The Surprising Science of Motivation

Another RSA Animated short about Dan Pink’s talk on the science of Motivation.  Surprise, surprise! Turns out people are less motivated by wealth fame and fortune than they are by autonomy, mastery and purpose.

The truth behind the surprising science of motivation is not so surprising when you think about it. People want more about of life than eating, sleeping and going to work.  We are meant for bigger things.  A sense of accomplishment and to get better at things, the freedom to pursue what interests us, and the desire to give back and create.

You can get his groundbreaking book from Amazon.

These are the big 3 when it comes to understanding human motivation.

  • Autonomy. The freedom to work how you want without borders.
  • Mastery. The desire to get good at something that is important or interesting.
  • Purpose. The bigger reason why we do what we do.  Companies need another reason to exist than to just turn a profit.

No matter who it is or where they are from or what their life experience is, they all have these things in common when trying to unravel what motivates human beings.


Having the freedom to work how you want to work is scary stuff to any company still in the industrial mindset of piece work with a production based focus.  Some schools still operate this way where the kids are rewarded and graded not for thinking well, but for complying to a certain way of thinking.

The desire to be self directed is strong in all of us.  Very few people will say they like a boss to stand over them directing all aspects of their day.  Most of us would like the freedom to do what we want when we want to do it.  However like I say, few companies are ready for this kind of modern workplace.

Self direction leads to high motivation as people feel they can work on what they are interested in, passionate about and care most about.  Innovation is bolstered when people are allowed to work the way they want to.


Mastery is the drive to want to get better at something.  People who play musical instruments at pubs purely for the enjoyment of performing are an example of this.  Wikipedia is perhaps the most famous.  Wikipedia was and is built by people who basically do it for free.

The drive and fulfillment  stems from the desire to contribute to something bigger.

So, why do people do things they could easily get paid for but would rather just work for free?  Because the desire to get better at something far surpasses the desire to get paid.  Getting paid is great but there is a weird intrinsic problem with getting paid for something you do – it becomes work.  It becomes something you have to do in order to keep that money coming in.  No work, no money.  With a skill or hobby you find rewarding just by doing it, you instead only can gain as you seek to get better at that skill and enjoy doing it to begin with.

This is why the few of us that get to do what they love AND get paid for it is the secret to being happy at work.


When the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen. – Daniel Pink

More and more organizations around the globe are finally cluing in to the idea that going to work each day needs an over arching purpose that is beyond simply getting paid.  The companies and leadership teams who get it right are those that know why they are there, and how what they do each day contributes to the big picture.  As Dan Pink puts it “when the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen.”

Basically, the profit motive that so many companies rely does more harm than good.  Profit motives don’t have the best interests of anyone else at heart.  Just the ones making the money.  That’s a predatory system that does not give back or contribute, just takes and takes.  These are the kinds of practices we can all agree are bad so why would anyone rally behind it?

The archetype of the faceless mega corporation who doesn’t care about you or the customer as long as they “maximize shareholder value” is never glorified or desired.  They are the villain and you don’t have to think too hard as to why they are.

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