Whom would you choose as a source of motivation, an office worker with a twenty-year experience or a business magnate? Individuals such as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey are common examples of “extraordinarily motivated people.” They’ve all gone through enormous challenges to achieve their success. It’s not every day a young boy builds a multi-billion dollar company from his garage, or a woman born in poverty become a media mogul. However, a conversation I had with a factory worker who’s retired after thirty years working on the same job got me thinking. Wasn’t she as driven as, say, Elon Musk? Obviously, they achieved very different outcomes, but it still bears the question, how is her drive different from Elon Musk? What can we learn from her?
For years, scientists have developed several theories aiming at uncovering the reasons behind our actions and behaviors. For instance, the drive theory argues that people act to reduce the internal tensions caused by unmet needs. Instinct theory suggests that instincts drive all behaviors. The most recognized humanistic theory of needs developed by Abraham Maslow purports humans are motivated by five basic needs, ranging from psychological to self-actualization needs. None of these theories can satisfactorily explain why the factory employee stayed in the same job for thirty years or Bill Gates, dropping out of Harvard, to build Microsoft. Instead of using a top-down approach, I think we can understand people’s behavior better if we saw motivation as a spectrum of achievement and safety at the two extremes. Whether intrinsic or extrinsic, instinctive, cognitive, or emotional, we are motivated to achieve or to stay comfortable.
People characterized by the achiever-type are proactive, love taking risks, are bold and ambitious. They just can’t settle for a “steady life.” They get their juice from experimenting, creating, and pushing beyond boundaries. Folks motivated by achievement find it extremely difficult to stay in the traditional 9-5 jobs. Once they have reached the top of the learning curve, they’re ready to move on to new challenges. Often, staying in one company isn’t enough to satisfy their thirst for exploration. They may change jobs until they start their own ventures. These people enjoy exploring the world; they travel constantly, and often won’t settle in a single location.
Those driven by safety, on the other hand, are risk averse, cautious, timid, and enjoy a stable life. They don’t feel comfortable taking on challenges that require them to stretch beyond their skills. Their need for comfort is usually extrinsic, but can also be intrinsic. We were all born with a sense of wonder, but as we age and get reprimanded for making mistakes, we lost our ability to dream. In my conversations with dozens of office workers, all of them told me they had dreams when they were young. What happened? The need to start and raise a family often causes them to put dirt on their dreams. They get their sense of achievement from conforming to societal rules. Therefore, staying with the same company until retirement is appealing because it satisfies their needs for an undisturbed life.
Is there anything wrong with either type? That’s a personal question I’ll leave for you to answer. I believe each of us contributes to society in our own unique way. Not everyone can and needs to be an entrepreneur. A manager would find it impossible to run a company if employees had to leave every time they’ve reached the top of the learning curve. Society can’t function without 9-5 jobs. Imagine a barber who only opens from 9 to 11 a.m. or a bank teller deciding to close once they think they have served enough customers. Regardless of one’s views on the traditional eight-hour workday, or “new rich” lifestyle as championed by Tim Ferris, the value office workers bring to society should not be ignored.
Since it’s a spectrum, there are people closer to one side than the other and those who combine the characteristics of both types. People’s motivation may vary based on location, age, and responsibility, but one thing is sure, we are to decide where to be. One’s value to society is not affected by their position on the spectrum. If one thinks the comfort of a 9-5 job is unappealing, they can make the switch. If one decides taking risks isn’t worth it, they can always find a safe job where they can contribute to society. Either way, society will benefit from our contribution.