How to Answer the Interview Question “What Motivates You?”

Your suit is fresh from the dry cleaners. You’ve printed your resume on thick paper and practiced the technical questions in front of the mirror. Your interview is tomorrow, and one simple question you’ve left to the end of your prep: “What motivates you?” Though a self-aware and a driven person, you ponder the answer. What actually does motivate you, and is naming it point-blank a good way to reply? This is a moment for you to shine, and losing the opportunity might cost you a dream job. To understand how to answer the question about motivation, or any interview question for that matter, it is helpful to recognize the question’s purpose. What they are really trying to learn here is whether you are a good fit for the company. In other words, would they be okay tolerating you for eight hours a day? Will they get through a flight across the ocean sitting next to you? Will you be a good company for a morning coffee run? What your personal motivation has to do with it? Nothing and everything at the same time. Nothing because your answer itself is not going to make or break the deal. Everything because how you answer this question will determine whether you share the same values with your potential employer. And if you do - your chances to also share the same office with them in the future increases disproportionately! “What motivates you?” has a few twin questions. Among them are “What wakes you up in the morning?” and “What keeps you up at night?” And, as many different positions and people are out there, there is no single proper answer that would guarantee success. With no wrong answer either, there is definitely a way to answer it wrong. Recognizing that difference is the key. A young professional with ambition for career growth, you can have a wide range of things that keep you going. Prescribing something specific to talk about on your interview would be an equivalent of trying to fit your unique personality into a standard box. We are all different, and your answer to “What motivates you?” should be different too. So the only way to really provide any helpful guidance for the best ways to answer this question is to outline how NOT to answer it. With an understanding of that, you are well equipped to nail your response.

Don't Leave a Sound-Good Answer for the Lazy

When “What motivates you?” question comes up, the easiest way out is to default to some sound-good answer, which depicts you as a person of good morals and firm values. “I like to help people and see them improve” sounds legitimate and extremely proper. Yet, there is a hidden danger in framing your answer this way. Defaulting to such response, you are going to sound exactly like everybody else. Because guess what, they also want to present themselves in a good light (and help people and see them improve)! If your reply sounds like something a Joe with a perfect tie and polished shoes would also say, it is not going to work. Why? Because, as good as it sounds, it is general and does not let your personality shine even for a bit. You might really mean what you were going to answer, but a lot of other candidates also think they have these virtues. So give this answer to your interviewers, and all they are going to hear is noise. They’ve already heard a version of this from five other candidates today! Chances are that they remember what you’ve said are nil. Bottom line, no defaulting to a sound-good standard answer.

Don’t Aim for the Low Hanging Fruit of the Company’s Values

One thing that every interviewer appreciates is the candidate’s understanding of the company's values. Preparedness and prior research definitely earn you a couple of points in your column. However, regurgitating the company's values as your answer to “What motivates you?” question, is not the best strategy. It may bring your interviewers out of the stream of their own thoughts, as they hear something familiar, which is definitely a good thing. Yet, a company values-based answer is a bare-bone minimum and a low hanging fruit that everyone can grab. “Integrity, excellence, and teamwork” may sound like something you subscribe to, at least in general. The company’s marketing department probably spent a few weeks and a bit of budget, writing the values out. So they do sound convincing. Yet, you, simply repeating them, can come across as people-pleasing and unauthentic. Without your own interpretation of what those values mean to you, they are just like any other sound-good answer - see point above for that!

Keep Radical Authenticity for Your Self-Development

If grabbing the answers straight from a company's website smells like a lack of authenticity, stating things the way they are should be a way to go. Right? Wrong! If you blurt out “Money” to what motivates you, the interviewers will likely remember the raw straightforwardness but as an eyebrow raise factor, rather than a thoughtful answer. And it’s not the content - your honest answer - that is a problem. In fact, it should be the only way for you to approach any question, or else you risk making claims you cannot sustain. The problem is context - your story - without which any direct answer may sound bizarre. There is a way to state that financial betterment is your only driver to come to work. There is a way to say this job is a stepping stone to something bigger if that’s what it really is. If you can tell a story that weaves the context of your (honest) motivation, you do not need to sacrifice authenticity to be still received well. And that story is the main piece of answering “What motivates you?” How you tell this story is something that sets you apart from the rest.

The Story Is the King

Let’s put it all together! An authentic answer based on a story that reflects your true motivation and illustrates your values, which also align with the company's values, is the best way to answer “What motivates you?” question. Now let’s slice it into pieces. The story format is how we receive information best. For example, you are unlikely to know how many calls firefighters attend each day in your city but the story about one of them rescuing a kitty out of a burning house surely has touched your heart! So, when you tell a narrative to “What motivates you?” question, you tune your interviewer’s cognitive ability to process information in the most optimal way. It will beat carefully picked words and clever statistics any day - because your listener will remember it! Not every story is a good one to bring to your interview. But that does not mean you should make it up! Inauthenticity radar of modern people is quite fine-tuned. So spare your potential employers of a concealed eye roll, and tell them a real story! It is not surprising that you might be more inclined to “invent” something than to share a real episode out of your life. Unsure what to make of unique experiences we’ve had, we prefer hiding them instead of using them to bring us forward.((Know Your Fear: Fear of being unique)) But think of an extraordinary person. None of such people got to where they are by doing what everyone else was doing. So firmly standing behind a true story from your past uniquely positions you to win, both in general and in this interview specifically. In that story, what drove you to the outcome that made you stronger? Explaining your drivers in any transformative moments from your past is what amplifies the impact. Here’s the demonstration of your good merits, mentioned in the beginning. But now, you talk about them in your own words. Here are your values, allowing people to understand if they want you on their team. Here’s the moment for you to show how the company’s mission aligns with that of own. Now every bit of additional research you’ve made on the company, from a people-pleasing move, turns into arguments to strengthen your candidacy. You are remaining true to yourself, and you are getting what you want!

So What’s Next?

Telling your own story is the most authentic and powerful way to answer interview questions. “What motivates you?” is just one example. And while we are often good at intellectualizing this idea, when the time comes, we have troubles putting it to practice. “Oh but this job is so conservative! Who cares about my selling newspapers in the outdoor market as a kid?” Or “This is a creative job I am applying to! They will not appreciate my anecdotes about my working in the restaurant kitchen.” Every time these thoughts come in to block your true self and give way to some polished professional, you are trying to portray just to impress your future employers, stop it! And remind yourself that, with every interview, you are choosing them as much as they are choosing you. If you think your story is not something they will appreciate, firstly, do not make that decision for them. Secondly, perhaps these are not the people you even want to work with. So when asked the question “What motivates you?”, tell your story, beautifully and sincerely. Show up as your best. Let this being-your-best become the unchangeable principle, whether you are making choices about people or people are making choices about you.

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