How to Get Motivated – Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

Good morning to you all – it’s Friday!  Here in Boston, the sun is shining, the sky is straight blue (after most of a week of gray), and I actually got enough sleep last night.  What better combination for high energy, engagement, and motivation on a Friday?  Well, we all know better than that – sometimes, no matter how warmly the day greets you, a Friday’s work might just go to hell around 2pm.  And, honestly, after a long week of work, I’m not entirely against a little leisurely transition into the weekend, a little rest for the weary.

Still, I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation, about drive, lately – whether on a Friday when all you can think is that’s too darn beautiful to stay inside and parked in front of a desk, or perhaps during a slump that’s much more significant than those driven by circadian rhythms or the promise of happy hour after work.

With luck, I was recently sent the following video, crafted by Dan Pink of recent Drive fame – Drive being the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc. bestselling book on motivation.  A book I actually picked up months ago, and ran through with zeal – really, the guy has some great ideas.  But they didn’t really hit home until this time, when the subject of my own motivation (or how I could find it) was on the top of my brain.

Please do take the 10+ minutes out of your Friday to watch the video below (you know you were probably going to spend at least 10 minutes on YouTube as of 2pm anyway).  And watch it again in a few days.  Whether you’re trying to figure out how to put some oomph into the end of your week or your weekend, or you’re facing the much bigger decision of which job/project/big move you’re making next, I really think you’ll find it inspiring.  He also does some pretty awesome sketches.

Drive:  The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Summary for those in the audience who like to read rather than listen/watch, or who simply can’t bring themselves to pull up YouTube at work.  Understandable.

In short, Dan Pink explains that we – economics and laymen alike – often assume that the best way to motivate someone is with rewards, often monetary ones.  The carrot on a stick idea.  But plenty of psychologists will tell you that not only are we not horses (indeed), but that sometimes being rewarded for our actions either diminishes our performance (anxiety much?) or takes away our drive to do that thing of our own volition.

(For example, it’s not a great idea to pay your children to do chores, or else they’ll only feel compelled to do them if they can get that reward in exchange.  OK, this isn’t always true given that I always insist on doing the dishes for my mom even though I used to get paid to do so at age 8, but still.  We all see their point.)

So, to cut to the chase, what really motivates us?

Pay? Well, like I just explained, no.  Except, Pink makes a great point – it does motivate us if we don’t have enough of it.  So, to really motivate the people who, say, work for you, be sure to pay them enough (or more than enough) so that compensation is not an issue.  Just take the issue of money off the table.

Once this is done, three factors lead to better performance:

AUTONOMY – We love to be self-directed!  To run our own lives.  This is a really important element for engagement.

Here, Pink gives an example that really resonated with me:  Atlassian, an Australian software company, does something pretty cool once per quarter.  On a Thursday afternoon, they tell their developers that, for 24 hours, they can work on anything they want, the way they want, and with whomever they want.  All they have to do after is present their results to the company the next day, and at a fun party that involves beer, cake – all those elements one loves on a Friday anyway (see above).  And, whaddya know, out of that short period come some of their best ideas, most innovative solutions for nagging problems, and so on.  Not motivated with some innovation bonus, but by saying they know the developers want to do interesting things, are creative folks, so why not run with it?  Brilliant, I say.  I love that.

MASTERY – As in, the urge to get better at stuff, even if it may seem irrational economically.  Yes, getting better is just plain fun, satisfying.  It’s part of why my boyfriend spends hours on the bike each week.  Why I’m dutifully listening to Coffee Break French as many days as I remember to.  He’s not trying to become a pro cyclist.  I’ll never be a translator.  But we still get a high from the effort and from seeing that we’re improving, from making it up that hill more easily next time, or actually understanding words when a French speaker walks by.

Pink’s example was funny but an even better one:  learning a musical instrument.  He reasoned that that move really doesn’t make sense, given that violin mastery probably doesn’t find you a mate, find you a job, and so on.  But we still might devote our evenings and weekends to it, no matter how busy our lives already are.  Other apt examples:  Linux, Wikipedia.  Those don’t make economic sense either but, in his words, “challenge and mastery, along with making a contribution” – that’s what counts. That’s what works.

PURPOSE – Finally, more organizations today are (smartly) focusing on having a transcendent purpose to their work.  As Pink explains, it makes coming to work better, attracts better talent, and so on.  This can be alongside profit, sure, but the purpose piece must be there.

The big trouble comes when a company only focuses on profit, not tied to purpose at all:  this is when people do bad things ethically, plain produce “crappy products,” offer “lame services,” and/or just generally create uninspiring places to work.  I think he’s dead-on there (which is part of why I’m excited to see the rise of design thinking and socially-driven for-profits, but that’s another story).

Dan Pink:  the organizations that are flourishing are animated by purpose.  Take Skype, Steve Jobs/Apple.  They focus on profit, sure, but make sure to maximize their purpose piece too – probably first.  So their work/products resonate – and sell.  What a combo.

Though my notes are hardly brief, I hope they are ones you’ll come back to.  It’s easy to see how probably each of us fit in autonomy, mastery, and purpose in our lives, but often quite separate from one another.  Maybe job owns one of those, your hobby’s focused on another, and so on.  But why not try thinking about all three at once?  While it might have once seemed counter-intuitive (particularly to the economist of yore), makes perfect sense to me.


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