The Threefold Fire that Drives Us

Why do fools like me write blog posts every day, never expecting to get paid for it?

Why do brilliant computer programmers spend all their spare time creating open-source apps for free, when they already make money building software at work?

Why do aspiring novelists hone their skills for years, chasing the vision of that one breakout novel, when the probable advance makes minimum wage look like a pipe dream?

My dad sent me a link last week to a ten-minute video called The Surprising Science of Motivation. Here’s what it says. If you have a worker doing anything more complicated than turning a crank, and you want better performance, paying more money is not an effective motivator. Rather, people do their best work when they’re highly motivated. And the three critical motivation factors are Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

  • Autonomy – People like having the freedom to control their own lives. We like to decide which projects we take on. That’s why Google and Twitter regularly give their employees time to work on anything they want. Where do you think Gmail came from?
  • Mastery – People also like to get really, really good at things. That’s half the reason I play Go – I just enjoy seeing myself improve. Recognition from others doesn’t hurt, either.
  • Purpose – You have to feel that the work you’re doing is meaningful. You have to believe it matters in some way. Whether that means building a Habitat For Humanity house to help someone, or just writing a poem you think is beautiful, doesn’t especially matter. It just has to make a difference to you.

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose. AMP. Seems like common sense. Yet so many companies squander their brightest talents by draining away these simple human motivators.

Tell me – what drives you?


4 responses to “The Threefold Fire that Drives Us

  1. My Social Studies teacher showed that video to the class on the first day of school. We had to make lists of reasons why we go to school. Most people suggested things along the lines of “because my parents/teachers say so”.

    It made me look weird, but the teacher noted and praised me when I said that I did school because I enjoy learning.

  2. Looking at this topic from another angle, what happens when that brilliant computer programmer can no longer program? Or when the novelist can no longer write? The motivation is still there, but the ability has diminished.

    “Losing It”

    The dancer slows her frantic pace
    In pain and desperation
    Her aching limbs and downcast face
    Aglow with perspiration

    Stiff as wire, her lungs on fire
    With just the briefest pause
    The flooding through her memory
    The echoes of old applause

    She limps across the floor
    And closes her bedroom door…

    The writer stare with glassy eyes
    Defies the empty page
    His beard is white, his face is lined
    And streaked with tears of rage

    Thirty years ago, how the words would flow
    With passion and precision
    But now his mind is dark and dulled
    By sickness and indecision

    And he stares out the kitchen door
    Where the sun will rise no more…

    Some are born to move the world
    To live their fantasies
    But most of us just dream about
    The things we’d like to be
    Sadder still to watch it die
    Than never to have known it
    For you, the blind who once could see
    The bell tolls for thee…

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