It’s really not all about money

Posted on March 5, 2010


When I studied Graphic Design in Yale University, my professor told me a universal truth: “When you choose a career path the primary thing is figure out if you would enjoy the details.” I realized at a young age that I don’t enjoy choosing typefaces among a thousand of options, so I quit graphic design. Among these years, I’ve watched so many types of jobs: I would never be an investment banker because I don’t enjoy correction typos or copying pasting numbers in the pitch book. I would never be an programmer because debugging kills my skin cell. And I would never be a teacher because I don’t enjoy talking to dumb kids. Now I work as a senior consultant in user experience industry, I realize sometimes don’t like using visios to create wireframes or photoshop creating visual design comps. This baffles me for a while: how could I ever fulfill and satisfy myself? I think this article(by josh Kaufman) answers this question well: you need to know yourself well enough.

Here’s a deceptively simple question: why do people work? On the face of it, the answer seems relatively straightforward:

The 3 Core Levels of Material Need

Level 1: Resources
Working for immediate needs like food & shelter; living paycheck to paycheck.

Level 2: Security
Working to ensure safety; saving and investing for future needs.

Level 3: Freedom
Working to ensure self-sufficiency and independent choice of action.

These three levels of work are similar to the first few levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or ERG Theory: work is a way we can meet our basic existential needs effectively and reliably.

That’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, but here’s where things get interesting: what happens when people have enough resources to do whatever they want? What does “Level 4” look like?

Level 4: Primary Motivation

Consider individuals like Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Dick Cheney, and Angeline Jolie. Each of these individuals has enough money to ensure that they never need to work again – they could quit tomorrow and live off of their savings in perpetuity. For some reason, however, they don’t – they keep working. Why?

After considering this question, I think that people who have reached the “Freedom” stage of work make a choice (either explicitly or implicitly) about what they’re ultimately working for. The choice ultimately revolves around what that person values most: power, status, pleasure, creation, or quality.

#1: The Autocrat

The Autocrat’s primary motivation is power and control. Common behaviors include continually seeking influence or control over the lives and actions of other people. Examples: businesspeople turned politicians like Henry Paulson (US Secretary of the Treasury), Dick Cheney (US Vice-President), and Michael Bloomburg (mayor of New York City).

#2: The Narcissist

The Narcissist’s primary motivation is attention, status, and fame. Common behaviors include continually seeking the attention and esteem of other people, and acting in ways that will ensure they receive more and more attention. Examples: actors / celebrities like Lindsay Lohann, Brittany Spears, and Madonna.

#3: The Hedonist

The Hedonist’s primary motivation is pleasure and enjoyment of material goods. Common behaviors include the continual acquisition of luxurious homes, fine food, and exotic travel. Examples: Larry Elison (CEO of Oracle), Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (Sheikh of Dubai), and Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft).

#4: The Architect

The Architect’s primary motivation is creating something new or reshaping the world. Common behaviors include the establishment of a vision of what the world “should” look like, then continually pursuing projects that they believe will bring the world closer to that ideal. Examples: Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple), Richard Dawkins (biologist and lecturer), Muhammad Yunus (father of micro-lending), and politicians like Ron Paul, Denis Kucinich, and Al Gore.

#5: The Craftsman

The Craftsman’s primary motivation is quality and enjoyment of the work. Common behaviors include the continual exercise and improvement of a set of specific skills or abilities and use of those skills as a means of self-expression. Examples: Warren Buffett (investor and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway), J.K. Rowling (author), and Stephen Spielberg (filmmaker).

Why is Primary Motivation Important?

Here’s my first hypothesis: once you identify your primary motivation, you’ll find it much easier to achieve your goals. These primary motivations appear to be relatively universal, and are based on very deep-seated psychological needs. Tapping into these sources of motivation directly allows people to accomplish their actual objectives more quickly, whatever they might be. Said another way, it’s easier to get what you really want if you identify what you really want.

My second hypothesis is that not all of these primary motivations lead to a lasting sense of personal satisfaction and fulfillment. If you’re an Autocrat, there will always be people you do not control. If you’re a Narcissist, there will always be people who look down on or ignore you. If you’re a Hedonist, the hedonic treadmill ensures that every pleasure eventually fades. If you’re an Architect, the world seems to have a tendency to stubbornly refuse to conform to your ideals.

When I look at the universe of “successful” people in the world, it appears that the Craftsman has the best shot at lasting personal satisfaction and fulfillment. You ultimately can’t control the world or other people, but you can control your dedication to perfecting your craft and expressing yourself through your work.

If we have a choice in determining our primary motivation, it seems that the Craftsman’s ethos has the most to offer: it may eventually lead to power, status, pleasure, and world-changing achievement, but it frees us from the perception that our self-worth depends on any of these things. That’s a remarkable combination.

Thoughts? Leave them in the comments.

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