“What motivates you?” “What makes you tick?” “What drives you?”
In many interviews over the course of your professional career, you’ll hear one of these questions or another variation of them.
It can be overwhelming to hear. “What motivates me?” you might be thinking. “Plenty of things!” And, of course, there are probably numerous motivating factors that influence your work, personal life, and other aspects of your daily experiences.
So, how do you craft an answer that tells the interviewer what she wants to know while presenting your true and authentic self?
This is a more specific variant of “Tell me about yourself.” That’s a question you’ve almost certainly gotten in an interview—in fact, it’s often the first one the interviewer asks. As with this question, she’s trying to get a sense of a few different facets of you, including:
• Your personality
• Your work style
• How you’ll fit in with the company culture and team
• How well you’ll match her vision of the position
• How you’ll cope with setbacks and challenges on the job
However, “Tell me about yourself” is admittedly a much broader question than “What motivates you,” so you shouldn’t attempt to pack as much into your response.
While there is no single right answer to “What motivates you?” there are some wrong ones. We’ll discuss those in more detail below.
Above all else, the interviewer is looking for authenticity in your response. She wants to hear a well-thought-out, articulate answer that helps her get to know you and what you might bring to her organization.
Remember, your interview is not an interrogation. It’s a conversation about you, your qualifications, and how your experience matches with the company’s needs. Your interviewer wants to know if you’ll fit in with her goals for the organization and position, and your response will help her find out.
For example, if you’re interviewing for a teaching position and you describe how you’ve always been passionate about helping young people realize their own strengths, you’re showing the interviewer that you have a natural and selfless instinct to support others.
While there are some one-size-fits-all responses to this question, the best answer takes into account the needs of the organization. How do you figure out what the organization needs? You can:
You’re already researching the organization as preparation for your interview. Make sure you’re well-versed on the organization’s mission and values. Many businesses have a mission statement posted on their website, so that’s a good place to start. Look for words and phrases that are repeated to give you a sense of what they really prize. If it seems natural, you can even try to include these phrases into your response to “What motivates you” and other answers during your interview to show that you’re a really good fit.
When you come in for your interview, pay attention to the environment and employees. What are people doing? How are they interacting with one another? Does the environment emphasize collaboration? What’s the layout like?
All these questions can give you insight into how the organization is run and what the employees value. If there seems to be a good deal of collaboration—augmented by an open office layout—you might emphasize working with others in your response.
Pay attention to key details in the job description of the role and tailor your response accordingly. For example, if the position asks for a passion for X, tell them X is something that drives you. Of course, try to incorporate this in a way that doesn’t make it obvious that you’re connecting your response to the job description. Instead, you might say, “I can tell that this organization really prizes making education more accessible to underserved populations, and that’s perfect since I consider that a personal value—helping all people succeed.”
Chances are, the interviewer is filling you in on the expectations of the job and the needs of the organization during your interview, explicitly or implicitly. Pay attention, keeping in mind the language she uses, words or phrases she repeats, and what she emphasizes.
Your answer should reflect you—what drives you on a professional level and, if it seems relevant, on a personal level. To prepare, start by making a list of:
• Your interests
• Work projects you’ve particularly enjoyed
• Your personal and work strengths
• Why you chose your career path
• The values and mission of the organization in question
Your response should incorporate these elements, as well as use anecdotes and examples to illustrate your motivations.
“I’ve always been passionate about helping young people succeed, and knowing I’m contributing to their success gets me out of bed every day. I remember one student who was at risk of failing my class. I worked with her after school twice a week, and she ended up receiving a B. Recently, she emailed me to thank me and tell me that my help made her realize a passion for the material she didn’t realize she had—and is now working in the field. Even when I don’t hear the ends of these stories, knowing that I can have a hand in shaping young people’s lives motivates me to push them and myself.”
Authenticity is key to delivering a well-reasoned, passionate response that will make you stand out in the hiring process. So, for starters, being dishonest is something you should certainly avoid.
However, you should avoid naming some topics as motivating factors even if they influence your decisions. They include:
Everybody needs to earn a living. The interviewer knows that. Still, if this is something you name as a huge motivating factor for you, you won’t come off in the best light. This suggests that your job is mostly just a paycheck to you—not a source of fulfillment and means of living out your passions.
Again, most people want to be successful in life, but your response to “What motivates you” should be more about your goals and strengths than your desire for power and achievement.
You may hate your current job, but don’t say that in your interview for a new one. Instead, focus on the positive. If you name your dislike of your role as a motivation for seeking a new one, your interviewer will think that you’re only there because you want to leave your job—not because you’re truly invested in the prospective position.
Hopefully, this new role will help you build your network and grow in your career. However, that shouldn’t be a primary motivating factor for interviewing for it. Instead, focus on reasons that drive you on a personal level.
When you’re just starting out in your field, you probably won’t be able to draw on many work experiences in your response. Still, that doesn’t mean you don’t have passions and motivations like more experienced professionals. You chose a major, and you chose it for a reason. You also participated in activities and had experiences that have shaped you. In your response, focus on what you hope to accomplish—and what you’ve done already.
“Since I was a little girl, I’ve always loved to tell stories. This passion drove me to major in creative writing in college and made me want to be a journalist. Now, I want to tell other people’s stories and give them a voice. Through my work as the editor at my college newspaper and interning at X magazine, I’ve learned that journalism is about more than narrating events that happen—it’s about empathy and informing the public.”
Changing careers implies that your motivations have changed, but that’s not always the case. There may have been something missing in your previous career, and you’re looking to recapture that with a job change. Or, perhaps you’ve realized something new about yourself and what drives you. You don’t have to pretend that you’re a new person—or that you haven’t changed at all. In fact, these are aspects of yourself to highlight.
“What led me to work in law was my passion for advocacy. While I was able to fulfill that need to an extent, I realized what I really wanted to do was help the less fortunate rather than represent private clients. That’s why I’d like to take that passion to the nonprofit sector: your mission of serving the underprivileged complements my own desire to advocate for those in need.”
It can be challenging to interview as a professional who has taken a break from the workforce. However, you can use gaps in your resume to your advantage when describing your motivations. For example, if you took a break to care for a child or aging family member, you can explain how the same passions that drive you in your personal life apply to your work.
“My family has always been my driving force. That’s why I took a break to care for my elderly mother. The same dedication I have to her is something I apply to work. Supporting and thinking about the needs of others first is what motivates me to be a team player and work toward a shared purpose and goal.”
Interviewing can be a lengthy and often overwhelming process, but if you prepare well, it will go smoothly and help you land your next great role. Be sure to read our other guides on how to prepare for your interview, including tackling common—and unexpected—interview questions, what to say in a phone interview, asking your own questions at the end of an interview, and other steps you should take.