Friday, February 6, 2009

What Really Motivates You To Work?

I was just thinking about the early days at my first job out of college. I worked for a huge, global manufacturing company. Naturally, they had enough new hires at any given time to have a whole orientation program for new employees. On day one or two, I was in a large conference room with 20 or 30 other greenhorns. We were doing the stereotypical "ice breaking" group exercises.

One question that came up was, "What motivates you to work?" We were actually seated in pairs, and the assignment was to "interview" your neighbor, and in turn be interviewed by him. After the interviews were done, we went around the room, presenting our neighbor's answer to the question.

Most people, as you might guess, gave fairly predictable responses, along the lines of "I enjoy being challenged, having the opportunity to do good work, making the company profitable, and learning new things." I'm sure a lot of people feel that way; if they truly do, I'm sure most would agree it's a healthy attitude, and certainly benefits the employer. But the cynical side of me says that at least some of those responses were canned, and just paying lip-service to the situation.

What really motivates the deviants would have been interesting. I was one of the deviants who wasn't afraid to tell the truth. My reason: fear. I even remember my neighbor presenting it to the class---he was visibly uncomfortable presenting such a non-conformist view.

But it was honest: I came to work every day because I didn't want to get fired, because I wanted a paycheck.

About a year or so into the job, I probably would have given the same answer, albeit with less cynicism. I truly enjoyed the job for the most part, and what was happening to me was more or less in line with everyone else's motivators: I was challenged, I was doing a lot of good work, I could see exactly how my work was saving the company money (implicitly making it more profitable), and I was learning a lot. Not to mention, I made a lot of good friends. Still, my initial motivator---not wanting to get fired---was valid. Even at the peak of that job experience, I can honestly say, I was still fundamentally doing it for the paycheck, not for the love of it. And looking back, I don't know how I really could have true, honest passion for the work, when it really all revolved around some soulless corporation that, at the end of the day, only saw me as a "resource", a cost.

It makes me wonder: what percentage of the world really, truly does their job for the love of it? What percentage of the working populace is honestly passionate about their work? I would wager that the figure is relatively low. My guess is that the overwhelming majority of the working populace falls into one of two broad categories: simply keeping a job because they have no other choice; or, having a job that they keep to pay the bills, but like it only just enough to not ruminate on the fact that it's not their true passion.

It also makes me wonder: imagine you had the god-like power of instantly putting every working person into a position exactly aligned with their passion(s) and pay them exactly what they want. Would the work that needs to get done---to keep society functioning and to retain some semblance of civility---actually get done? Or would we have too many people doing less important work, and too few people doing necessary jobs?

The question implies that we all know what is most important and what is not. Of course that's a philosophic question; certainly beyond the scope of this post. Still, I can't help but wonder what society would be like if everyone could do exactly what they wanted and live at whatever comfort level they deem necessary.

I'll sign off now, to let the reader reflect on some of the ideas: what really motivates you to work? Ignoring money issues, if you could do any job in the world, what would it be? And consider the thought experiment: what would society look like if everybody did exactly what they want?

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