On Drive

In a recent interview I heard on NPR, Daniel Pink talked about what motivates us.  In his new book (Drive), he explains that companies who motivate their employees with either compensation or punishment have it all wrong.  Instead, he says, there are three things that motivate us.  And he says these three things don’t just apply in the corporate world (because if that was the case, I would have changed the channel).  They also apply to education, and parenting among other things.

Those three things are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Now I fully admit that I did not yet read his book yet.  However, from this interview I could easily see how what he was saying applied to the way in which I choose my lines of work.

Let’s take math tutoring.  I’ve been a private contractor with the same non-profit tutoring company for four years now.  I could make more money if I went out on my own, so why don’t I?  Well, first of all it’s not about the money for me.  Yes, I need some to live on.  Yes, they pay quite well to begin with.  But as Daniel Pink says, there are people that are  externally motivated (Type X), and people that are internally motivated (Type I).  Those of you that are Type X are motivated by a reward, a prize, compensation.  The Type I folks are motivated by an inner sense of purpose.  There’s nothing specifically wrong, he said, with either – but the recognition of what type people are is helpful.  I’m Type I, so the fact that I could make more money tutoring on my own doesn’t motivate me.

What motivates me?  First, autonomy.  I’m a private contractor.  The big rule I love about being a PC is that the company can’t tell me when to work – I tell them.  So each August, the scheduler for the company calls me up and asks which days and times I’d like to take students.  At any point in the year if I want to take on more students, open a different day, or change the days/times I see students, I call her up, and together we make it work.  That “together” thing is key – I can be a PC, but if every time I want to make a change I get guilt for it, I’m not sticking around.  This company knows that happy employees are to their benefit.  And they thank us all the time telling us that without us as tutors, they wouldn’t have a business.  They know that without that autonomy, I wouldn’t be working there.

The second motivator that keeps me there is mastery.  I’m the kind of person that, once I master something, it loses its interest to me.  If I can find a new challenge (something new to “master”), I’ll stay at that job.  If I can’t, I leave.

I’ve been a math tutor on and off for over 12 years.  Algebra, Geometry, and Trig don’t change much.  You might think I would have “mastered” those subjects by now.  That’s mostly true- though a few times each semester I see a new way a teacher has taught a student something, and it’s my job to figure out that new method so I can help the student understand it.  (My first responsibility is to go with what the teacher teaches.  If my student doesn’t understand that method, I’ll try another.  But once they master my method, I relate it back to the method they were taught.)

But a few new methods don’t keep me motivated.  I may have nearly mastered my subjects, but what I haven’t mastered (and I wonder if it’s possible) is teaching.  Every student is different.  Though I have a few “return” students year to year, I can see an average of 40 new students over the course of a school year – students that I’ve never met, and therefore don’t know what motivates them, how they learn, what else is going on in their lives that influences their learning.  I’ve said that math is really just the medium through which I help students with other things in life.  It’s through math that I teach some how to ask for help, teach them how to speak up for themselves, teach them about the choices we make and the consequences of those choices, about how their short term decisions can affect long term outcomes.  This is the stuff I haven’t mastered.

The third motivator Pink talks about is purpose.  I want to feel like what I’m doing serves some sort of greater good.  Education is something I believe in.  I don’t believe we’re doing the best we can, and tutoring is my little way of helping.  The best compliment I ever got from a parent was this: “Though her grade didn’t improve as much as we initially wanted, what you did for my daughter as a person was worth every penny.”  That’s why I do this.

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose.  I can go down the list of every job I’ve ever had and tell you why I did or didn’t like it based on these three things.  As usual, I think Daniel Pink has nailed it.

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