The One Question You Need To Ask For Motivation

Photo courtesy of Jeff Haden

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Is motivation overrated? How do high achievers really get going?

Our quote of the day, “Desire is the key to motivation, but it's determination and commitment to an unrelenting pursuit of your goal. A commitment to excellence that will enable you to attain the success you seek.” That's from Mario Andretti.

Our guest today is an contributing editor, keynote speaker, LinkedIn influencer, and author. His new book is The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win. Our guest is Jeff Haden. Jeff, welcome to the show.

Jeff Haden: Thanks, Kevin, my favorite employee engagement guru. I'm glad to be here.

Kruse: Well we are going to have some fun chatting about your new book in just a second, but I have sort of a tradition. I always start with the same first question around failure because I believe failures are stepping stones.

Haden: Yes they are.

Kruse: We learn from our failures. I want to be selfish. I want to learn from one of your failures. You got something you can share with us?

Haden: Wow. Geez, one from column A or one from column B? Here, I'll give you a really dumb one. This is an embarrassing one. I was working for a Fortune 500 company, I was in a supervisory position in a certain department, really liked my job. There was an opening in another department and they were interested in me going to that department. It was a lateral move, so I was half interested, half not. Had to be interviewed though by some of the employees in the department, which seemed a little odd to me, but that's okay. Time got away from me that day, I had gotten tied up in a couple problems, hadn't had a chance to eat lunch. It's two o'clock, so I went to this interview and I apologized but I ate my lunch during the interview. Now, guess whether I got the job.

Kruse: Guess you didn't get that job.

Haden: No I didn't. What I learned from that, while it seems like an obvious lesson that you don't eat your lunch at interviews, what I actually learned was that if I wasn't really interested in the job I shouldn't have even done it in the first place. If I was only going to go and half-ass it and eat my lunch my attitude was kind of if you want me you want me, if you don't you don't. That was the wrong way to go. Every time I go to put less than my best foot forward oddly enough I think back to that and think, “Okay, do you want to do this or not?” If you do you owe it your best and you owe the people that you are going to talk to or deal with, you owe them your best as well. If you can't do that then don't go do it.

Kruse: I love that. It means a lot more than whether you bring a sandwich or not. If you care about it don't bring the sandwich.

Haden: Yeah, the sandwich was the symptom.

Kruse: Exactly, exactly.

Haden: There was a much larger ego problem there.

Kruse: Jeff, I mentioned already your new book is “The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.” Let's just start, what's the big idea of your book?

Haden: You and I are both in a similar position in that we are lucky enough to get to talk to and interact with some extremely successful people. That is a very cool thing. We also are in a situation where we talk to lots of people who don't feel as successful as they would like to be, or who maybe feel stuck, or who haven't achieved some of the things that they hope to achieve.

One thing it just hit me that out of all the successful people I talked to, none of them ever pointed to this one moment where they had this burst of inspiration or this lightning bolt, I like to call it, of this is my purpose, this is my passion, all the motivation I need to carry me on this long journey to some success that I hope to achieve. None of them had that. They all found something they were interested in, decided they wanted to get better at it and explore it, and basically found a process that allowed them to improve, to feel good about their improvement, to therefore feel some motivation to go to the next day. That whole idea of effort equals success equals gratification, equals “Hey that was fun, I want to do it again tomorrow,” that's how they got to where they were.

The people that were stuck, all of them talked to me about “I haven't had that moment, I haven't found my purpose, I haven't found that motivation.” The central theme is that motivation isn't something you have to wait for or something that you have to get from somewhere. Motivation is something that you can create all on your own simply through the means of starting something, and trying, and giving it enough time that you improve a little bit to where you feel good about yourself, feel good about what you've done. That gives you the motivation to keep going.

Kruse: That's great and I think ties into one of my follow-up questions because you do write about how do you start when you are zero percent motivated. Is it just start and be willing to be bad for a while until you get good or is there more to it?

Haden: Well you do have to… How do I say this? You have to be interested in something. You can't pick a goal that you have zero interest in because that will not give you any oomph at all to get started. Let's say you've always… I don't know, let's pick a common one, let's say you've always wanted to run a marathon. Tons of people have that goal. That's something you're already interested in so you have a little bit of a spark inside you, you just haven't converted that into some kind of effort. The key there is to not just start and flail but to say, “Let me look around…” it's one of the chapters in the book is to do what the pros do.

