Nathanael Garrett Novosel, September 21 2022

Are You a Firefighter or a Dreamer?

An exploration of your motivation

As an Executive Advisor, I’ve helped business leaders for years present their strategies to other leaders and to their teams.  Their biggest issue was always around getting their audience to acknowledge and support the points they were making and the actions that they were proposing.  In presenting to these audiences, the optimal narrative was always roughly the same: start with why they should listen to you, then explain what needs to be done, then explain how you propose proceeding, and then finally suggest the benefits or outcomes if you succeed.

Within the “Why” part of the presentation, you’re looking to get two things from your audience: you want them to care (so that they’ll listen), and you want them to be motivated to act in ways that will help you achieve your strategy.  To influence them, there are only two forms of motivation to tap into: seeking a positive outcome and avoiding/addressing a negative outcome.

Within organizations, I did find that people tended to be more motivated by one or the other.  Having fun with this idea, I gave these two types of motivations names: “Firefighters” are people who need a burning problem to solve to drive them to act, whereas “Dreamers” are people who accept that problems will inevitably arise and are more motivated in strategic conversations by an improved outcome that can be attained.  As such, “Dreamers” will be more likely to tell you that the problem you’re highlighting is overblown if you try to use it to act, and “Firefighters” will be more likely to remain disinterested unless there’s a problem to fix.

While people obviously can want to both fix problems and attain better outcomes, it’s important to know which motivating factor will be more influential because there are some people in organizations who work for a paycheck and will only act if they have to vs. others who care deeply about what they do and want to do the best job possible.  Focusing too much on problems might disengage Dreamers because they might get offended by how bad you’re painting a problem, and focusing too much on the potential might turn off a Firefighter because they are either indifferent (after all, they won’t get paid any more) or they’ll be more likely to have an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset to improvement opportunities.

Now, you’re likely not presenting to executives anytime soon, but this insight is still useful if you want to motivate yourself or others.  Will you/they respond more to a problem that needs to be solved or a better future that you could attain?  Should you combine them, or is one more important than the other?  If you/they respond better to problems, then you can turn things into problems to solve to engage your/their problem-solving brain (i.e., why people do puzzles for fun); if you/they respond better to a desirable outcome, then you can remind yourself/them how great that outcome is and how you/they can attain it if you/they just take action.

The secret to motivating yourself is to dial up the perceived benefit of acting and penalty of not acting while reducing the perceived effort necessary to solve the problem or achieve the benefit.  I jokingly call this the “15 minutes to rock-hard abs” approach to motivation because infomercials are famous for combining the annoyance of a problem with the low effort and amazing results of the solution to motivate people to “Call now!” (Note: There’s Something about Mary fans will respond to this by touting the benefits of 7-minute abs and how 6 minutes won’t get your heart going)

So, which are you: a Firefighter or a Dreamer (or, if both, how much of each)?  What motivates you, and how can you focus your thoughts, words, and actions to get yourself to take action toward a better life?  Dial up the urgency of a problem or the benefit of a solution while reducing the perceived effort, and you’ll find yourself more and more willing to do what it takes to get what you want in life.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


Previous The Ethics of Honesty and Openness
Next Control Your Attention, Control Your Experience