Stories about Software


Weaponized Mastery, Autonomy, And Purpose

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, purpose -- they make us happy, but they can mesmerize 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.

Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose Used Against Us

If we can chase our own desire to satisfy these motives into problematic territory, why shouldn’t others be able to send us there?  I talk about some of these things extensively in my book, Developer Hegemony, but I’ll offer brief summary here.

When a team of peers or consultants agree to adopt Scrum and practice its norms, the methodology empowers them.  When a large organization rolls it out by upper management edict, it aims to wring more productivity out of them via nominal autonomy.  In this context, Scrum magically acquires new roles and hierarchies, and the egalitarian spirit disappears with admonitions to divide your tasks into exact hours and report on them.  It leaves only a sort of grotesque autonomy theater in which the system’s social pressure, rather than a line manager, force you into subordinate behaviors.

When it comes to mastery, the journeyman idealist culture preys heavily on that.  As an industry, we wildly overvalue the market value of increasing our skill levels, pretending that mastery for its own sake should magically result in profit.  In doing so, we turn our career into our hobby with a result of about what you would expect from doing that.

And purpose?  That’s the easiest trap of all.  Thanks to the human desire to avoid cognitive dissonance, we face enormous pressure to justify our past decisions.  As the RSA Animate video points out, working for a company that unmoors the profit motive from the purpose motive makes us miserable.  So the company should have a purpose other than profit.  But if they don’t and, instead, they just make up a flimsy story about a higher purpose, we’ll probably just believe them because that relieves our cognitive dissonance.  “We’re not selling fidget spinners to make money — we’re helping kids with ADHD!”

Aligning Your Motives with Your Own Best Interests

In my book and on this blog, I’ve written a lot about how ill-suited the pyramid-shaped corporation is for modern knowledge work.  Organizations organized this way tend to become less than the sum of their parts.

So you might think that my advice would involve going off on your own, but that’s not my message here.  In the first place, that’s not for everyone and, secondly, you can correct this situation without resorting to anything drastic.  You just have to keep your wits about you.  If you can prevent yourself from quitting a job every time you get an assignment you don’t like or from playing video games until your significant other leaves you, you can also prevent other people from manipulating you into sub-optimal choices (or at least have your eyes open about it).

According to Daniel Pink and his research, if your company pays you enough money that you don’t have to sweat money too much, additional money won’t make you happier.  Once in this situation, autonomy, mastery, and purpose make you happy.  The key at this point is to recognize when you’re encountering local maxima, when you’re being duped, or when your enjoyment of such things gets out of whack with your long term goals.

You need to get in the habit of introspection.  You need to introspect in a clinical sense about your income, long term goals, and prospects.  But you also need to introspect about your feels and whether you’re getting the empty calories of superficially satisfied autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

A Framework for Evaluating Your Outlook and Motivations

Our brains betray us.  Cognitive biases and addictive behaviors, by definition, pit our long term interests against our short term ones.  So what do sanity checks look like?  I’ll offer some thoughts on how to make sure day to day satisfaction aligns with the long term.

  • To the extent that makes sense for you, personally, prioritize autonomy most highly.  Use your autonomy to line up mastery and purpose for yourself at work.  If your (perceived) autonomy can’t help you do that, it’s probably illusory.
  • Try to quantify your mastery economically.  If learning a functional programming language in your spare time will boost your earning power, the mastery is worth it.  If not, then recognize it as a hobby and prioritize accordingly.  And if you can’t quantify your mastery, you can assume it’s a hobby.
  • Divorce your purpose from your company’s, particularly at a larger company.  Your purpose may align with their stated purpose at times, but you can’t count on a abstract construct (a company) to have any purpose beyond paying shareholders.  Company founders may have sweeping personal ambitions.  But companies have “purposes” because, of course they do.  As Napoleon Bonaparte said, “a man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction — you must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.”  The company and you may do good in the world through your work, so find purpose for yourself in that.

I’ll wrap by saying that you need to own autonomy, mastery, and purpose in your work.  You can’t count on a company or a boss to provide them for you.  A good company/boss will try to help you find them and want to retain you.  A bad one will actively impede you from realizing these motivations.  But only you can claim them for yourself, and only you can be sure that nobody is using your own preference for them against you.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

Great post – I think the hard part is figuring out the “quantify your mastery economically.”. If you’re a consultant whose value proposition is that you fix performance problems in JavaScript applications, then it’s fairly clear that you could present at conferences (where your buyers would be) on improving performance, write some open source library that analyzes performance, etc. If you’re an employee looking to build up your mastery and a public profile for yourself, it seems less clear. Not sure this question will make sense, but would you recommend thinking like a consultant and developing your mastery along those… Read more »

Jason Yip
6 years ago

Re: Autonomy and people telling you what to do
Have you read this? https://medium.com/@jchyip/is-your-autonomy-strong-or-weak-885aef97fcbb

Jason Yip
6 years ago
Reply to  Erik Dietrich

Achieving financial independence in order to do what?

Erik Dietrich
6 years ago
Reply to  Jason Yip

Well, since it was more the “collective outcome” piece I was honing in on, let’s say that someone wanted to secure financial independence so that they could spend their time living in a remote house, reading a lot of novels and writing their memoirs (the latter of which were not necessarily intended for pubic consumption). So, basically, they’d be pursuing the “competence” that you mention, but not the “collective outcome.” Edit: I set it up this way because the idea of that being “weak” autonomy is interesting to me. It seems to imply a lot about the importance of a… Read more »