Let me look around at someone who has actually accomplished what I want to do. Let's pick someone who has run a marathon. What process did they follow to get in physical shape, and physical condition and all that stuff to be able to accomplish that, deconstruct it, break it down to its essence and then say, “What is the first thing I need to do?” In all likelihood the first thing you need to do it go out today and run a mile. Let's just use that as an example. You only need enough motivation to go out and run that mile. If you do that, and you finish, and you come home, no matter how tired you are, no matter how exhausted you may feel, if you have completed what you set out to do that day you get to feel good about yourself. You don't have to think about the 26th, just think about that. I did that. That's cool. If you let yourself feel good about it then that gives you the motivation tomorrow to go out and run the next mile that you need to run.

If you work your process, and keep your head down, and don't look out at that big gulf between where you are now and where you hope to be someday, and just look at what is today then every day you get to feel good about yourself, which is really cool. That lets you wake up tomorrow and say, “This is all I have to do. I don't have to do 26, I have to do 1 and a half, or whatever it may be. If I do that I feel good. You do have to have something you're interested in. Although, I've done thing just to prove the point. I've picked something that I really didn't want to do just to prove that this works but it's probably smarter to pick something that you really want to do. Just deconstruct it and do that one thing and commit to doing it for … Here's the key, you have to commit to doing it for at least say a week and a half because if you go run today, and you come home and you're exhausted, and you go run tomorrow that's not enough time to have really made any improvement. You can't really see your progress, but if you go a week and a half I guarantee you will see some improvement and that will allow you to think, “This is working.”

Like here with your podcast, the first one you did, did you feel like you were an expert? The second on did you feel like you were an expert? After 5 or 10 you started to go, “Okay, I'm starting to get the flow here. I'm not an expert, but I'm starting to figure this out.” That probably felt really fun to you and that gives you the motivation to keep cruising.

Kruse: I want to go back because you said something interesting. You do have a chapter on this. You say, “You don't need a coach. You need a pro.” Go back to that point. What do you see as the difference between working with a coach versus working with a pro?

Haden: We'll use the marathon example again. Let's say you decide you want to run a marathon, and you go to your local fitness facility, and you talk to the person who trained with her and you say, “I want to run a marathon.” They're going to do an assessment, they're going to figure out where you are, they're going to figure out what you like, what you don't like. They're going to do all this stuff and they're going to create this program that is specially tailored to you that probably has no real chance of success, whereas … seriously, because you've added all these qualifiers to it. If you want to accomplish something really hard there are certain things that you have to do in order to get there. You want to be a really good salesman but you don't think you need to talk to people, well you're never going to get there.

The key is to pick someone, if at all possible, pick someone who has done the thing that you want to do because they know what really is involved, they know what you need to do, they're not going to sugar coat it. They're going to give you straight up, here's what you need to do, what would you rather do, follow a process that feels good to you but is unlikely to succeed or follow a process that is hard, but that is almost guaranteed for you to succeed. I'll take the success side every time. That's my point. That's true whether it's fitness, whether it's business. If you're trying to build a business talk to people that have actually built a business and they can tell you what to do. Whatever it may be, if you're going to be a speaker like you, talk to somebody that's actually spoken, and what they learned. They'll tell you what you have to do and it will always seem harder than what you want to do, and that's a good thing, that's a really good signal because if it's harder than what you expected that means it's probably going to work.

Kruse: Jeff, I think this is for the listeners out there. We seem to be in a little bit of an internet marketing bubble right now where everybody claims to be a coach in something and they want for $1,000, $2,000, they're going to take your money and they'll coach you over the internet. What surprises me is the people who say, “I'm going to be your social media coach. I'm a marketing guru. I'm going to show you how to explode your Facebook likes or Instagram likes.” Then you go to their own profiles and they've got 100 followers or all the people that are going to tell you how to become multi-millionaires in no money down real estate, and yet, they're not multi-millionaires themselves. I know there's a difference between knowing how to get to the moon than actually having walked on the moon, but still, why wouldn't you get your advice from someone who has actually gone through it, has actually done it? In this day and age it seems like 9 out of 10 of the coaches out there are telling people stuff that they've never done themselves.

