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Q: Is self-motivation an innate quality or is it something that can be learned and improved upon?
A: If you aren’t good at motivating yourself, you probably won’t get very far in business—especially as an entrepreneur. When you’re starting up a company and for the first couple of years afterward, there are a lot of long nights and stressful days, and the workload is heavy. You have to be able to give the job everything you’ve got every day, or it will easily get the better of you.
The ability to tap into your determination and grit is not just an innate skill. You can teach yourself to get up every day and try to keep a new business going despite long odds, partly by structuring your life and job to make sure you are working toward your larger goals.
I learned a lot about this from my mother, who is a very energetic and strong-willed individual. As I wrote recently, I’m thankful for the life lessons she taught me, without which I would probably not be where I am today.
I always wanted to go out there and prove myself, but I was very shy when I was young, and it was clear that I would have to master this if I was going to succeed. My timidity could have easily held me back if she hadn’t helped me come out of my shell. She feels that shyness is very selfish, as it means you are only thinking of yourself, and so she was very insistent that I look adults in the eye and shake their hands, and carry on conversations with guests at dinner and at parties—no excuses.
My mother also taught me to dive into situations even if I wasn’t completely sure about my own abilities, and then solve the problems that came up as I went along. When I was almost 12, she once sent me alone on a long bike-riding expedition to another town, knowing that I would be fine, but also that I’d have to find water and ask for directions along the way.
Before I left school at 16, I was already working on launching what became one of my first businesses, Student magazine. Then when my friends and I put ourselves in a position that forced the issue, by moving into a basement in West London that served as both our office and our living quarters, we really gave our magazine everything we had.
There were times when we struggled to pool together enough money to afford a proper meal; that in itself was a great motivator to follow through on calls to potential advertisers. In the larger picture, we were willing to live with such uncertainty because we wanted to give our generation a voice on issues that we felt strongly about, such as the Vietnam War; this shared goal meant a great deal to everyone involved.
It’s important to understand what your main motivation is so that you can focus your efforts on reaching those goals. Then structure your job—perhaps by delegating some work—so that you can spend as much time as possible turning this energy to your company’s advantage.
These days, one of my goals is to keep challenging myself. I see life as one long university education, in place of the one I never had. Every day I learn something new. And perhaps I didn’t miss out, since there’s only so much you can learn sitting in a lecture hall. I’ve found that I often learn a great deal from the people I meet, and some of them have inspired me.
Meeting Mick Jagger and Steve Jobs had a big impact on me. They accomplished so much in their respective fields that spending time with them made me think about what I might do in mine. Afterward, I was more motivated than ever to do the best possible job in my own business.
Above all, you should work on building a business you’re proud of. This has always been a motivator for me, from my Student magazine days, through to our latest startups today. I have never gone into any business purely to make money. If money is your only motive, then I believe you shouldn’t launch the business at all.
Once you know what your own motivations and aspirations are, talk to your employees and colleagues about theirs, if you haven’t already. Then structure their jobs in a way that allows them to tap into this energy, too. With you and your employees approaching your work with renewed energy and commitment, you’ll find that there’s little that you can’t accomplish together.
(Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He has recently published two books: ''Screw Business as Usual’' and ''Like a Virgin.'' He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.)
(Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to [email protected]. Please include your name, country, email address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.)
@2013 Richard Branson. (Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.)
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