“What motivates You?”: Answering an age-old interview question

You’re sitting in your third round of interviews, staring confidently at the trio of HR employees facing you. So far, so good, you think – you’ve been fielding questions (even those pesky behavioral interview questions) with nimble ease, remembering to smile and keep your back straight against the hard-backed chair. The HR people seem to like you – they’ve been smiling back, nodding warmly as you talk with conviction about cutting-edge teaching strategies and the future of public education.

Then they hit you out of the left field. As you pause to sip the glass of water they offered you at the start of the interview, one of the HR employees peers down at you over the rim of her wire-framed glasses, curious about something. “I’m intrigued by the depth of your knowledge about public education in Trenton,” she says, shifting slightly in her chair. “Very impressive. I’m wondering – what keeps you engaged with this system in the face of all of the obstacles we face as educators? What motivates you?”

What motivates you? It’s a question that is deeply relevant to people in all industries, no matter whether they’re entry-level or interviewing for the CEO position. When you’re looking for a new job, it’s important to understand that the job search process is not a battle to convince some HR team that you’re eminently “employable”.

Instead, the job search process should be an exciting journey to find a company or organization that:

● Does work that you’re excited and passionate about
● Has a corporate culture that matches your habits and personality
● Has values that you’re aligned with
● Employs people with whom you can get along well

When trying to figure out what motivates you as a professional, you should keep in mind that the above traits should drive any response to such a question. Finding the perfect company fit requires that you be very clear about your values, working style, personality and passions. In particular, it requires that you refine your vision for where you would like to go in your career, what you would like to accomplish, and what you would like your legacy to be.

In addition, you may want to consider other contributing factors to a professional sense of purpose or mission, including:

● Childhood experiences
● Formative academic experiences
● Key relationships with family or friends
● Influential mentors
● Life-changing travel or events
● Works of art or literature that have influenced you

● Family history (deceased relatives, etc.)
● Ethnic or cultural heritage
● Religious or political influences (ONLY mention when interviewing at a company
dedicated to these causes)

You may want to take some time to sit down with a journal or laptop and do some freewriting around the question of what drives you professionally. Consider exploring the factors described above, as well as the history of your career trajectory and how it has influenced your professional interests.

Another useful exercise may be vision-boarding. To create a vision board, amass some art supplies (like old magazines, paint or colored pencils, glue and so on) and make a collage that
depicts your deepest-held dreams of what you want your legacy as a professional to be. When finished, hang your vision board on your wall and let it inspire you to meditate on your
professional future and what you hope to accomplish in your career.

When you’re finished with all of these exercises, you may want to sit down at your laptop and write a formal response to the “What motivates you” interview question. You may also choose to read self-help or business books on the subject, or even consult with an experienced career or life coach to further clarify your direction. Once you’ve figured out what motivates you, you’ll be much better-equipped to shine in interviews and find the career of your dreams.