Finding autonomy and purpose at work


The first working day of the week is always dreaded. The last day of the week is when people start discussing their weekend plans with their colleagues. These discussions inevitably get competitive. “My weekend will be better than yours” is the general theme. Then the weekend comes and goes. On Monday morning, it is time to face the inquisition in the office.

My colleague asks me, “How was the weekend?”
The only honest response to this question is to say, “it was short. Very short.”

If work is such a dreaded experience, why then do we work? Why are some people intrinsically motivated? There are many theories of motivation, but the one that I love for its simplicity is that ‘human beings work for three basic drivers – autonomy, purpose, and mastery’. That is what author Daniel Pink says. The idea resonates with me. Somewhat…

You’ve got to serve someone

We all value being able to work by ourselves. To be able to make decisions about our work sounds empowering. We like to choose, When and How we will work. The feeling of being in charge is inherently appealing. But can we? The idea of having a boss who will look over your shoulder is disgusting. Real autonomy is an illusion. Bob Dylan said it long back, “You’ve got to serve someone.” Even the CEO is answerable to the Board and the Board has to explain stuff to the shareholders. You might say that you are like me, an entrepreneur. You are accountable to your customer or client. Even an actor or artist has to deal with the expectations of the audience, who judge their work as their boss. If you have a boss who loves to micro-manage, you can bid goodbye to autonomy. There goes one-third of your motivation to show up on a Monday morning.

Making the world a better place … yeah, right!

That leaves us to finding a higher purpose that helps us to feel motivated. If you are a doctor saving lives, or a researcher finding a cure for cancer, you can run off to your desk and pin up that mission statement on your wall. All those in helping professions ought to feel that they are making a difference. That is also a myth. Ask any teacher about the drudgery of correcting assignments. What if you are like the vast majority, doing stuff which is mind numbing and mundane. What if your organisation’s posters about leaving a ding in the universe feel vaguely phony? What if your boss fumbles and stammers while trying to explain that the coffee that you are brewing is making the customer cheer up and THAT is what is making the universe a big happy place? That sounds like a force fit. But wait, there is hope.

Mastery – the secret to feeling motivated

Let’s play a mind game. If your job involved making coffee, there will quickly come a time when you will be able to switch off your brain and deliver the coffee on auto-pilot. That is when you will start looking for autonomy and purpose to come to your rescue and they won’t.

What if you tried your hand at Mastery? What if you built in a way to step up your expertise by creating your own version of coffee art. When you serve the coffee to a couple sitting at the café, you could add a little coffee art by painting a heart on the coffee. How about designing your own version of a birthday card on the coffee? Imagine having your own range of coffee art that changes daily, much like Google art. Imagine being able to write your customer’s initials on the coffee. Or a cartoon character. The list is endless. Any job will have endless opportunities for building mastery. It may not have autonomy or purpose; it will have mastery as a possibility.

Mastery is an endless pathway. You could build further expertise by learning about different recipes of coffee. Or about the rituals around coffee in different parts of the world. And become a storyteller who tells a new story involving coffee to a customer. Maybe you could have storytelling sessions about all the interesting people who love coffee. The day you can discover that the opportunities for mastery in your field, whatever that might be, is really endless, you will stop dreading the beginning of the work week.

The day you discover the endless possibilities of building your expertise, you will be truly autonomous and you would have discovered the purpose behind your work. Experts find purpose because they love what they do. That is infinitely easier than doing what you love. Mr Pink, maybe there is only meta motivation for us to work – being the master of the craft.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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