The Greatest Why There Ever Was


Humans are engineered to be motivated by steady, consistent returns, like building a shack, chiselling an axe, or pitching a tent. You can see your work becoming something, and you’re motivated by the shrinking gap between reality and ambition. And finally, you can take momentary pride in the completion of your masterpiece, before scurrying off to try something new.

This is called intrinsic motivation, as it comes from yourself. It’s a consistent, gentle form of motivation. You are proud of your work merely on the merit that it is good. If it becomes more good, you are more proud. Extrinsic motivation is a far harsher beast, as it comes from measuring how your work performed. It’s unpredictable and toxic. Poor work can go far and excellent work can self-destruct immediately, based on environmental variables we cannot understand and much less control. You think your work is bad simply because nobody reads it, but you can’t glimpse behind the curtains into the complex machinery that chooses which work will receive the most popularity. Your happiness and entire livelihood comes from drawing your hand from an impossibly large deck of cards, of which almost all are just blank pieces of paper giving you bitter disappointment.

But in this game, when you win, you could end up being even more unhappy. It’s pure ecstasy until you are pulled back down by the greatest attribute of the human race - adaptation. Large success never makes a large impact for long. Your happiness was designed by evolution to be fast-adapting, or otherwise you would never push yourself enough to strive for more.

From what I can tell, craftsmen are the most fulfilled profession. I think craftsmanship is woven into every job that people do, as part of an instinctual drive to create. Baristas, bartenders, and bankers all share creation in some form, whether it’s a great cappuccino, good service, or building a foundation for the economy; even if you have to go through several layers of abstraction to appreciate what is actually created.

Life is far better when you know you’re doing good work. Since I’m in software development, my work right now is creating software. It was a major point of dissatisfaction and stress whenever I rushed something, in a calculated attempt to cut corners where the corners are rarely used and not particularly important. It made sense on a logical basis, but the human brain evolved with emotion, not reasoning. It made me feel guilty, but most importantly, deeply unfulfilled. I hated my work. I thought I started to hate software development, and that was scary.

But then I started to do work with more respect for the art, like a proud craftsman approaching a job with the intention to do his best work. I paid attention to parts of the software that would rarely get any use, but in exchange for this small increase in work, I was far, far happier.

The best strategy is to always enjoy the work you do and the craftsmanship you put into it, and not to pay too much attention to how it performs. Pick intrinsic over extrinsic motivation, and you’ll be pretty happy.