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How to Stay Motivated During a Recession

Some people say the recession means the end of business as usual. I disagree.

Of course, if your idea of business as usual was like Lou‘s – a steady job, predictable market and rewards for hard work, keeping your head down and your nose clean – then it probably feels like the world has been turned upside down by recent events.

But as we said right at the start of Lateral Action, the rise of the creative economy is a long-term trend, and we’ve been living in a world where creativity is economic priority number one for some time.


And you know what? Creativity is unpredictable and risky. Sometimes it’s downright scary. Effects don’t always follow neatly from causes; hard work won’t necessarily be rewarded. On the contrary, it could just turn out to be foolish productivity. Rewards come from being curious, agile, aware of the market and willing to experiment to see what works.

So for me, the recession hasn’t brought anything radically new, just accelerated the rate of change and instability. It’s stripped away a lot of the fluff and complacency, and clarified what’s needed to survive and thrive in a world governed by the capricious laws of creativity.

Why Motivation Is Critical to Your Success

Motivation is vital for success in the creative economy. Not just because you need to be stubborn to succeed in any business venture. And not just because the economic storms we’re flying through are frightening enough to test anyone’s nerves. But also because, How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself), motivation has a huge influence on creative performance.

Human beings are driven by four basic types of motivation – some of which are particularly important when it comes to creative work:

Diagram of 4 types of motivation: intrinsic, extrinsic, personal and interpersonal

  1. Intrinsic motivation – the love of the work itself. Intrinsic motivations include: interest; challenge; learning; meaning; purpose; creative flow. Research has shown that high levels of intrinsic motivation are strongly linked to outstanding creative performance.
  2. Extrinsic motivation – rewards for good work or punishments for poor work. Extrinsic motivations include: money; fame; awards; praise; status; opportunities; deadlines; commitments; bribes; threats. Research shows that too much focus on extrinsic motivation can block creativity.
  3. Personal motivation – individual values, linked to personality. Examples include: power; harmony; achievement; generosity; public recognition; authenticity; knowledge; security; pleasure. Each of us prioritizes some values over others; understanding your own values and those of people around you is key to motivating yourself and influencing others.
  4. Interpersonal motivation – influences from other people. Much of our behaviour is a response to people around us, such as: copying; rebellion; competition; collaboration; commitment; encouragement.

Put the four together, and you get a matrix containing four basic drivers. For a project or enterprise to be sustainable and successful, you need to tick all four boxes. Neglect any one of them, and it could be like the dodgy leg on a table that brings the whole thing crashing to the ground.

Diagram of 4 types of motivation: personal satisfaction (personal intrinsic); social interaction (interpersonal intrinsic); personal rewards (personal extrinsic); public recognition (interpersonal extrinsic)

Four Motivators That Will Get You through the Recession

There are many different motivators in each of the four squares. In the diagram below, I’ve listed four that become critically important during a recession.

Diagram of 4 types of motivation: challenge (personal intrinsic); friends and enemies (interpersonal intrinsic); rewards (personal extrinsic); heroes (interpersonal extrinsic)

  • Challenge – depending on how you look at it, the economic crisis could be an overwhelming problem, an unmitigated disaster, or an inspiring challenge. Maybe even an opportunity. Take a moment to look at it through each of these lenses in turn – How do you feel? Which one is most motivating?
  • Friends and Enemies – When things get tough, you find out who your real friends are. Stick together. As Seth Godin points out in Tribes, there are few things more powerful than mutual loyalty, support and encouragement. Who are your enemies? It could be the competition – or even the recession itself. Are you going to let it beat you? A common enemy will give you and your friends a common cause to fight for. 
  • Rewards – This is probably the weakest of the four drivers during a crisis, as the payoff for all the hard work can seem far off in the future, or even non-existent. So it’s essential to look at the big picture and remind yourself where you’re headed and what the rewards will be. You can also make use of non-monetary rewards. For example, I recently came across a company where people are being promoted without pay rises – the money will come later, but for now they are happy to take the status and other privileges of the position.
  • Heroes – The recession is your chance to be a hero, to save your part of the world. Heroes don’t sit behind a desk shuffling paper (or e-mail). They get out there, roll up their sleeves, slay the dragons and rescue the princesses. What are you waiting for?

You’ve probably realised by now that you don’t need a recession to pay attention to these four factors. They are crucial to succeeding in any circumstances.

But faced with an economic crisis, it’s tempting to play it safe or go for shortcuts. To stop investing time, effort and energy in building for the long-term, adding real value and strengthening relationships with your partners, collaborators and customers.

Obviously you need to keep rewards on your radar and do everything you can to maximise them. But if you just focus on short-term rewards, it can feel like you’re making slow progress day-to-day. The big rewards are off in the future, and it sometimes feels like you’ll never get there.

This is where the other three squares can help you. Unlike rewards, these motivators are all available right now:

You can look at the difficulties you face and see them as a challenge – right now. 

You can look around you and reach out to support and encourage your friends – right now.

You can confront your enemy – whether in the external forces ranked against you, or inside you, in the voice of your inner saboteur counselling a timid retreat – right now.

You can be a hero, working to fix things and build them up again – right now.

You can pick up the gauntlet – right now.



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