It’s a question that comes up a lot, either in conversation, or in my internal monologue. “What motivates you?"
I’ve currently hit the ten-year mark in my career as a designer. And just as my role has shifted over the years, so too has my motivation. At the outset, I was trying to prove myself, prove that I was as good if not better than my more experienced peers. In time, I became motivated to simply out-do myself, make my work better than I had done before. Eventually, my motivation wavered, and I had to seek out new creative outlets to keep me going. Digital art, writing, even a random photography exercise, all served to remind me what I enjoy doing. The thrill of my work is in creating something of value, and putting it out into the world.
However, motivation, like creativity, is not consistent. It has highs and lows, and reacts directly to life events and changing attitudes. In recognition of this fact, managers have often made use of reward systems, or extrinsic motivators, to keep their employees going. Promotions, bonuses, titles, Employee of the Month. But is that the best way to keep people motivated?
In my random internetting, I came across career analyst Dan Pink, who refuted the concept of extrinsic motivators for creative work. After running through various studies to prove his point, he presented three key intrinsic motivators: Autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These concepts resonated with me because I’ve found them to be essential in my own work. Let’s take a closer look.
This is a concept that’s becoming increasingly important to me over time. I used to be fine with working in an office for five days a week, during pre-set hours. But once I had the opportunity to work from home on a regular basis, I found myself feeling less confined by my job. My work is more focused on projects and tasks than on counting hours. Autonomy also includes the ability to work on projects of your own, or to educate yourself or pursue interests that can influence your career path. Modern companies are getting better at this, blocking off time to allow people to work outside of the ordinary workflow.
The ability to do complex projects is made possible by mastering the simple ones. For me, working in a studio environment means that I’m constantly exercising my skills as a designer, and staying current with the creative tools necessary to do my job. As a result, taking on projects with more moving parts is much more feasible. This leads to creating products and experiences that have a great deal of value for the target audience, making it much more satisfying for me as a designer.
This is the biggest motivator of all. It goes to the core of what it means to be human. Everyone seeks purpose and meaning in their lives, and work is often (not always) the vehicle to find that meaning. For my sake, I want to know that my output is providing genuine value, and that I’m ultimately working towards something worthwhile.
As I mentioned earlier, several modern companies have taken these motivators to heart, and have integrated programs that keep employees intrinsically motivated. Google famously lets people spend 20% of their time on personal projects, which ultimately inspires many of the company’s products. Other organizations create incentives around output that isn’t part of day-to-day operations, once again using autonomy to let people find their own passion for their work.
But it really is a two-way street. Earlier in my career, I just assumed that my job would keep me engaged and energized. And even though forward-thinking employers are creating spaces for intrinsic motivation, it’s up to the individual to find that motivation in him or herself. There is no perfect job, only a good foundation for the best job at a given time in your life. The key is in understanding what matters to you, and working within that mindset, moving your goals forward, and doing the work that excites you even if you do it on your own time.
Motivation is personal, and requires nourishment. Don’t let it slip.