How To Answer “What Motivates You?” (With Examples)

By David Luther - Jan. 24, 2021
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“What motivates you?”

This is one of the most common interview questions, but it that can throw you for a loop after your hiring manager runs through a list of behavioral interview questions, discusses your strengths and weaknesses, and goes through your accomplishments.

This question demands a bit of introspection, a dash of eloquence, and a whole lot of intuition about what the interviewer is looking to hear.

You may recognize some of its equally vague, open-ended cousins:

  • What makes you, you?

  • What makes you tick?

  • What are you passionate about?

Without a bit of forethought, it’s tough to come up with an inspiring and coherent answer, but you may find it helpful to answer this one honestly to yourself first. That forces you to refine your search and discern whether a job truly aligns with your passions and goals, which will genuinely answer the question for you.

Or, in the words of William Shatner, “I sometimes find that in interviews you learn more about yourself than the person learned about you.”

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This article will cover interviewers’ reasons for asking this question, how to prepare an answer, common mistakes to avoid, and sample answers to bring all our advice together.

Why Interviewers Ask “What Motivates You?”

The key to masterfully answering this question is realizing that it’s really two questions in one: What motivates you as a worker and what are you passionate about as an individual?

The interviewer’s goal with both questions is to figure out what drives you as well as how you approach and view success. What motivates you as an individual is directly related to your ambitions, and hiring managers want to know what you like doing and why you like doing it.

Hint: the answer is not “money.” It’s never, ever money… even if it is.

Hiring managers and recruiters want to see how self-aware you are about your motivations. In a way, your answer to this question reveals just as much as a discussion of your strengths and weaknesses. The better you’re able to articulate what drives you, the better you’ll be able to handle tasks independently.

Additionally, like all job interview questions, the interviewer wants to know if your motivations and ultimate career goals align with the position you’re interviewing for. If you’re motivated by a deadline-centric, fast-paced work environment, then the company can expect you to succeed in a role where that’s the case.

How to Answer “What Motivates You?”

Like many of the toughest, most common interview questions, this question is as difficult to answer in front of a mirror as a hiring manager because there is no “right” answer for everyone.

But it presents an opportunity for you to tell them what you want and who you are as a person. You and your parents know you’re a unique snowflake and not just another employee.

You’ll learn to tell the interviewer how by asking yourself:

  • What was your best day on the job, and what was it about that day that you enjoyed?

  • When you tell people what you love about your job, what stories do you use?

  • What days do you look forward to coming into work?

  • Why do you think this job will be your dream job?

This demands honesty, and your interview will typically be smoother if you tell the truth the whole time. That way, you don’t have to remember any lies. Interviewers have heard all of the canned answers you can Google (except the sample answers we’ll give you at the end).

Let self-reflection be your guide: if you get a thrill from making a sale, figuring out a complex issue, or learning new skills, incorporate those into your example.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Answering “What Motivates You?”

As much as honesty is appreciated, you can’t look your interviewer dead in the eye and say:

  • “My dad forwarded this to me when I told him that no one is hiring liberal arts majors.”

  • “Paycheck, power, prestige. In that order.”

  • “Justification for wearing the suit I just spent an obscene amount of money on for this interview.”

Don’t wax poetic on how you like to be better than anyone, if what you really mean to say is that you derive satisfaction from breaking records and exceeding goals. And don’t just spend time bashing your last boss if you’re potentially looking at your future one.

Also, have I mentioned that people who make it clear that they’re only in it for the money are unpleasant to work with?

To summarize:

  • Don’t talk forever. Your answer to this question should be clear and concise. Hit a few major points and get out quick, or your interviewer’s eyes might start to glaze over.

  • Don’t go negative. For pretty much all the most common interview questions, you want to avoid negativity. Your motivations should be because you enjoy something, not because you’re trying to avoid something (like getting fired).

  • Don’t make it all about you. It’s hard to not get laser-focused on yourself with interview questions like these, but it’s important you tie back your motivators to the job in question. Remember, the recruiter isn’t writing a biography about you; they’re just looking to gauge your fit for this position.

Tips for Answering “What Motivates You?”

what motivates you

  1. Keep your answer relevant. Interviewers choose questions for strategic reasons, and you need to answer with your motivation in a way relevant to the position. You may banter and trade jokes, have a super sleek padfolio and creamy resume paper with an elevator pitch fiercer and more eloquent than a Beyoncé and Shakespeare rap battle.

    But if you don’t answer the question in a way that builds you up because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing or try just to say what they want to hear, you’ll sound disingenuous and unconfident.

    If it’s a non-profit, focus on feeling good about helping people. If it’s a sale position, talk about satisfaction from exceeding goals.