Haden: Right. My good example of that is I decided I wanted to ride this grand fund of cycling, it's like 100 and some miles, 4 mountains, 11,000 feet of climbing. I had four months to train and I had not ridden a bike. I went to a local guy that he's a mountain bike professional, he's won world championships, he's won national championships. In the mountain biking world, he's a big, big deal and I said, “I want to ride this event. If you were me what would you do?” The first thing he did is laugh. The second thing he said was, “Not to try.” I said, “No, seriously.” He said, “All right, so if you're starting from where you are and you want to do that I'll give you a plan, but if you have to follow it. If you're not following it don't call me and tell me it's not working.”

My first day I had to go ride for three hours, this is from zero. I looked at it and I looked at him and he said, “You don't have enough time to ease your way into this. You're just going to have to go.” I thought, “Okay.” We did adjust his plan a little bit along the way, but not because I wanted it to be easier. We actually found that I recover quicker between events than most people do. It doesn't make me special, it's just how I'm made. So I would train more days per week than what he originally scheduled, which was cool, and I managed to finish it. The difference was had I gone to someone who was not going to give me that clear-eyed, brass tax view of it I would have gotten some advice, I would have worked at it, I wouldn't have gotten very far and I would have even given up or I would not have been able to finish it.

Your point is right. Why would someone teach you to buy real estate on a money down thing if it's guaranteed to succeed? Why aren't they just doing it?

Kruse: Yeah right, that's right, that's right.

Haden: The people that I find that are the best coaches are the ones that have done those things for a while and then for whatever reason, whether it's age, fitness, interest, whatever it may be have decided I'm going to shift my focus now and I'm going to start… I built five businesses and that's really fun, but now I think what I really would like to do is help other people do that. That's a cool coach. The guy that just went to school, and comes out, and hangs out at Shingle, who has never actually done it himself I don't know. That would make me wonder. I'm sure there are some of them out there that are great, but that's not the approach that I would take.

Kruse: Here's a final question for you. You have an interesting section of the book. You say there's one question that provides nearly every answer.

Haden: That was based on Herb Kelleher, the CEO of Southwest, and he has to make zillions of decisions a day. But basically, he frames them all using the one question, which is will this help make Southwest the low-cost provider. If it's yes then they'll explore it. If it's no he deletes it. You can apply that same framework to anything you're trying to accomplish. If you want to run a marathon, we'll use my example again, if you decide I don't really feel like training today is that what someone would do that runs marathons? No, so you don't. You're trying to lose weight, is eating three desserts what someone would do? No. If you're trying to build a business is treating a customer shabbily what you would do? No. If you pick out this underlying theme of what you're trying to accomplish and use that to layer it in you can make all kinds of decisions really, really easily. Doesn't mean it's easy to follow through because sometimes the right thing is the hard thing, but it does make it easy to make the decision of what should I do here? Should I do this or this? If you boil it down that way it does get to be really simple.

Kruse: Jeff, I love that because the example that you give it's like a business understanding its core brand promise, it's value proposition, then making sure you're focused on spending your time on that thing. That's great for all the business people out there. I think this is great for, as you described, all these behavior change things. Will sitting on this couch help me to run this marathon instead of training? No, so don't do it. Even in the day to day world of our lives when we're so busy it's getting clearer on your priorities. There's always going to be more things to do than we have time to do. If you can get clear on your daily, weekly or even monthly most important goal, most important task then you just ask that question, is this thing that's on my calendar or this meeting someone, is this meeting that I've been invited to going to help me to achieve that primary goal? If no, all right, you then try to get out of it. I think that's a really powerful way to look at it.

Haden: One of the ways that works for me, because I am not a confrontation kind of guy, I have confrontations, but I used to say to myself when I was in a leadership position there were conversations that I wanted to avoid. It is not always hard to have the hard conversations with employees, but I would think, “Is that what a good leader would do? Would a good leader walk past us.” I would think, “No.” It ends up framing it again as the right thing to do was probably the hard thing to do, but it's the thing that feels good when you're done, whereas that avoiding thing never feels good and you're always stuck with lingering.

Kruse: Yeah, that's great. Jeff, how can listeners find out more about you and of course your new book, “The Motivation Myth”?

Haden: I've always wanted to say this, my book is on sale wherever books are sold.

Kruse: Sounds so good, doesn't it? It's got to feel good.

Haden: Yeah, I guess so. My website is I write for Inc. Magazine. If you go to Inc. and then search my name you'll find about 1,500 articles. I'm on LinkedIn, I'm an influencer, which is the only time I'll ever be on the same list with Richard Branson and Bill Gates. I engage with people there, so if you want to either connect or follow I actually do respond. That should be plenty.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at