Traditional motivational theory talks about using carrots and sticks (usually in the form of monetary rewards and punishments) to get people to do what you want them to do, or stop them from doing things you don’t want them to do. While companies have used these motivators for a long time, the book “Drive” by Daniel H Pink. describes new research that indicates human motivation is a much more complex process. The “cocktail party summary” of the research to date is that human motivation actually has three parts, autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy means that humans want to direct our own lives and have some say over what we are going to do. Perceived control is an important part of one’s happiness, but what people want control over varies – it may be the tasks they have to do, how they are going to accomplish those tasks, other people, or other aspects of their life.

The second part is mastery.  We all have the urge to get better and better at something that matters. Mastery of a task is an asymptote of the curve – you can get close, but you can never get all the way there.  No matter how good you are at something, there’s always some aspect that you could do at least a little better. But making progress, and seeing yourself get close to perfection makes you want to go to the next level, and get a little bit closer.  In work terms, there needs to be a match between what you can do (and the level at which you can do it) and what your job requires you to. You want your job to be challenging, but not impossible and not boring.  When you get significantly better at your tasks, the job gets boring, and it’s time to move on to something more challenging.

Finally, we are motivated by purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. We want to feel that our work matters, that we are contributing to making the world a better place. Some of the most interesting studies in this book had to do with artists. For example, independent studies of a variety of artwork showed that commissioned works were judged to be significantly less creative than non-commissioned works. Apparently, doing it for the money made the creative process less enjoyable and actually less creative. Studies also found that artists who were intrinsically motivated (as opposed to financially motivated) were better able to weather the down times in their careers, continued to spend more time on their art than those who were financially motivated, and over time produced superior art. The very fact that they were doing it for love, and not for the money, is what brought the recognition (and money) to them in the long run.

Now may be a good time to stop and think about what motivates you, and how your current professional position is meeting those motivations. Are there parts of your job that are under your control, and are those the parts you want to control? Are there parts you truly enjoy, where you are actively striving to be better? And finally, do you have a sense of fulfillment that your current work is making the world a better place?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, figure out where the mismatch is, and what you need to change. Once your motivations are being reinforced by your environment, success is sure to follow.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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