More Thoughts on the Importance of Income and Other Factors in Career Choice

This past week I had the good fortune to read an important book on motivation, Drive, by Daniel Pink. Pink examines the various factors contributing to job satisfaction and associated motivation. I urge you to read this book if today’s post title interests you, particularly if you’re considering or have actually undertaken career counseling, but I will summarize some of the main points here.

The book’s thesis (supported by voluminous research that he very clearly explains) is that there are basically 2 kinds of people: Type X (those who seek primarily extrinsic rewards, such as money, power, or fame) and Type I (those who are focused primarily on gaining intrinsic rewards, four of which he examines in some detail):

1) Mastery

The quest for constant improvement in how well we do / understand something

2) Autonomy

The degree to which we can set our own agendas and schedules

3) Purpose

How meaningful the work we do is to us

4) Relatedness

Teamwork or mutually supportive efforts

Note the absence of material rewards on the Type I list. They are emotional and intellectual, not quantitative. And that, Pink reports, ultimately leads to greater job and career satisfaction. There’s a deeply wired, biological reason for this. Brain scans reveal that the prospect of extrinsic reward releases a burst of dopamine in the brain. This is the same process at work in addiction, and as in addiction more and more is needed to achieve the “high” that feels so good when it occurs. Actually, brain scans of people when promised rewards are disturbingly similar to those seen in people snorting cocaine, inhaling nicotine, or popping amphetamines. This helps explain why people to whom money is very important never seem to have acquired enough.

Not that extrinsic rewards are all bad. For routine tasks with specific goals (assembly line work at General Motors or sandwich preparation at Subway, for example) they can be quite effective, at least in the short term. But most of us are engaged in work that requires utilizing out right (non logical) brain, and that’s where intrinsic rewards are so important. They enhance creativity by de-emphasizing focus on the attainment of specific, narrowly defined goals, which allows for the emergence of unique non-linear solutions to problems. Achieving mastery, for example, demonstrates this quite clearly: there is no one path to enhanced ability as a musician, an athlete, a politician, or a parent. We pursue individual paths to improvement, and that pursuit matters.

The quest for mastery is an inborn trait, clearly observed in babies who work so passionately to learn how to competently grab, crawl, or walk. If you can find a way to incorporate the quest for mastery into your work you are likely to find a greater level of satisfaction and motivation. That in turn will result in improved performance, most likely translating into an increase in external rewards. Increasing your autonomy will have a similar effect, as will finding work that has a purpose that is relevant to you, whether that be improving the environment, working for a congressman you admire, or helping to contribute to the prosperity of a company that makes a good product.

Are we born as Types I or X? Pink doesn’t address this question, but I believe the answer to be overwhelmingly no. As we grow and mature we receive countless signals from family, friends, the media, and the culture in general (language, for example: “You can never be too rich or too thin”) as to what to strive for. Unfortunately, the bulk of these signals are X-oriented. The impact is measurable: Twenty-five years ago kids, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, would generally answer “doctor, policeman, teacher”. Today, a far more likely answer is “I want to be famous when I grow up”.

There’s another phenomenon that pushes many people towards Type X – the belief that intelligence and talent are fixed quantities, and that we are born with set amounts of each. This has been proven to be untrue (I suggest reading Talent is Overrated by Geoff Calvin); and that consistent effort most certainly increases our knowledge and competency, i.e. our mastery.

But what if you’re in a job that requires repetitive, mundane, somewhat isolated, target oriented tasks (such as those engaged in by many lawyers and accountants, for example), and you feel an absence of autonomy, mastery, purpose, and relatedness? Pink offers numerous suggestions, but one I particularly liked is to create a series of 3×5 cards with questions on them that shake up your routine approach, such as “What change to this situation would your closest friend suggest?”; “What is the simplest solution?”; “How else could you look at this?’. Even better, come in for a few sessions and we’ll jointly develop a strategy for adding more mastery, autonomy, purpose, and relatedness to your job, your career, and your life.