Why I Wrote This Book
As a management consultant at McKinsey & Company, a leader of several multibillion-dollar corporate transformations, and a performance coach for business executives, military officers, and elite athletes all over the world, I have spent more than thirty years helping thousands of individuals, teams, and organizations to be intrinsically motivated—that is, to do what they do because they love the experience of doing it, and not because of the extrinsic rewards that come with it, such as money and status.
Helping people to love their work is gratifying, but observing the ripple effects is even more rewarding. Loving your work goes a long way toward helping you achieve goals you thought unattainable. My clients tell me that they have also become happier, healthier, and more fulfilled as a result of the work we’ve done together. I am here to tell you that I can do the same for you—provided that you are open to thinking in a different and better way about your work.
The first things my clients discover about me is that I don’t tolerate bad thinking about work or life in general. I have no use for poor excuses, lies and deceit, ignorance, arrogance, selfishness, lack of focus on doing good by others, bad intentions, fear of the unknown, or taking the easy (lazy) way out when you should be biting the bullet. I come down painfully hard on any type of feeling-sorry-for-yourself sentiment, since that is just as handicapping as amputating your arms and legs. I call out these things in myself, too, not just in my clients. Not tolerating bad thinking helps me and my clients focus on what really matters. If a client persists in bad thinking, I simply cancel them.
Another bad habit I push my clients to avoid is shying away from pain. I experience as much emotional and psychological pain as anyone else, but unlike most people, I view them as necessary. First, emotional and psychological pain are signs that you are in a moment when your opportunity to grow is real and tangible. To try to avoid those moments, or to dream about a life without them, is to strive for a life of complete ignorance, without any true ambition. Second, you can’t appreciate pleasure if you don’t experience pain. The same is true for success and failure—you can’t enjoy success if you don’t experience failure. Unless you accept that emotional and psychological pain are both a part of life and a necessity for personal and professional growth, you won’t get full value from the tools and principles in this book.
The idea to write this book came about after a keynote speech I delivered at a McKinsey & Company event. Having been a McKinsey consultant and for the past ten-plus years having coached countless junior and senior people at the firm, I had been asked to summarize my key insights. The theme of the speech was that immense pressure and constant challenges at work are blessings, since they force you to evolve. The secret to managing pressure is how you manage your mind. Many in the large audience were surprised, since they’d expected me to talk about how to relieve pressure, and then I said that pressure is good, provided that you know how to deal with it in a good way.
After my speech and the intense Q&A that followed, some senior partners approached me and suggested I share my principles in a book. I had already written a booklet that had been circulating within McKinsey for some time. I knew that many McKinsey people I had not coached were using my ideas; the thought of reaching an even wider audience appealed to me. Intrinsic Motivation is the result.
It is my great hope that this book inspires you, but this is not a motivational book. I know already that I can’t motivate you—the only one who can motivate you is you. What I can do is teach you how to master your mind so you can unlock the nearly unlimited potential you possess.
The tools and methods I will share with you are grounded in cutting-edge neuroscience and behavioral psychology. I have worked with and learned from some of the best-known people in those fields, including the late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychoneuroimmunologist Nicholas Hall, and many others. My work even took me to the fantastic people at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (now called the Behavioral Analysis Unit, or BAU—you might be familiar with the fictional versions of it in the TV series Criminal Minds and the book and movie The Silence of the Lambs).
My experience as a corporate executive and coach, together with my work with these cutting-edge thinkers, taught me how to develop and hone essential principles and techniques that have proven highly effective. Apply them in an intentional and disciplined way, and you, too, will find yourself performing at a level well beyond what you would have thought possible.
That said, this is not so much a book for you to read and study as one for you to use. Follow my program, put the tools I will show you to work, carry out the daily practices I prescribe for rewiring your brain, and your life will change for the better.
Love What You Do
A lot of books promise big results. Why should you believe this one? For one thing, the techniques it prescribes have already been used by thousands of people at some of the biggest and most prominent companies in the world, and by high performers at that—people at the very top of their professions. Second, because I have lived out these principles myself since I was a lonely child in Örebro, Sweden, fifty years ago, when I stumbled on the five keys to my own and my clients’ eventual success. They are:
Never go to work (or school, or anywhere important) running on autopilot. For every task you undertake, have an explicit goal for an outcome and a set of tactics to achieve it.Never stop challenging and competing with yourself. You are the best measure of how much you have learned, improved, and grown.Consciously create emotional expectations for your experience of work and psych yourself up to meet or beat them. This is another way of saying that the attitude or mindset with which you approach your work is crucial.Review your work every day to make sure you make tangible progress that you can track and celebrate.Seek out and cultivate peers who share your excitement and positivity about work and from whom you can learn.What all five keys have in common is the cultivation of excitement. Why is that so important? Because excitement enables you to love what you do. Loving what you do makes life worth living, but more important, it is the secret sauce for success and well-being!
