re not yet in graduate school and think it would be interesting to become a professor, or are thinking of getting a PhD, you are focused on what you want to achieve in your life. One of the main ways to reach your goals is to understand why you’re working towards those goals. (Check out this blog post on doing difficult things in your life.)

In his video, Dave talks about trying to gather the underlying reason why you want to work, go to university, or go into higher education. He also discusses the importance of managers understanding their employees’ needs for constant growth within their organizations. Finally, he addresses how to manage when growth and work are constrained by external circumstances. We make an effort to expand on Dave’s thoughts in this post and add some of our own.

Understanding why you need to perform is really important because it will help you respond in a calm manner when things don’t go as planned. Understanding of self is a way to help you get past the fear that often can hold you back. As you work towards your goals, turn the things that you fear or that affect your sense of self into ways in which you learn more about yourself and conquer your doubts, in order to succeed.

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) and Jessica Russell (freelance writer) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Lessons from our past

We all have these experiences as we grow up that shape us into the person we will become. Both positive and negative, these experiences tell us how to react to situations, how to interact with people, and how to approach the work that needs to be done. Many lessons we learn are from not so positive experiences we have had to endure. Even though we have also had a lot of very positive experiences in our life, we tend to remember those things that are very, very negative. (There are evolutionary reasons to remember bad experiences). Who we are as adults comes from where we have been in our past. Unfortunately, we tend to hold onto bad thoughts and experiences as the framework of who we are as individuals. 

Why do we want to achieve?

When we think about reaching a goal, we might  look at how we interact with people and the world around us to gain insight. An interesting way to reflect on how to achieve your goals is to look at your relationship with yourself and how you give and receive love. The emotions we feel when we succeed and the feelings we have as we are diligently working towards goals are keys to understanding what drives us; because work is a labor of love, and working towards a goal is as well. 

Thinking about why you do what you do can provide key insights into your motivations and how to achieve. There are three common motivators that drive us to work hard, formulate goals, and grow as people and professionals: 

Trophies – For some of us, the main motivator for achieving growth and success is some sort of extrinsic reward, like financial or material gain. This is an absolutely legitimate driver toward success. We live in a competitive world and for many of us, the end goal is a better standard of living for ourselves and our families. However, sometimes our pursuit of success for material gain falls short. We achieve that reward and feel a bit empty or unfulfilled, like we could be or should be doing something more, perhaps something that is bigger than ourselves.

Service – For many people, their main motivator for success or achievement is service to others. For example, this is likely to be more intrinsic rewards. They are driven to help and serve others in their communities or even within their organization. The end goal is to lift others. Their end goal is service, and their means to achieving this main goal is service. They feel their fate is interwoven with that of others and in helping others, they are also helping themselves.

Improvement and excellence – Some people are highly driven by the desire to achieve excellence and improve the world around them. For example, for Maslow, this might be considered the desire for self-actualization. Success or reaching a goal is linked with making the world a better place.They are motivated to continuously refine their skills and innovate to a higher level of quality and achievement. They raise the stakes for everyone with their conscientiousness and attention to detail. Those around them can’t help but feel they want to improve their output as well.

Here is a bit more about each type of motivator and how they apply to work in academia:


Perhaps you are a manager thinking about why you are trying to move up the corporate ladder. Is it about earning more money, or buying a bigger house or nicer car? What is it that drives you in pursuit of growth? If it is materialistic things like that house or car, is it about the objects themselves or some self-assigned status that comes from ownership? 

Looking back, was your sense of self worth connected to winning? Was it being the best at something and receiving kudos and applause? Were you recognized for your talents only when you achieved big things, instead of supported for trying? Knowing that you may struggle with a sense of self worth outside of achievements can affect all those smaller steps you need to take towards reaching your goals. 

There is the decision of what your goal is and the eventual success or failure of reaching that goal, but there are so many small and incidental things that need to happen in between that will help you reach your goals. Knowing you struggle with keeping the momentum because the minutiae of the everyday gets muddled with feelings of self-doubt, you need to make mini goals and celebrate them. 


Perhaps you’re working towards your dissertation on your way to becoming a professor, or you are a professor already. Why do you want to serve your academic community and other students? When you look back on your life from when you were young to now, are your moments of success tied to helping others? Were you praised for doing chores, helping your siblings, being “good” when you did what was expected of you growing up? 

Do you find your self-worth is tied to the approval of others or truly in the emotions that come with being there for other people? Or maybe your support system as you grew was amazing, filled with friends and family that cheered you on and you found your greatest happiness was when you could pay it forward. 

