5 Easy steps to answer “What motivates you?”

Skills and experience are great. You’ll need them to impress that recruiter and the hiring manager and everyone you meet with when you’re interviewing for a new job. But they’re not enough. You also have to have the drive to put those skills to use and draw on your experiences so that your prospective employer actually benefits from them.

When someone asks “What motivates you?” in an interview, they’re not just looking for another arbitrary tidbit of information about you. They’re also trying to figure out whether you’d care about what you’d be doing and bring the full weight of your abilities to bear in this particular role at this particular company. In other words, they want to know if you’ll be an engaged, happy, and productive worker inspired to do your very best in that environment.

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“What motivates you?” may sound like an intimidating existential question, but answering it in an interview is actually pretty straightforward if you follow these five steps.

1. Reflect on Your Past Experiences

“Think about what you’re passionate about,” says Jennifer Sukola, a Muse career coach and human resources professional. “What is it that you find most gratifying in your work?” If you can pinpoint those things, she explains, you have the basis of your answer.

Take some time to mull over — and maybe even write out in a list — the aspects of previous jobs that excited and energized you most, the ones you always wanted to do more of or wished were your entire job. Perhaps it was being an active member of a team and contributing to a big project or spearheading a brand new initiative. Or maybe it was speaking to customers and making them feel heard. Or it might have been seeing your sales numbers go up and your name climb the leaderboard. Maybe it wasn’t something in your day-to-day responsibilities at all, but something about the mission of the company or who it served.

2. Make Sure Your Motivation’s Relevant and Aligned With the Role and Company

It almost goes without saying that one person could be motivated by many things, depending on the context. This isn’t the time to expound on your deep love of ice cream and dogs and wax poetic about how you’d cross oceans and climb mountains to eat a cone or pet a pup — unless of course the job is ice cream taster or dog walker.

When you’re answering the interview question pick one career-focused idea that’s relevant to the role and company you’re applying for. “If it’s a small startup and growing company and you are motivated by learning new things and being challenged, that’s a great answer because that’s going to be the environment you’re in,” Goodfellow says.

On the other hand, “if you’re going to be doing accounting analysis all day and state that you thrive by wearing many hats throughout the day and learning new things, then as an interviewer, I’d want to explore that further because it’s not necessarily going to be the case.” In short, it all depends on the context.

Sukola says you can use the job description itself to help you prepare an answer. “Make a list of things before the interview of what you would be doing for this job and what’s gratifying for you out of those,” she says. Pick out the aspects of the job that make your eyes open wide and get you excited just thinking about the possibility of landing the role. “Then you can tie it back to what motivates you.”

For example, suppose you’re looking at a job description for a business intelligence analyst role. You don’t mind pulling data and crunching numbers, but what really catches your eye is that a major part of the job would require talking to colleagues across the company to understand their needs and help them translate those into data requests and then working collaboratively and creatively to present what they’re looking for in a format they can comprehend.

When you’re constructing your answer, you can connect your motivation explicitly to the role you’re interviewing for, saying something like, “And that’s one of the things that excites me about this job, where I could channel that motivation to play a part in cross-functional collaboration that will make everyone feel they can understand and make use of the data we’re collecting without being daunted by it.”

3. But Be Honest

Don’t get so carried away tailoring a perfect response based on the role and the company that you lose what actually motivates you in the process. “It’s a good way to screen yourself…like is this even the role that makes sense for you as a candidate?” says Nathan.

“If it doesn’t feel like an honest statement to you, it won’t for the listener,” Nathan warns. So as you ponder and plan your answer, be wary of one that you think sounds good but isn’t authentic. “If it doesn’t really speak to you, it’s going to be received as very phony.”

The danger isn’t just that your nicely packaged but misleading answer will cost you the job. Perhaps even worse, if your response does somehow pass muster, you might actually get the job — only to be miserable later because the day-to-day work and incentives don’t resonate with you.

“It’s really helpful while you’re being interviewed also to think, ‘Okay, is this going to get me energized and engaged at least 80% of the week to jump up and go to work?’” Goodfellow says. While no job is perfect 100% of the time, “you’re spending so many hours a week there, you might as well be engaged and energized at least most of the time.”

4. Stand Out With a Story

The key to an effective answer that won’t sound like every other answer the interviewer is hearing is to be specific and illustrate your response with an example. Stories are memorable and persuasive, so use one to your advantage.

“The example doesn’t have to be, ‘I increased the revenue 20% or saved the company $2 million,’ says Goodfellow. “I think a lot of people avoid giving examples because of that. It’s like, ‘Well, I haven’t really done anything that amazing.’ But that’s not the case.” If you haven’t fought off villains wearing a cape and saved the world from certain destruction, that’s okay. Your story doesn’t have to be fit for a superhero blockbuster, it just has to demonstrate that you’d be a great hire for this role.

Go back to one of those experiences you reflected on that gave you a boost of energy and made you feel excited to be doing your job, and tell that story briefly as part of your answer.

5. Put It All Together

Now that you have a better understanding of the reasons interviewers are asking this question and the general strategy for answering it, you can compose a brief but memorable response. Here are a few examples of what that could look like:

“I believe that even the smallest details can make a big difference, especially to a busy executive. Luckily, I genuinely love to exhaustively review, check, confirm, and anticipate to ensure nothing slips through the cracks. In a past job, I was in charge of travel arrangements. It became a kind of running joke that I’d always think seven steps ahead and very nearly predict the future — calling the hotel to check which rooms were quietest, arranging for tea with honey and lozenges to be waiting if someone was exhausted and losing their voice before a speaking engagement, and making sure there were extra copies of speeches printed in large font tucked in bags and waiting at the venue. It always energized me to know I’d thought of everything, and that same motivation would allow me to support the C-suite here as an executive assistant.”

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