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Intrinsic Motivators

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I was parsing through some old writing last night, and I found something I had scribbled on a napkin (cliche but yes, I’m that girl) three years ago, when I was living and working in Seattle:

“Walking to work today, for the first time in months I experienced a breath of the Seattle I moved to last March. Maybe it was the time of day, the movement of noon after a morning of working from home and drinking tea. Maybe it was the sun. Maybe it was stumbling through three parks that I never knew existed. Whatever it was, a wave of the initial March energy washed over me and my heart hurt, my like I was listening to a beautiful song, like I was singing and playing the guitar with Marius, like it did when I left Portland, and I felt hope. That’s a good sign, I think.

“Days like today make me want to drink too much coffee, to push all those feelings to the point of tipping and explore how it’s possible for happiness and sadness to feel so tangled up in each other sometimes. I think it relates to nostalgia, somehow.

“Work swallows that intensity as soon as I walk in the door, though. The eight hours a day that I’m in the office smooths everything into a professional state of numbness, the gravity pulling and draining my energy long after I’m home. I don’t know how to fit this unwieldy pit of time into the rest of my life. It doesn’t integrate seamlessly; it just drops, plodding, into the very center. The shards of what’s left – giddy songwriting between $1 PBRs, scooter rides on sunny days, shamelessly hip dance parties – vie for attention and finally fade away. Meanwhile, the only thing left to do is resent the mysterious force that leveled the frenetic energy and the moments of peace and reflection between, plowing creativity and leaving an orderly office building in its wake.”

This scratchy little piece of writing means something to me for two reasons. First, it reminds me how much I used to love all the little things when I lived in Seattle. I’ll always reference my time in Seattle as the best two years of my life, and there’s a huge part of me that wants to chalk it up to the place itself, to the salty fresh air, and move back. But it’s not that simple, and that last paragraph is the second reason this piece is meaningful to me: I used to have a really hard time reconciling work and life. And I still do sometimes. When things are the worst, I try to examine them the most mindfully, because that’s when I learn the most about what motivates me and how I think I’ll be able to motivate other people in the future. Here’s what I’m learning: it’s really natural for people to turn to a dichotomy of “work vs life” unless you help them smooth over the line. That doesn’t mean longer hours, though. I think for me, it comes down to what Dan Pink calls intrinsic motivators: feeling a sense of internal worth, purpose, and autonomy. Extrinsic motivators – carrots and sticks, bonuses or punishment – don’t work so well on me, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn I’m with the majority on that one. That whole TED Talk is wonderful, by the way.

When I started to think about intrinsic motivators and the Great Exchange, I wanted to let myself off the hook, because my immediate assumption was that all nonprofits have an intrinsic motivator built in (helping people). But I think that might actually be another extrinsic motivator in disguise.  What actually motivates me, intrinsically, is to have the freedom to work exactly how my complicated, beautiful little brain wants to work. I like working intelligently. I like working efficiently. I like working creatively and happily. I don’t like wasting time in meetings or putting in long hours to try proving my worth. And if this all sounds totally obvious, then look at the average American workplace.

It’s fascinating to read about the brain and discover how many workplace rules and systems go directly against the grain of our neurology. There’s another great TED Talk called Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work that illustrates one of these points really well; he points out that humans are phase-based workers just like they’re phase-based sleepers. So, being interrupted all day at work is pretty much the productive equivalent of having a sleep disorder. I should talk to you sometime about how well sleep disorders work out for people. Allowing people to manage their own time seems like such a simple concept. 

Anyway. When I talk about this stuff, the line is so blurry between workplace management and educational policy that sometimes I can’t tell if I want to run an organization or start a damn school. But I think it’s cool that all of this research can apply to both. I think we’d have much better leaders if we started teaching people, early and often, about the human mind.

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5 responses »

  1. Reblogged this on VOGELIAN ADVENTURE BUREAU and commented:
    Elegantly-stated, complicated and beautiful writing by an elegant, complicated and beautiful writer. Thanks for this one, Meg.

    Reply
  2. Hey Meg,
    This is my first time on this site. I also checked out The Great Exchange website and I have to say the work you’re doing is phenomenal! I just reminds me of how passionate you’ve always been at Smith with BB/BS and individuals with intellectual disabilities. Keep up the great work! We can use more people like you.

    Finding this blog was a pleasant surprise also because I miss reading your writing. Yet I can’t believe you wrote all of that on a napkin lol. But in regards to your post, I agree with you that intrinsic motivators get me further in my work than extrinsic.

    And I’m still trying to figure out the work vs. life balance. I think it will be a constant balancing act and blurry line.

    Reply
    • ROX! Thank you so much for reading my blog, and for the compliment! I’ve been so excited to see (from afar) what your life has developed into. And yeah, I think you’re right: work vs life will continue to be a major challenge for most of us, and it has been really fun to learn how different leaders are tackling it and trying to value both.

      Reply
  3. Hey Meg,
    This is my first time on this site. I also checked out The Great Exchange website and I have to say the work you’re doing is phenomenal! I just reminds me of how passionate you’ve always been at Smith with BB/BS and individuals with intellectual disabilities. Keep up the great work! We can use more people like you.

    Finding this blog was a pleasant surprise also because I miss reading your writing. Yet I can’t believe you wrote all of that on a napkin lol. But in regards to your post, I agree with you that intrinsic motivators get me further in my work than extrinsic.

    And I’m still trying to figure out the work vs. life balance. I think it will be a constant balancing act and blurry line.

    Reply

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