One of the things that has always driven me nuts about self-help gurus and the movement as a whole is their inability to acknowledge that people are different. Their unwillingness to either accept or act upon the idea that not every plan is going to work for every person goes so boldly against everything that we know about motivation and the human brain. I work with a wide assortment of individuals from different walks of life and work with them to develop rather individualized training plans and here’s the one thing that works for EVERYONE when it comes to motivation: know thyself.

In particular, I like to ask people the following question; “carrot or stick?” It’s an age-old question that managers have been using to motivate teams for decades. In the “good old days”, the answer was simple. The biggest stick you could find. And that “worked” for a really long time until people started to realize that people often responded very well to the carrot, a reward for being good at what they did. And so over the last decade or so, companies have gone from asking “carrot or stick” and switched to just filling everyone’s pockets with carrots in the hope that if A carrot means you’ll work harder then MANY carrots will mean you’ll work MUCH harder. The problem is that in this complex equation about how we can motivate people, they leave out one important ingredient; people.

Let me tell you a little bit about works for me. It all goes back to high school football. If you’ve ever wanted to be yelled at for screwing up at your job, might I recommend a career in the fast paced world of high school football. Miss a block? You’re useless. Miss a tackle? You’re garbage. And so on. Now some of you might think, that sounds terrible. Well, it can be. But here’s the secret… it worked for me. Being yelled at when I screwed up, or at the very least being made to feel as though I’d let someone down, always made me work harder next time. Being coddled never did. “You’ll do better next time” always sounded to me like “it doesn’t matter” and it DID matter. So being told that I blew it made me NEVER wanted to let the person down again.

On the other side of things came the praise. Praise in high school football is HUGE. Literally when you do a good job your entire team celebrates and cheers for you. Sometimes your team will lift you into the air and everyone will hug you. Your coach will tell you that you did a great job. And if, like myself, you like to make people happy, the release of endorphins into your system will be INCREDIBLE. I still do this, to this day, with my wife. I try my best to do things that she’ll be blown away with. She’ll say things like “good boy mikey” and rub my head. My friends will ask, “you really let her treat you like that, as though you’re some kind of puppy that brought in the newspaper?” and I answer, “YES, GOOD LORD YES. It’s the highlight of my day.” I honestly believe if I could come back to life as a dog and just make someone happy all day, it would be the best. But if I do something good and my wife says, “you didn’t do that other thing too”… I’m devastated. My goal, to please someone, has gone unfulfilled even though I feel like I’ve done well. This does NOT result in good times.

Now, once you know what works for you, the carrot or the stick, and in what situations, there’s another part that we tend to overlook that plays an equally important role. If someone else is responsible for providing you the carrot or the stick, tell them what works. When I’m working with someone I absolutely tell them that if I’m screwing up, they need to kick my ass and if I do good, I like my head rubbed. Think about it. If your boss knows what works with you, it benefits you both. They’ll make you happy and motivated. You’ll work harder. Everybody wins. And if YOU’RE the one who administers the carrot or the stick for others, ask them. Some people like to get yelled at, literally or figuratively. If that’s what they want and need, it’s your job to provide it. And if you’re a freelancer, providing yourself with carrot and sticks, DO IT. When you screw up, get down on yourself. Or say it’s ok. Whatever works but be conscious of what works. Don’t be a passive observer in your own vocation.