metal rod striking to make a spark with glowing stars

Uninspired By Your Leaders? Motivation Tips For Professionals & Voters

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Silicon Valley, the media, and venture capitalists love a charismatic, inspiring leader. But in the day-to-day reality and often overwhelming responsibilities of many leaders, motivation—the desire that drives your action toward a goal—can be a challenge to access, with or without a visionary CEO. Many of my clients struggle with staying motivated in the face of difficulty or uncertainty, even as they seek to inspire and fuel the motivation of their teams. While motivation itself is an inner state, sources of motivation may be internal, such as a fervent desire to be useful and help others, or external, as in the pursuit of a reward. Motivation may also be positive (moving toward something desirable) or negative (seeking to avoid something undesirable). But here’s the secret: your motivation is largely in your hands. Even for activities that you find challenging, boring or unpleasant, you can fuel your own drive by connecting to your values and directing your attention to the aspects of the activity that matter to you. While it is exciting when an inspirational leader ignites your motivation, you can’t outsource motivation or depend on others to provide it for you. Ultimately, finding or creating the spark is up to you.

At this moment in US history, citizens, too, have a job—electing our government—and many are not feeling very motivated to do that job. With the 2024 Presidential election looking like a repeat of 2024: Biden vs. Trump, the two oldest party nominees ever, many voters (Trump’s enthusiastic base notwithstanding) are feeling uninspired. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll in January 67 percent of Americans said they were “tired of seeing the same candidates in the presidential election, and wanted someone new.” People are talking about the “lesser of two evils” or even calling themselves double haters. But if the presidential candidates themselves are not inspiring, what other sources of motivation can you find? How do you fuel your own fire?

Connect to your values. One key to unlocking your own motivation is to understand your personal “why,” which is generally grounded in your deeply held values and give you a sense of purpose and meaning. Values are principles that provide a north star to guide your action, both in your work and family life, and in your civic engagement.

Eleanor is a single mom and start-up chief of staff whose job is not her passion. In fact, sometimes it is a real slog. She finds her primary motivation in the value of providing for her family—a steady paycheck and benefits. In addition, though she is often overwhelmed by the heavy demands of her job, she believes in the company’s mission and she is a caring person who values service to others, so she is also able to tap into her value of being helpful to motivate her daily work.

The long march to November can also feel like a slog. It’s hard to get excited about a recycled presidential slate, and the endless punditry and horse race drama are both a turn-off and a distraction from the actual stakes. Focus instead on connecting to your own values and the principles that guide your life and behavior, such as fairness, respect, compassion and hard work. What do you stand for? Who do you care about and what is at stake in the election? The presidential race is not just about the candidates, it is about their track records, their policies and their vision of government, which you can evaluate by the standards of your values. For many, that is where their core motivation—not just to vote but also to campaign—comes from.

Find the bright spots. Even if the underlying “why” is compelling, the day-to-day will have its ups and downs. And because we are developmentally and evolutionarily wired to detect potential threats, our negativity bias tends to cause us to focus on what’s wrong, broken or not working. Instead, like a rider gently pulling on the reins to point their horse to the right path, we need to direct our attention to what is working and to ideas and activities that are satisfying, positive, or inspiring and do more of them. This refocusing is similar to what authors and business gurus Chip and Dan Heath call finding bright spots.

Eleanor often finds some of her more administrative duties tedious, and she is profoundly aware of even her small mistakes, which are disheartening. However, she has taken up the mantle of company celebrations captain, organizing happy hours, milestone celebrations, birthday cakes, and team building events. These activities help her connect more with her co-workers, increase her sense of self-efficacy and satisfaction and give her more energy for her work.

If you are finding the negativity of the campaign is weighing you down or you feel unenthusiastic about the candidates, direct your attention to a more positive source of motivation. Maybe a there’s state or local candidate who is fresh, talented, and energetic whom you feel excited to support. I myself have found motivation in supporting candidates identified by Sister District, a progressive organization that helps mobilize support for exciting candidates in critical state legislative races in key battleground states. Or perhaps there is an issue, like reproductive rights or climate, that excites you. Take charge and don’t let the top of the ticket sap your motivation to participate in democracy. Comedian Roy Wood Jr. (formerly of The Daily Show) said it bluntly on a recent episode of The Run-Up: To someone who says they’re not going to the polls at all, he says, “Why? Because you’re not excited about two old dudes? OK, fine. But also, on that ballot, dummy, [are] 40 other things that actually affect where you live. That’s why you should be showing up. That’s what you should give a damn about.” If you look for sparks of inspiration, you can find them in local issues and candidates across the country.

Use sparingly: aversion. Let’s face it, while positive motivation is attractive and feels good, negative motivation, such as distaste, anger or fear, when properly harnessed, can also be very effective.

For example, Eleanor may not love her job, but she wants to keep it and she is haunted by the fear that she and her kids could find themselves in poverty. Keeping the wolf from the door is her last resort motivation, but sometimes when she is facing something difficult at work, she uses her fear and her determination to avoid that fate to stiffen her spine and do the hard thing.

Similarly in politics, “not the other guy” is hardly a ringing endorsement of your candidate or a thrilling rally cry. But consider that, according to Time’s recent cover story, a second Trump term could bring “’the end of our democracy,’ says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, ‘and the birth of a new kind of authoritarian presidential order.’” If you take that as true, how could that not be motivating? Fear can be a powerful motivation. Certainly, there are costs to your overall happiness and well-being if you are long-term focused on avoiding the negative rather than seeking the positive (sticks vs. carrots). And while the strongest form of motivation is based on understanding and buying into the purpose of an activity, more robust or independent motivation most of respond to a mix of internal factors and carrots and sticks.

The takeaway? If you are feeling uninspired and unmotivated, you can engineer your own motivation, wherever you are, both in your career and as a voter. To expect or wait passively for someone else to inspire you, to light your fire for you, is to give up your agency. Strike your own spark.