Motivating yourself

It’s Monday again. How are you feeling? Whether it’s your first job or your fifth, you may find you’ve lost the spark that once made your work feel great. Recently, I’ve been helping several friends think through their next moves.

I’ve been there before, having left my first job early-on. At the time I built a framework that helped me sort through exactly what I was feeling, and clarified the changes I needed to make. Hopefully you might find it equally useful.

(Much of this model is derived from Dan Pink’s book Drive, which explores the psychology of motivation. When I was changing jobs, I drew his three factors as the axes of a graph, and realized they mapped perfectly to three dimensions you can control for in selecting a new role. If you don’t have time to read the book, his ten-minute talk is a great summary.)

Are you working or being worked?

Let’s start by defining what it means to have a great job. It’s easiest to describe by its effects: a great job motivates you to keep pushing yourself. When you do your work, you anticipate a reward, and your body gives you the gift of increased dopamine transmission. The experience is frequently euphoric. A great job means you begrudgingly leave on Friday and can’t wait to get back on Monday (out of raw excitement and not being a ‘workaholic’).

But what kind of reward are you anticipating? It turns out, many bosses get this deeply wrong. In the employee-as-horse theory, one needs only a carrot and a stick. And the more substantial the carrrot, the harder the employee will work to get it.

Of course, treating employees like horses only works when their function is the intellectual equivalent of tilling a field. So pure compensation isn’t enough to motivate people who need to do creative, unstructured jobs. In fact, offering more money for intellectual work demonstrably has the opposite effect. Extrinsic motivation, like LDL cholesterol, is a necessary element in a harmful form.

Take a look at how you’re being compensated and you may get a clue about why your job satisfaction has dried up. Above a minimum level to pay your bills, mo’ money is not mo’ happy. Is there a carrot being dangled in your face? Does it come up in conversation? Do your managers encourage competition to get the biggest, juiciest carrot?

Then you might just be tilling their fields.

A 3-D approach to your job search

To find a great job for yourself, you need to focus on what maximizes your intrinsic motivation. With it, you’ll find yourself capable of all sorts of magic: working harder and longer, yet being happier even after taking a big pay cut.

In Dan Pink’s conception, if you want to be motivated, you just need to be AMPed. A great job is the right combination of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

1. Autonomy is a measure of how much you craft your own role. When you’re self-directed, you choose what you work on, who you work with, and when and how you make it happen. You pursue tasks at the intersection of interesting and important. You take ownership over your work, are responsible for outcomes, and can see your impact directly.

It turns out, autonomy directly ties to the size and life stage of a company. As the organization grows larger and gets older, it defines roles, responsibilities, and reporting lines more strongly. People carve out territories for themselves. Equity and ownership over outcomes goes down, less excellent employees come along to ‘fill the role’ and politics form when people are more interested in job preservation than doing great work.

There are always trade-offs: a younger, earlier company has fewer experienced people to learn from, and less direction and feedback on whether you’re doing a good job. But on the whole, the more autonomy motivates you, the smaller a company you should seek out.

2. Mastery means to get better at something, which in a work context defines what you’re getting better at, and how much better you can become. Achieving mastery is motivating because it’s challenging, and as ‘gamification’ suggests, we like pushing ourselves to accomplish difficult feats for fun. But raw difficulty isn’t enough to keep pushing yourself. Like playing any game, you have to believe that the outcome is important, and be surrounded by others who you respect, learn from, and like being around.

This correlates strongly with job function, for example: engineering, product, design, operations, marketing, sales, business development, management, or anything in-between. What you do in the organization will define the tasks that you can draw from, how mentally stimulating and challenging they are, and the outcomes you’ll see. This one requires you to reflect deeply about your career direction, the type of person you want to be, and what you really love to do when money isn’t your motivator.

And perhaps more importantly, your function also determines what kind of people you spend your time with every day. How much do you share common values with your superiors? Since you inevitably become the average of the five people you’re around the most, choose wisely.

3. Purpose is the often-neglected reason for why you’re doing your work. It’s not enough to simply make money, or to enable other people to make more money. Just as the carrot wasn’t enough to motivate you, your company shouldn’t act like a horse either. It needs to have some greater, transcendent meaning in the world, producing good products and providing good service that makes people’s lives happier and better. You have to believe.

Your belief in a purpose is an extremely personal thing. You can’t get that belief from other people’s envy, or others’ definitions of what makes a company great. It has to come from within. So your deep, gut emotional reaction to a company is derived from how much you care about it’s vertical and love its products. Ask yourself if you’d be proud to tell everyone you meet that you work for this company, particularly people who don’t understand what it does.

Think about your past

Now that you know the three dimensions, try placing all your past jobs on the axes. How much did you choose your own work? What did you get better at, and how important was that to you? Why did your company, and by extension, your work matter to the world?

This exercise will be immensely clarifying, and you should repeat it often. Put it on your calendar twice a year.

Try lots of them on

You’ll likely think of the three dimensions and already have a strong opinion about one or two of them from your past experiences. Think of that as helping you take a slice out of the cube of possibilities. Every slice still has infinite variations possible along the third dimension.

Give yourself ample time to explore, and try lots of possible jobs on for size. Read a thousand job descriptions (I’m totally serious), disregarding how qualified you are for the positions. Keep reading until you have ten that you identify with and think you’d love. You’ll know them when you see them.

Then, look at the stage, function, and vertical of each job. I bet you’ll find they share more interesting things in common than the prospect of a carrot.

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