The Puzzle of Motivation

Finding Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose in Work

Hello hello —

Hope everyone is doing well, staying safe and healthy!

It’s been two months since we started working from home. As most of us have settled into new routines, workflows, childcare rituals, eating habits, and cleaning regimens. This is, for all intents and purposes, the new normal.

But how does work feel during this time?

Despite the semblances of normal, work (for those of us fortunate to still have a job and further fortunate enough to be working from home) I’m sure there’s still some adjusting to be done. Today I want to explore that, in the context of motivation.

Before I continue, I need to acknowledge how lucky and insulated we (reviewing the subscriber list) are in this cozy bubble of white-collar internet work.

In Dan Pink’s 2009 Ted Talk, “The Puzzle of Motivation” he speaks to traditional carrot and stick rewards programs and how they disincentivize 21st century work that requires “even rudimentary cognitive skill.” In other words, if/then rewards work well for tasks with narrow focus, but fall flat when it comes to complex problem solving.

Instead, he argues, motivation comes from a cocktail of Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose:

As a salesperson, I’ve held a consistent affliction with these learnings. Because accepting them felt like accepting either:

  1. My work is mechanical.

Perhaps, sales is a more mechanical task that doesn’t require much cognitive load. Perhaps, our commissions and bonuses are properly aligned. Perhaps, we’re not the savvy or skillful workers that we think we are. 

  1. My employer’s leadership is antiquated.

Perhaps, sales requires resourcefulness and complex problem solving. Perhaps, despite the research being right in front of us, the leaders of multi-billion dollar companies still struggle to find an incentive-framework better than the antiquated systems of the Industrial Age.

Either way, it felt like a loss.

Fast-forward to present day where in the midst of a global pandemic I feel more motivated by work than ever before. Critics will say I’m pandering. Cynics will say I’m stuck in the first stage of social response:

I’ll disagree. As entertaining as Pink’s TED Talk is/was, it’s incomplete and he acknowledges that.

“I want to talk today only about autonomy.”

Of the triptych, Autonomy at work feels the easiest to explain in a Covid world. Both types of freedom have been firing on all cylinders.

Let’s digress:

“Negative freedom is freedom from external interference that prevents you from doing what you want, when you want to do it. These restrictions are placed on you by other people. The more negative freedom you have, the less obstacles that exist between you and doing whatever it is you desire.

Positive freedom is the freedom to control and direct one’s own life. Positive freedom allows a man to consciously make his own choices, create his own purpose, and shape his own life; he acts instead of being acted upon.” (Source)

In the context of (our) work:

  • Negative freedom can mean taking your laptop outside to enjoy the sunshine or starting work early to finish early

  • Positive freedom can be ditching a meeting that was never applicable to you and instead meditating for 30 minutes

What about Mastery?

Scott Galloway (NYU professor and media personality) recently shared this graphic in his No Mercy, No Malice newsletter.

A quick calculation, and I have “saved” 80+ hours of commute ever since we closed our office on March 9th. While it’s easy to forget about this time completely, it’s more satisfying to pretend you still have a commute (at least a morning commute) and force yourself to complete XYZ, before loading your inbox.

My new “morning commute” consists of a warm cup of tea, a 30 minute walk, brain games via Elevate, and a slow start to the NYT Spelling Bee.

While I’m not speaking a new language, learning how to play violin, or rehearsing TikTok dances, it’s some semblance of what I used to do during my commute, but it’s selfishly all me-time and there’s never any traffic.

Great, so how does Purpose fit in?

If autonomy is self-directed, perhaps self-centered. Mastery is what we choose to do based on how it fits into a greater society. Purpose is the service to that greater society.

With work, you may experience Purpose from your employer’s mission, or the clients and customers you serve. For me, I’ve always been proud of the work we do at Pinterest, but it took a (very big) negative to make me not only appreciate the work being done by our partners and clients, but to truly shed light on how different Pinterest feels from prior employers.

This has been quite long-winded, so the let’s wrap

The moral here is motivation is comprised of internal and external factors. I’ve learned/ am learning a lot about my own motivation during Covid, and hope you too can reflect upon your past two months and whether motivation at work (in isolation) has increased.

Thank you for reading, and I want to hear from you — so reply here and let’s catch up soon. Calendars are open and this can be your excuse, not that you need one.

Today is Mother’s Day <3

A day I accepted as a child, questioned as a teenager, and have come back around to appreciate as an adult. If nothing else, it’s a moment to share appreciation and love to someone who likely loves you unconditionally.

To all the moms out there, you’re the best and even though we may not always say it, we love you, we appreciate you. Thank you.

Last but not least, Personal News

I’m excited to share that my latest renovation is (mostly) complete barring kitchen countertops which aren’t being cut right now. Nonetheless, here’s a little preview of the transformation:

Talk soon,