  2. Be prepared with examples to back up your motivators. You can help recruiters see that you’re right for the job by coming prepared with real-life examples of how you’ve excelled in the areas the job requires. It’s not exactly a behavioral interview question, but you can still incorporate past examples using the STAR method of when your motivations helped you succeed.

  3. Bring your personality into it. Mentioning hobbies is an excellent way to subtly describe yourself as an individual, but relate them to professional situations. Here are some if-then-examples for you: If you are the leader of a local political group or volunteer organization, then you’re the type who gets a kick out of building a team, coaching others, and watching them succeed.

    If you compete in obstacle course races or find pleasure in attempting elaborate recipes you’ve never tried, even if you fail, then you view daunting tasks as obstacles to overcome and opportunities to grow, handling challenging projects where you can apply your skills in a target-driven situation.

    What motivates you in your personal life is relevant here. They also want to know what you do when you’re not obligated, as this is a better indicator than rehearsed answers.

  4. Be specific. You want to tell your interviewers just what you want them to know, and they want to know everything. The unfair part is that the interviewer gets to be vague, but you don’t. Give concrete answers.

  5. Be careful and concise. Interviewers won’t always tell you what they really think. Part of interviewing is encouraging people to reveal themselves, which often means not showing any judgment during the meeting.

    Just as it’s important to be open and enthusiastic with your interviewer, don’t carelessly answer in a way that is not aligned with the company. Be economical with what you say.

    And don’t assume you’re on a roll just because the interviewer maintains the same cordial smile and nods the whole time. While not necessarily antagonistic, interviews are a form of verbal chess.

  6. Show confidence. Because interviews are stressful, it’s easy for a job candidate to start feeling like the recruiter or hiring manager is an adversary, but it’s really the opposite — interviewers go into every interview hoping you’ll be the right candidate.

    Keep in mind that while the interviewer is trying to see if what motivates you is a dealbreaker, she’s also hoping that what motivates you is ideal for the position. Do yourself a favor and give her what she’s looking for.

  7. Think about how your answer reflects on you as a coworker. They want to know what you’ll be like as an employee and as a co-worker.
    Hiring isn’t just about who has the best skills to do the job; it’s also about who will fit in best with the workplace. Interviewers think about the fact that they’re going to be around whoever they hire quite a bit.

    Essentially, they want to know what you’ll be like to manage and if you can get along with the established group. Specifically, they’re wondering:

    • Would you be a better fit for another position within the company?

    • Does what motivates you fit with the company overall?

    • Are you a team player or a lone wolf, and how does that apply to this position?

Example Answers to “What Motivates You?”

  1. Example Answer 1: Providing Value

    I enjoy delivering people something of value — whether it be to my coworkers or my clients. Because it makes their lives easier and happier, I can tell I helped contribute to their success.

    It’s a net win-win-win for the company, myself, and the people I work with on daily basis.

  2. Example Answer 2: Deadlines

    A fast-paced, deadline-centric work environment has always been my best motivator. At my last position as an editor, I had to handle over 40 articles a week for my company’s blog while managing a team of writers. I have a knack and love for planning and organization, so developing and maintaining a spreadsheet to keep my tasks and delegated tasks was a real treat for me.

    I was always able to hit and exceed my success metrics thanks to my keen sense of deadlines and my motivation to reach milestones on assignments. That experience has set me up to thrive working for a publication like yours.

  3. Example Answer 3: Solving Problems

    I’ve always been motivated by meeting new people and solving problems. Customer service is a natural fit for my inclinations and motivations. From my first retail job in high school, I knew that helping people get what they need out of an experience was satisfying for me.

    Helping people as a customer success manager as part of a web development team proved a bit trickier than helping people pick the right sneakers, but with greater challenges, I felt even more motivated. Accomplishing a 98% positive customer feedback over 2020 was a major achievement for me, as it brought my company over $200,000 in return and subscription-based customers.

    ABC Corp.’s commitment to top-notch customer service is well-known, and I’d be thrilled to work in this environment and continue developing my customer service skills.

Final Thoughts

Answering the most common interview questions doesn’t have to be hard. Take a step back, do some self-reflection, and you’ll have a winning answer to “what motivates you” in no time. It’s not just about landing the job either.

Learning what motivates you can help you get a job offer, sure, but it’s also an important step in determining your career goals. Look at your strengths, the reasons for your past accomplishments, and areas where you get excited about work, and you’ll be on your way to a more fulfilling career.

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David Luther

Author

David Luther

David Luther was the Content Marketing Editor for the Zippia Advice blog. He's a full time content creator and part-time chicken coop marketer. Hot sauce aficionado. Dog lover. He obtained his BA from UNC Chapel Hill.

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