Knowing that success is tied to those outside yourself helps you keep going when the work is hard. The reason you have for staying on task is one in which the success will be of aid to another. That is a valiant goal to want to achieve. Those who give back and teach or mentor the next generation are preparing future leaders and are the fuel behind improvements in process and function, science and technology, and the innovators of the future. 

The fear that can come with service as a mindset is that failure is in your hands but also impacts those you serve. If you’re not successful they will not be successful, and if they are not successful it is your fault. It is a double edged sword, and one of the reasons you may falter. When that happens, look at all you’ve achieved and all your former students and mentees have achieved. You’ve already had many success stories: students who have been innovators in their field, those who have climbed the ladder of success, those who have become mentors themselves. 

Your success is tied to others’ success too. Knowing that you’ve achieved great things, been an excellent teacher, mentor or even manager in business will help you when the doubts creep in. Success can also be measured in continuing to do your best daily in your service to others and being the support for them as well. 

Improvement and excellence 

This one can be difficult in the world of academics and research. Fear comes often due to the scientific process. Not all hypotheses are correct, and not all goals will be achieved on the first try. Making improvements and striving for innovation can be a very iterative process. A life of both many small successes in equal parts, to many small failures along the way, can be daunting and tiring. When you know that the goal is making this world a better place, with improved processes, innovative inventions, or improvements to existing technology (to name a few), that goal is to create a better world. 

(Check out this link if you are interested in building confidence.)

When we work towards improving life for everyone, it makes the process to get there one that is of the utmost importance. That can cause a lot of stress and fear of failure. Practicing self care and relying on resources for mental health are important. But also know that each success, small or large in your field, in your past means you are more than capable of reaching your goals. Even if this is not your first round trying to reach this particular goal, knowing that you are someone who will persevere in order to reach your goals can help you to actually reach those goals. 

Whatever your particular motivators are, remember to take time for yourself, regardless of the goals you’re trying to reach. Rest and recharge, and then try again. 

What happens when we cannot or are not allowed to achieve?

You might be reading this because you have lost your job, or faced considerable challenges. There has been rising unemployment, and a much changed curriculum and environment in academia. It’s important to remember that even though this is one of the craziest times we have lived in, we all have survived worse. Many have been unemployed before and many of you have had to make a really hard choice about what you are going to do next. If you can remember that you’ve had times where you struggled, and were not sure about your future, yet you have already achieved so much since that time, you can go through your struggles today calmly without being ruled by fear. 

Check out this video on feeling exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed during your PhD.

Even in uncertain times, success and achievement can be measured in small steps and faith in yourself. Some of your professors and colleagues could lose their jobs, but some of you can find work  in the new ways of teaching that have popped up due to all the changes in academia this year. Some of us have had to take interim steps like getting a part-time job to hold us over until things get back to normal. Some have relied on services available in our communities, friends and family. When life is not the status-quo, you have to think creatively. In times like these, achievement will often be measured in moments of grace and acceptance, in moments of humility and accepting aid, and in surviving one day to the next. 

In his vlog, Dave talked about 2009 when the world was in recession and he was having a very hard time. Today it is not exactly the same circumstances, but the effects are very much similar in academia and the workplace: trying to find a job, losing a job, education getting  interrupted. Suddenly you find your primary goal becomes keeping a roof over your head and food on the table. 

When you are not able to reach your personal goals and are forced into very big life changes, remember how much you’ve been through and how much you’ve already achieved over your lifetime. We all struggle, you have too. We’ve all persevered. You have too. Here is Dave talking about making good long-term choices.

How to get there from here?

When you know who you are, when you’ve done the work to understand what motivates you and what is important to you, you can react to trying times with clarity, calmness, and grace. It may be hard now, but you’ll get to the other side because you know you can rely on yourself, your friends, and your support system. 

Knowing where you have been allows you to tackle many impressive and big problems that you will go through and new life situations that will challenge you. Whatever you’re trying to achieve at this moment you’re embarking on many different interesting things that are going to be both extremely fun and also challenging. 

Perhaps you’re a new grad or doctoral student moving to a different part of the country, or a new professor or manager mentoring and relying on people via computers and technology. As you learn how to meet the challenges and deal with them, insight will come from understanding how to navigate complex situations from lessons you’ve learned along the way, knowing what motivates you, and coming from a place of peace knowing that you have met challenges in the past and can achieve a lot. Remember all you have achieved already and know that you can approach this with calm and confidence, even with many bumps along the way. Achieving goals is when you get past the fear and put one foot in front of the other, every day. 

Check out this video on doubting yourself.

If you enjoyed this post, there’s more to read on the blog! Check out these other posts if you get a chance.

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