I recently had a thought-provoking conversation with a UX designer friend. We were talking about what motivates long-term high personal achievement.
He made an observation that struck me. “Personal change and achievement can start with fear-driven motivation,” he said. “It can turn into will-driven motivation. But it can only sustain itself by being love-driven.”
This got me thinking about how aptly this applies to distinctive people who outperform in their fields sustainably over the long-term.
Many high performers are will-driven. And they can succeed by being that way for a period of time, sometimes even for many years. But sooner or later, people who are solely will-driven all run out of gas. They have to. Because grinding your teeth and developing the will to do something is, almost by definition, motivated by external factors — money, prestige, peer admiration, fame, whatever. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t need will to sustain you through it.
By contrast, truly sustainable high performers are love-driven. Their motivation stems from within. Instead of grinding their teeth to get through something, they can’t be kept away from it, whatever the distractions. They’re not after external validation symbols, because they’re motivated by the thing itself. That’s why sustainable high performers don’t really ever get “tired.” They don’t say to themselves, “I’ve made it, so now I can be fat and lazy.”
How does this apply in a career context?
In what ways do we see that love-driven motivation play out with respect to nimble, skillful, motivated professionals — the kind of people who are able to flexibly revolve through diverse and interesting career turns? Whether it’s a technologist who becomes a CEO and then an investor; a lawyer who becomes a businesswoman and then a politician; a doctor who becomes a policy strategist and then a writer; an entertainer who becomes a philanthropist and then a humanitarian.
Well, one important trait I’ve consistently noticed among high performers is that, despite their packed schedules, they carve out quality time to read. I’m not talking about 15 minutes while riding a taxi. I’m talking about waking up an hour and a half before anyone else to just read and reflect on things. Taking the hour before going to sleep at night to read and journal, even if that means sleeping after everyone else.
These folks don’t get their primary information and learning about the world from TV and Twitter. They deliberately make time to read long-form journalism, essays, articles, books.
They read voluminously not just to acquire knowledge that will help them do their jobs better, or to learn about new trends and opportunities — although they do those things, too. Those things are will-driven.
Instead, they seek — even thirst for — knowledge for its own sake. They are on the leading edge of their field because they can’t help but be there. They can’t keep themselves away. They create the latest developments in their field, what others in their field are buzzing about, because they’re constantly reading, refining, writing about, discussing, implementing ideas, seeing relationships, drawing connections between different spheres that others don’t see. In other words, they innovate. This is how they create the future. And anyone who is in the business of creating the future is, almost by definition, high-performing over the long-term.
This mindset isn’t about being willed to succeed. It isn’t about being ambitious. (Although there isn’t anything inherently wrong about those things.) It’s about having a love in your gut of educating yourself, learning, thinking, refining, doing, having a constant “what if…?” and “how to…?” mindset.
And if that weren’t enough, reading a lot of quality literature has other side benefits, too. It strengthens your intellect. It forces you to think about concepts more deeply than broadcast media does, because good writing exposes rich, nuanced ideas, often abstract, in a way that TV can’t capture.
Good writing also hones your rhetorical skills and, sometimes, it even strengthens your public speaking skills — at those thoughtful moments when you internalize a particularly elegant phrase, or quote, or paragraph that moves you.
Perhaps most importantly, it teaches you how to tell a good story. How to reach out and clasp your audience’s hands. It opens up language as both communication and artistry.
So what are some ideas for good material to start reading on a daily, or least periodic, basis?
Read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Everyday. Cover to cover. Cover to cover takes a long time at first. It may feel boring for articles you don’t care about. But if you stick with it, after a few weeks you’ll start to get very efficient and productive at it.
Read the Atlantic. The New Yorker. The Economist.
All these will teach you nuances to critical debates happening in the worlds of business and finance, politics, economics, healthcare, science, the arts.
Maybe you think your field and interests are outside these worlds, so why should you care? Having an interdisciplinary mindset to read literature that cross-cuts different fields not only makes you more well-rounded in general. It actually feeds new ideas into your own field, by forcing you to pivot on different angles of looking at problems, by introducing frameworks and analytical methods that can be transferred to your work, by exposing potential connections between disciplines.
Being interdisciplinary is also just the way that succeeding in our increasingly connected world demands.
Next, find the best blogs in your field and read them closely. I’m in technology. I read TechCrunch, Venture Beat, Hacker News, Paul Graham, Ben Horowitz, Eric Ries, Mark Suster, Chris Dixon, and Elad Gil among many others. Paul’s and Ben’s essays in particular aren’t just applicable to techies and entrepreneurs. Their writings are applicable to any type of successful career path, whether big company or small, for-profit or non-profit.
Separately, read books. Fiction. History. Non-fiction. Look at the the New York Times Bestseller lists (both popular and business bestseller). Read those books. Read books showcased each week in the New York Times Book Review section.
These are just a few ideas for how to get started with a lot of quality reading that will help you become a more well-rounded, educated professional.
Ultimately, moving from a will-driven to love-driven orientation toward your work will involve more than just reading. But taking time to read each day — to reflect, and refine, and progress — is a very big first step.