4 Ways You Are Driven and How to Start Driving Instead

Madelaine Weiss
4 min readDec 2, 2023

Table of Contents

What Drives Us?

Different people are driven by different things even though we all have the same drivers within us. And I have some examples for you. But first let’s unpack what we even mean by a driver.

Harvard Business School professors, Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, detail our 4 basic human drives in Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices:

  • To Acquire “objects and experiences that improve their status relative to others”
  • To Bond “with others in long-term relationships of mutual commitment”
  • To Learn “and make sense of the world and of themselves”
  • To Defend “themselves, their loved ones, their beliefs, and their resources from harm”

The authors tell us that these capacities are deeply hardwired into our human brains because they improved our chances to survive and to thrive — and thereby to make more and more babies sharing these same traits. And here we all are.

Although the drives are separate and the satisfaction of one does not directly satisfy the other, there is overlap. Take to learn. From the authors above:

This drive is satisfied by a feeling of understanding, a feeling that things make sense…The theories of the world and of the self that the mind builds up will later, as a separate step, often be essential in guiding efforts to satisfy the drives to acquire, to bond, to defend.

Now here’s where we humans get into trouble. We get into trouble when one or another of these drives is running rampant and roughshod over all the other drives.

This is because these drives are also our values. They are what we are designed to hold dear, to help guide our conduct in becoming the person we want to be, and in our interactions with the world in which we live.

And, when we are driven by one at the expense of the others, we are denying and denigrating large swaths of who we are and what matters most to us.

Moreover, the momentary high associated with satisfying a particular drive eventually fizzles out eventually. This is known as hedonic adaptation, which I have written about before, can be defined as:

… idea that an individual’s level of happiness, after rising or falling in response to positive or negative life events, ultimately tends to move back toward where it was prior to these experiences.

So because, by their very nature, drives are never really satisfied (or they wouldn’t be drivers anymore) we can find ourselves on a lifetime fool’s errand of more, more, more — with all of the low self-esteem and general unhappiness that goes along with it.

Let’s look at some examples.

Case Examples

One client is doing a great job advancing his career, but finding it hard to get “excited” about much of anything else in his life — family, friends, hobbies, self-care, and the like.

His spouse has noticed and complained. Through our work together he has discovered an underlying irrational, intergenerational sense of financial insecurity fueling his drive to acquire beyond what makes sense and is good for himself and the ones he loves.

Another client is quite different in that she was raised in financial abundance, is also doing well in her career, and does not doubt for a second that she will live in financial abundance for the rest of her life.

But she can’t miss a party or a meeting, or any other opportunity to bond where others might be bonding without her. And she is exhausted to the bone, in what appears to be an unsustainable way.

Here we have social insecurity fueling her drive to bond in a way that could in time bring the house down on other areas of her life that are currently going well.

Yet another example is a woman who was so busy defending her beliefs that she was virtually blind to how much her defensive strategies were in the way of her truly deep wish to bond.

And, okay fine, here is mine — the drive to learn. A professor once even called it epistemic hunger so I guess it shows.

One way that manifests with me is that I cannot take my eyes off of the news, trying to learn as much as I can, trying to make sense of it all, no matter how much we all know it cannot possibly be good to be immersing myself that deeply in the horrors of the day.

Notice I said that I cannot take my eyes off of the news. These drives can be so strong that it feels like a cannot when of course it is a can.

From Driven to Driving

How can we get our own hands on the driving wheel so that we are driving the drives instead of the other way around?

Studies show that the more we live in alignment with our true values, and not just one of them, the happier and healthier we are in work and life. Begin by:

  • Making the unconscious conscious. Ask: In which of these 4 areas (acquiring, bonding, learning, defending) am I unconsciously, habitually, driven to put my own life far out of balance to the ultimate benefit of no one?
  • Ask what’s at the root? Is there an insecurity from your childhood that is driving the drive? Reality test that. Is it really as life and death as it feels? Probably not.
  • Then, ask what other area(s) of your life are being neglected by the current imbalance, and come up with some action steps to fortify those. Steps that are not too big, not too little, but just right to move you in a happier, healthier direction, respectful of all that you are.

Practice, practice, practice…and let us know what you find. For help with this or something else Contact Me at weissmadelaine@gmail.com





Madelaine Weiss

Licensed Psychotherapist, Board Certified Executive, Career, Life Coach. LICSW, MBA, BCC