When you love doing something, you’ll want to do it a lot. And when you do something a lot, you get better and better at it, which further reinforces your enthusiasm. This leads to personal and professional development, because to keep loving the experience, you’ll have to constantly increase its complexity and challenge. Musicians understand this—the reward of practicing boring scales is being able to perform more and more challenging compositions.
Furthermore, when you love doing something, you love thinking about it before you do it. This leads you to almost automatically have an exciting expectation for its outcome and a “plan” in mind for how to bring it about. You also love thinking about it afterward, which deepens your learning.
You may be saying to yourself, this is all well and good, but what if I hate my job? Here’s the thing: you can learn to love any activity.
Don’t Let Your Mind Invent Excuses for Not Loving Your Work
Before I began to write this book, I asked my son, Ramses, what he thought I should tell readers about myself. “Tell them that you’re crazy,” he said, “because that’s what you are. You are the only person in the universe who does not know how to be bored. You’re like a kid, excited about everything you do.”
I agree with him about the second part—that I am excited about everything I do. But I’m neither crazy nor childlike.
How can I be excited about everything I do, even preparing my tax return? Because I have mastered my mind. Unfortunately, most professionals don’t master their minds, which leads to a gazillion excuses about why they don’t love their work.
The most common excuse I hear is the myth that they have too much to do, are too stressed, and need to reduce their workload. I have yet to meet a professional who has too much to do. The real reason they think they have too much to do is that they have not thought enough about how to execute smartly and efficiently. Most professionals can’t describe how they go about executing their daily tasks, since they perform them on autopilot, without thinking about their approach or that it might include inefficient or outdated habits.
Other common excuses are poor relationships with colleagues, bad bosses, unfair performance assessments, and a lack of career opportunities. To be sure there are bad bosses, unfair or otherwise toxic work environments, and so forth. But, and it’s a crucial but, most of those things are not why you hate your work, they are why you hate where you work. I am here to tell you that unless you are in an exceptionally bad working environment, in which case you should leave, your excuses are obstacles of your own creation.
When you don’t love doing what you do, waking up and getting ready to go to work will be an effort. You will procrastinate, especially when it comes to tasks you think are especially difficult or dull or uncomfortable. You will finish your days exhausted, with little sense of pride or accomplishment.
When you don’t love doing what you do, you will also become overly attached to extrinsic rewards, such as praise and money, since they are your compensation for your lack of enjoyment while doing the work itself. Failure becomes something painful, almost unbearable, given that you have put so much energy into something you don’t even like.
When you are bored with your job or hate it, you get tunnel vision—you don’t see the tasks you have to do in complete and holistic ways. This makes them even more boring!
But no matter what your excuses are for not loving your work, they are not why you don’t love it. The real reason is your own mind. Your mind creates these excuses because it is lazy, and it is lazy because you have failed to master it.
An unmastered mind is a lazy mind.
Making Work Lovable
Children come by their excitement naturally. Until it gets crushed out of them in school, kids innately know how to have fun and love what they do. Give them a wooden stick and watch as they begin to play with it. Wait a while and ask them what it is. You will get answers like “It’s a car!” or “It’s a rocket!” Kids have an unlimited capacity not just for fantasy and imagination (both powerful tools for self-improvement) but for engrossment, much as artists or athletes do when they are experiencing the mental state that my mentor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously described as “flow.” Simply put, flow is when your concentration is such that you lose all sense of time and place. The experience is its own reward; its end goal or outcome is just the icing on the cake. The satisfactions that go with creating an inspired work of art or flawlessly executing an athletic feat are easy enough to imagine. But as Csikszentmihalyi noted, “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make.” Some activities will only engross us if we take the trouble to pay close attention to them.
That is certainly true of work—it offers endless opportunities for engrossment. Why is that? Because it is so rich and complex. No matter what you do to make your living, it provides you with virtually unlimited opportunities to innovate and experiment, learn new things, seek new experiences, deepen your understanding of your relationships with the people around you, and learn how to solve a multitude of different problems.
So, why is it so hard for most professionals to love and enjoy all aspects of their work? Because unlike children, adults must work consciously and intentionally to cultivate their curiosity and their ability to be engrossed and to improve the ways they do things. That requires deliberate thinking. The challenge with deliberate thinking is that the key survival strategy we humans have evolved is to always secure a surplus of energy, which in many cases makes us lazy. Instead of thinking deliberately, we operate on habit, which allows us to save a lot of energy. How much energy does thinking take? Consider this: The average person running a marathon burns two thousand–plus calories. A chess player can burn as much as six thousand calories and lose up to two pounds per day during a tournament!
