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Motivation Matters

by Taylor Slattery | January 19, 2022

Motivation is fleeting and unreliable. Some days we wake up raring to go and others it’s a chore to drag ourselves out of bed. Motivation is unpredictable and in comparison with discipline, there’s no question as to which will take us further, but it’s an important aspect of our careers and lives to consider nonetheless. I know thinking about this sort of thing while you’re still a student or in the early part of your career can feel premature, but establishing the proper framework early on can help you to better understand your priorities, and this perspective is helpful for framing future career moves.

While our reasons for beginning our studies hopefully come from an intrinsic place, it’s external motivators like deadlines and grades that move us toward graduation. After school, we trade GPAs for promotions, titles, and pay raises. External motivators provide information we can use to assess where we stand in relation to others, and this information can be valuable in furthering our careers. However, these external sources of validation should not be mistaken for success. If we allow our idea of personal accomplishment to depend on a source other than ourselves, then we’ll never be in control of our happiness.

What external motivators do provide is validation. Things like promotions and pay raises feel like an acknowledgment of our efforts and indicators that we’re on the right track. The problem is that the relationship between the caliber of our work and the rewards we receive for it isn’t linear. The unfortunate truth is that there are other factors at play outside of the quality of our work and the time we put in.

In the case that we receive a raise after wrapping a big project, the reward feels well-deserved and reinforces the notion that hard work pays off. The high we feel from this validation provides us with momentum we can carry into the next project to get things off on the right foot. However, in the same situation, were we not to receive a raise, we might feel slighted. Having our efforts go unnoticed might take the wind out of our sails and rather than being gung ho to start the next project, we might be pessimistic, which would, in turn, hurt our odds of receiving the external validation we crave.

Say that instead of putting effort into a project because we expect a raise or promotion in return, we saw it as an opportunity for personal development. Maybe this particular project involved a new tool or process we were interested in. The opportunity to work on this project held intrinsic value to us because of the opportunity it presented to further develop our skills in an area related to our personal goals. In this case, we win regardless of whether our efforts are acknowledged. Essentially, we’ve been paid to learn something we wanted to learn anyways.

If the efforts exerted into the work are the reward in and of itself for having moved you closer to your personal creative goals, you can’t help but to win. Accolades and money can be powerful motivators for progressing our careers, but there is a limit to how far they can take us. Ideally, the amount of effort we exert and the reward we receive would always be in direct relation, but in all likelihood, there is a limit to the accolades and monetary reward we can receive from this path.

Each person has a different ceiling to their potential and you may be years away from yours right now, but the time will come when you reach it, and once that happens, then what will you do? When the external measures of success dry up, all that remains is you. This is why it’s important to have long-term, intrinsic goals to guide you through your career—goals that will grow alongside you, separate from any external form of validation.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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