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“How do you motivate yourself?”

I get asked this question a lot, probably because I appear busy. I run a business school, a VC firm, multiple conferences and a pro-basketball team—oh, and I have five kids! So when I get asked about how I stay motivated, my answer is always the same: “I don’t need motivation. If you’re worrying about how to motivate yourself, it’s already too late.”

Why? Because by the time you’re asking that, you’re not talking about staying motivated. You’ve already lost motivation. So the real question is, how do you get it back?

The Balloon Theory of Motivation

The feeling of being motivated is something that should happen naturally. It isn’t something artificial that you can manage from the outside. The late Hirotaro Higuchi, the CEO who transformed Asahi into Japan’s top beer company in the late 80s, had an interesting take on motivation. He called it “balloon theory.”

“Like gas-filled balloons, people’s natural impulse is to rise,” he explained to me once. “Most companies load people up with all sorts of weights that stop them from doing so. As a leader, my job is to get rid of all the junk that holds people down and let them rise.”

In other words, a leader should throw out anything or anyone that depresses natural motivation: silly bureaucratic procedures, nasty, second-rate bosses, whatever.

Empowering Your People to Motivate Yourself

At GLOBIS, I do my best to apply balloon theory through a couple of simple management principles:

  1. No one has to do anything they don’t believe in.
  2. No one has to do anything they don’t want.

There is no coercion, either intellectual or emotional. People only have to do things they buy into wholeheartedly (and wholeheadedly). It may sound crazy, but after a moment’s thought you’ll see that it’s just plain common sense. If you force people to do things they’re reluctant to do, they’ll go about the job half-heartedly. The results will be bad, and organizational morale will suffer as a result. If your people hate what they’re doing, you’ll find it much harder to motivate yourself.

Worse still, forcing people to do things they’re reluctant to do actually gives them an incentive to fail. They want everything to go wrong because then they can come back with, “See? I told you it wasn’t going to work!”

A smart leader never tells people what to do. A smart leader gets people to do the work they want to do, the work which naturally motivates them. These are the right conditions for the “balloons” to rise, and the organization to flourish.

How to Motivate Yourself to Motivate Yourself

We all want to find the things that motivate and energize us. Trouble is, it’s easier said than done. I’ve certainly had times in my career where I felt apathetic and lost. The toughest period was probably when I came back to Japan after my MBA in the States. Returning to my old job and doing the same tasks was a big anti-climax. I knew I wanted a change, but it was not easy.

So I tried to identify the things that naturally motivated and energized me. And I did that by asking a couple of simple questions.

  1. What do I enjoy?
  2. What is my mission in life?

And here are the answers I came up with:

  1. I enjoy creating value from scratch, taking responsibility, being in control, and making people happy.
  2. My mission is to create an ecosystem to develop visionary leaders who create and innovate societies.

As a result, I set up a business school in 1992 and a venture capital firm in 1996. I’ve certainly had my share of problems to grapple with over the last 25 years, but it’s never been a chore. Why? Because I believe in and enjoy what I am doing.

So if you feel like your flailing around trying to motivate yourself (or others) with nothing to show for it, just stop. Stop trying to pump up your motivation from the outside in. Instead, look into your heart, identify what you really want to do, and then float up, up and away like a balloon—or maybe like a bubble in a nice cool glass of Asahi beer!

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