While each individual finds motivation in different ways, psychologist Abraham Maslow says self-actualization is the top motivating force to do one's best, according to About.com. Maslow also teaches there are other needs that motivate humans one must fulfill in order to reach self-actualization.
Humans never reach self-actualization in Maslow's teachings. However, esteem needs motivate them. They find motivation through the need for achievement, the respect of others, a desire for education or competence.
According to this theory, those who do not reach the esteem level find motivation through their need for love and belonging. In a family situation, one works hard to earn and keep the love of a spouse or children. On the job, they find satisfaction as a member of the team.
Humans need a sense of safety and security, without which they are unable to move to a higher motivation. Children in homes where domestic abuse causes fear for their own safety cannot find motivation through esteem needs.
People also have basic physiological needs that form motivating forces. Without food, shelter, sleep or oxygen, an individual is not motivated to do his best until he meets these needs.
The circumstances of life cause people to move up and down Maslow's pyramid. Highly educated and respected individuals, who suddenly lose their home and fear for personal safety, like what happened during the Holocaust, have a drastic change in their motivating forces.