On Satisfaction and Motivation

I’ve been thinking a lot about my job history, and which jobs really motivated me to do what could be considered my best work. It didn’t take me long to realize that the two most satisfying AND motivating jobs were relatively low-paying: one was a co-op term working at a high school providing on-site technical support, and the other was a job providing technical support and software testing to a company working with the not-for-profit sector. After a fun little jaunt down memory lane, I started to question what about those jobs was so great? In both cases, I had come from a job that paid much better, and should have had more room to advance. Shouldn’t those high-paying and upwardly-mobile jobs be the ones that stuck out?

Over the last 5 years or so, I’ve come to realize that while money is useful, it doesn’t really connect to job satisfaction for me. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is completely disconnected; rather, it seems orthogonal to feeling motivated and satisifed at a job. Some people certainly seem to be driven by money, and if that works for them, great! In some respects, that makes things a bit easier – after all, most employers tend to approach hiring and retention by using money and, to some degree, money-related benefits like RRSP contribution matching, health benefits, etc. These things can make day-to-day life easier, but at least in my case, they don’t necessarily connect with how much I enjoy my work. Advancement, at least in terms of titles, hasn’t really done much for me either. I’ve had promotions, and it feels good for a while, but the glow tends to wear off quickly.

So, then what does motivate me?

Both of the jobs that I consider the most enjoyable of my career had a few things in common besides being relatively low-paying:

1) Lots of creative challenges
2) Not too much monotony
3) Most of the other employees were reasonably enthusiastic about what they were doing
4) The underlying reason for the jobs was to help people (students and not-for-profits, respectively)

Based on these 4 points, I decided that my ultimate job ad would be as follows:

Want to work someplace fun, where nearly-excessive enthusiasm is not only ok, but encouraged? Then you should come work for us! Your mission, should you choose to accept it, will be to help us help make the world a better place. You’ll have the opportunity to move around and work on lots of cool projects. There will be hard work, but we think you’ll have a blast!

Lots of employers claim that they’re fun places to work, and that they value creativity. Wouldn’t it be great if that were actually the case? Unfortunately, the reality is that most businesses, at the end of the day, count on far too much regularity in their employees to nurture a creative environment. Even the place that was once the bastion of techno-creativity and overall awesomeness, Google, has started getting all buttoned-down. Does that somehow makes them better than they were before? Maybe, maybe not. I can tell you that changing the corporate culture from a model that openly encourages creative thinking to a more by-the-book model, you will likely lose the respect and loyalty of the very people who helped make you successful.

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