Given that thinking draws so much energy but is decisive for loving your work, this book offers you proven step-by-step tools and approaches that will make it easier and less energy consuming for you to master your mind to think and act deliberately in your professional life.
So please, stop wasting your time complaining or being bored by your work. Just think about how much of your time your work consumes. Not spending all of it in a way that excites you, that makes you evolve and grow and feel good about yourself, is tantamount to self-abuse.
Instead, use this book to turn your professional path into a nonstop adventure of growth, excitement, and goal fulfillment. I believe we owe it to ourselves to constantly seek ways to unlock our unlimited potential, and work gives us endless opportunities to do just that. Learn to love your work and you can reach any goal you set for yourself. As a human being, you are blessed with the most important tool you need to do this: your brain.
The Habits and Attitudes of Professionals Who Love What They Do
People for whom work is its own reward share ten habits and attitudes. Ask yourself the following questions as you read about them: Does this describe my natural orientation toward my work? If your answer is no or not very much, then why is that? What is preventing you from embracing this habit or attitude? What benefits would you gain if you did?
Boring is not in my vocabulary. Intrinsically motivated people know there are no boring tasks, only boring ways to think about tasks. They identify what’s exciting about every task they face.I meet every commitment. Meeting your commitments creates a natural tension and focus in your work life. Every day becomes an opportunity to feel good about your capabilities and contributions.I learn from my mistakes and the awkward situations I find myself in. You should be grateful for your failures (up to a point), because they focus you on what you need to work on.I have daily goals that are pragmatic, concrete, and focused on my development. If you have an important meeting, visualize its best possible outcome. Then run a premortem in which you derive a concrete plan for opening the discussion, driving a certain perspective, interacting with an important attendee, and so on. Carry out a postmortem when the meeting is over, so you can find ways to improve your performance and develop new goals in the future. The feeling that you are progressing and growing is the biggest energy booster there is.I instantly assess what is strategically important and prioritize it. Sort your development opportunities into three buckets: always important, game changers, and not important now. That last one is especially valuable because it allows you to take things off the table, reducing your stress and enhancing your ability to focus on what matters most.I use self-doubt as a goad for self-improvement. Self-confidence is important, but taken to excess it can lead to complacency. Nothing is ever completely under control; a healthy amount of worry enables better performance.I seldom get distracted. Distraction is a sign that you are focusing on things you can’t influence. Focusing on what you can control—your own behavior—is a source of inner strength.I plan. There are no truly complicated tasks, only complicated ways to think about them. Complicated thinking is the result of too little planning. Negative stress occurs when we haven’t planned well enough.I view other people as assets. The best way to learn how to do a new task is to copy from someone who does it well. You can also learn what to avoid by watching someone perform a task poorly.I seek coaching. Not to motivate yourself or teach you how to develop—those are your personal responsibilities. A coach provides you with honest feedback on your performance. You don’t have to like your coach, as long as you can trust the person to tell you what you need to hear.How to Get the Most Out of This Book
Roughly half of the tools and principles in the book were developed when I was helping to lead turnaround efforts at a series of companies. Leaders and employees at all levels and in all roles adopted them, and they played a critical role in our success. Daniel H. Pink wrote about the work I did in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009). All in all, the changes I helped put in place at those companies resulted in $2 billion in performance improvements.
The other half were developed during my work as an executive-performance coach, mostly during the ten-plus years I have spent working with project managers and partners at McKinsey & Company. McKinsey professionals combine a commitment to helping clients succeed with a focus on their own professional development. This made McKinsey the optimal laboratory for developing and testing these approaches.
The book is divided into three sections that reflect the progression most of my clients go through in our work together. It begins when they confront the biggest obstacle for their professional success and well-being: their own minds. Once they’ve applied the tools and principles I present in the first section, “Learn to Love Any Activity: Rewire Your Brain to Focus on Exciting Outcomes (FEO),” they are ready for the next: “Shape Your Destiny: Evolve Your Mindset to Become the Superstar You Can Be.” Having addressed their own minds and mindsets, they are ready to apply the principles and tools I present in the third and last section: “Master the Second-Biggest Obstacle for Professional Success and Well-Being: Other People.” The most foundational of these sections is the first. Until you learn to focus your tasks and activities on exciting outcomes (FEO), you will not love them.
To further guide you, I have sorted the tools into three levels, Easy, Moderately Demanding, and Demanding, depending on how difficult they are for typical professionals to implement in their work lives. What I mean by a “typical” professional is someone whose brain engages in work activities and tasks without any clear or exciting outcomes in mind, unless it’s finishing the task or activity on time. If you operate like this, you will need to rewire your brain. That takes effort. Learning new things and breaking old habits requires a lot of brain energy.
