We Work, Not Just For Cash, But Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, Argues Daniel Pink's New Book

Paper money, extreme macro
Image by kevindooley via Flickr

If you’re lucky enough to have a job, or paid work, in this recession — do you enjoy it? Do you jump out of bed each day eager to get to it?

Or is it a means to an end: gas, groceries, clothing, housing?

Daniel Pink’s new book “Drive” has received rapturous reviews. It’s interesting, and largely re-caps and makes more widely accessible the thinking of many academics working on issues of behavior and motivation.

He posits three reasons we really work: autonomy, mastery, purpose. Without these, work is just…drudgery. He offers a number of studies to prove that offering more money or other rewards can actually de-motivate people. We work really hard, if we’re in a job or career that fits us well, if we find these three elements in our work, whether we’re bussing tables or arguing case law.

I wonder how much each of these three matters, or matters most. I worked part-time as a retail sales associate at a clothing store for more than two years, which surprised most people who know me. Wouldn’t I be bored? Hate the lack of power and money?

In fact, the first two factors made the job, initially, appealing. Our boss was hands-off and let us do our jobs as long as we did them well. That mattered a great deal to me. I had never done a job like that and, whether it looks it, selling is difficult! It demands a wide range of skills, even for crap pay. I really enjoyed the challenge of learning and practicing a new skill set.

It was door number three that never worked well for me — purpose. It’s instant gratification to have someone walk up to you, ask for help, give it, make them happy. That’s purpose. But, in the long run, pushing costly nylon didn’t resonate for me in any deeper way. It made a lot of profit for a big corporation far away. Yes, it employs people, here and overseas. It still wasn’t enough for me.

I think this ideal is…idealistic. Many jobs are just plain, hard, boring, repetitive work with almost no way to sex them up into something cool, where AMP show up on a regular basis. So, is his argument an elitist one? Aimed only at people who live to work, instead of those who, more practically if less amusingly, work to live?

In your daily work, do these qualities matter to you? How and where do they manifest?

3 thoughts on “We Work, Not Just For Cash, But Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, Argues Daniel Pink's New Book

  1. Work for autonomy, mastery & purpose? Sure; but eating & paying the rent are good too. I haven’t read the book, though Studs Turkel may have said the same thing, more accessibly. Growing up in academia (purpose) I immediately went into writing (autonomy), for a while sold real estate (mastery, thanks to the money.) But I think I’ll spend the rest of my days now just freelancing (Fun. Does he have a category for fun?)

  2. Claire Bushey

    I’m of two minds about this.

    On the one hand, I think there’s a need in all of us to have our daily work matter. Po Bronson wrote a book a few years ago titled “What Should I Do With My Life?” about people searching for the right work for them, meaningful work. It’s a great read.

    One chapter focuses on a casino worker named Barry. Bronson told Barry that a publicist had said his book “wasn’t for the Wal-Mart crowd,” the assumption being that working class people just work for the money and not to define themselves.

    Barry replied, “So they don’t think someone like me cares about my place in the world?”

    “Maybe I don’t have much choice (about my work). But I still care.”

    This made me cry.

    On the other hand, I shrink from the idea that meaningful work is its own reward, indeed, its only reward. A job may come with compensation besides cash, but that doesn’t mean the cash isn’t critical.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks, Claire.

    I agree that it gets oversimplified and Pink admits that some jobs simply can’t be made any more interesting and pyschically rewarding….the harder part is, then why are they also so badly paid? Working retail is not, in many ways, interesting and deeply repetitive but there is no financial reward for being that bored either.

    Conversely, people seem to beleve in “psychic income”, i.e. if you enjoy your work, why should they pay you well?

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