Years ago, I published a post called How to Keep Your Best Programmers. In it, I discussed what drives programmers out of jobs and what keeps them happy. This discussion touched heavily on the concepts of mastery, autonomy, and purpose as important motivators for knowledge workers. If you want to keep skilled programmers, you can’t just throw money and bonuses at them — you need to appeal to these other forms of motivation.
This post became quite popular and has remained so over the years. I think the popularity results from the resonant idea of wanting our lives and careers to mean more than just a paycheck. We want to be proud of what we do.
Since my own discovery of it years ago, I’ve seen frequent reference to these motivators and to Daniel Pink’s talk about them. People use it to explain the difference between work that pays the bills and work that deeply satisfies. More and more, we exhort our employers to appeal to mastery, autonomy, and purpose. And more and more, they seem to do it, to our benefit and that of the industry at large.
But with this trend, I’ve noticed an interesting and unanticipated side effect. People can appeal to autonomy, mastery, and purpose to enrich our lives, but they can also do so to manipulate us.
Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose as Vices
To understand how that works, consider our desires in a different light. Consider what happens when you take them to extremes.
We enjoy getting better at things (mastery), but that can lead to obsessive behavior. I think most of us can relate, at some point in our life or another, to playing way too much of some kind of stupid video game. We know it wastes our time and that we should probably delete it, but… just… one… more level. Mastering the game drives us even when we know it wastes our time.
We also enjoy autonomy, but chasing that can lead to problems as well. Have you ever known someone serially unemployed because they bristled at the thought of anyone telling them what to do? Some people with that demeanor become entrepreneurs, but some become angry criminals.
And purpose as a vice can be, perhaps, the scariest of all. Think about the phrase, “the ends justify the means.” What is this if not a statement that purpose trumps all? As long as you’re chasing a lofty enough goal, it doesn’t matter who you step on to get there.
We can chase mastery, autonomy, and purpose into problematic territory. But other people can also use them to chase us there.