The rule of thumb is that the more demanding the tool or principle you choose, the more effort you need to put in, but the faster you rewire your brain. The flip side is that you’re likely to struggle or fail at first. Instead of continuing to use the tool until the full effect eventually emerges, some clients get frustrated and give up. That’s where a lot of the value of my coaching comes in. I don’t psychoanalyze my clients by exploring their childhoods and their dreams. I treat them more like a tennis coach would, teaching them the techniques they need to improve, then pressing them to practice them until these become second nature.
The less demanding tools require less energy and pain, but they work more slowly, and the slower you rewire your brain, the longer it takes to start loving what you do. This can also prompt you to give up.
No matter how easy or demanding the tool or principle you choose, your brain will protest. Inevitably, you will hear an inner voice telling you how badly your efforts are going and how huge the gap is between where you are and where you want to be. Since your brain wants to conserve its energy, it will provide you with any number of excuses to not pursue any change.
Patience and persistence are your allies. But two other things are equally important.
First, you need to force yourself to have fun when you experiment with the tools, even if you’re simply planning your day. Bring your sense of humor! Laugh when you fail! What’s true for kids is even more true for adults: having fun feeds your appetite to learn. It is the best medicine to cure your brain’s pain and stop its relentless attempts to derail you with excuses.
Second, focus on the progress you have made after using one of these tools—every single time. To force you to quit, your brain presses you to focus on how short of your ultimate goals you are falling. That is the wrong metric. You should compare where you were before each attempt to use the tools, and where you are after. Each attempt to use one of the tools changes you. It builds your self-insight, and it builds your skills. No matter how little progress you make, there is always progress. That is what you should focus on!
To sum it all up: What is required from you is discipline, effort, and self-honesty. In addition, you should work to have fun and focus on the progress you have made using the tools. Once you get these things in place, you will be able to overcome your brain’s initial resistance and develop your skills, change your behavior, and elevate your drive and performance. Nothing is “too difficult” or “impossible.”
Let’s Get Started
Regardless of who you are, what kind of work you do, or what you aspire to, these tools can serve you well. But they will work even better if you use them to achieve something that is important for you. If not, your efforts and enthusiasm are more likely to fade. That might cause you to feel bad about yourself or, worse yet, blame me for your failure. Blaming yourself is counterproductive and blaming me is like blaming Microsoft Word because you didn’t write the book you always thought you had it in you to write.
The work turns on a six-step process:
Read the book and assess yourself—write down what you want to achieve.Put your whole life in your calendar.Minimize your turnaround time for simple tasks—perform them right away.Commit to work daily to rewire your brain.Create a simple routine for self-coaching—imagine me being there with you.Create a support network—work this program with a buddy or with your team.Read the Book and Assess Yourself
Think about things you want and need to achieve. It doesn’t matter whether you have a specific goal or just want to enjoy your work more.
Ask yourself these questions: What do I struggle with? What keeps me up at night? What are my dreams and fantasies? Do I find it hard to fulfill my goals? Or to figure out which goal I should adopt? Am I actively evolving my mindset? Is the way I think about myself creating problems for me (or the people around me)? Do I want to improve my ability to understand and solve any type of problem? Do I need to improve the way I deal with people? Do I need to get my ideas accepted?
Whatever you want to achieve, write it down. Dare to be bold and aspirational.
Put Your Whole Life in Your Calendar
To work with my program, your calendar should hold a complete record of your life. Having a consolidated view of everything you have done and are supposed to do allows you to be time smart, in control, and to gamify your situation by competing with yourself. When you do things ahead of schedule, you will rightly feel a sense of achievement and control.
From now on, stop using checklists or other tools to track your life. Why? Because (1) checklists don’t tell you how much time each item requires or when you are supposed to execute it; (2) things on a checklist get forgotten or lost; and (3) checklists don’t give you a consolidated view of everything you are supposed to do, so they engender feelings of fragmentation and stress—you know you have a bunch of things to do, but you have no clear plan for when to pursue them.
Everything should go into your calendar view:
Every work-related task and event you know you need to pursue, including your individual work tasks.Every work-related task and event you think you need to pursue, including your individual work tasks.Every work-related idea that you think you should pursue.Every private and personal task, event, and idea you know or think you need to pursue.Whenever you come up with a task, event, or idea you know or think you should pursue, open your calendar immediately and select a time and a date for it. You can always change the date and time later; the purpose is not to hold you to a schedule, but to make sure that you have one. If a colleague calls you unplanned to discuss something and the discussion is interesting and gives you some insights, open your calendar, create a calendar event for when your colleague called, and use the insight as its title.
You can be certain that shit will happen at work. Why? Because you are dealing with people just like yourself, and none of us are perfect. A colleague might not treat you with the respect you think you deserve or decide not to do something you mutually agreed should be done. Upper management might make a decision that confuses or upsets you.
Copyright © 2023 by Stefan Falk