In a previous post, I pretended to be an expert on staying motivated, but I have to admit that I'm very much still figuring it out. Almost six years after quitting my job and jumping into the utter unknown, I still struggle to explain why I did it. The truth is that we sometimes make huge, life-changing decisions based on gut instinct, justifying them much later only when we’ve gained the wisdom to do so. All I knew at the time was that my gut said to jump, so I did.
One’s gut, by the way, is never wrong.
An old friend recently gave me a book that helped me understand my decision. Daniel Pink’s Drive is a short read about what motivates us, and how so many workplaces still haven't gotten the memo. These business-y, self-help-y soft-psychology books can often be forgettable, but the best can clarify what I’ve already experienced to be true. This book is in the latter category.
It helped that the author and I started out on the same page: extrinsic motivation LOOKS like it works, but it’s really a short-term effect with a long-term detriment. External motivation tactics (so-called "sticks and carrots" or "reward and punishment" systems) include strategies we’ve all seen, like cajoling kids to do chores with money, stickers, or toys. It also includes the abusive behavior of some music teachers, who berate, belittle, and scream at their students, making them cry and feel useless. That these teachers still have students shows that people will accept the mistreatment as the worthwhile cost of studying with a famous teacher. Bullshit, I say, and this book agrees.
In my past life, the most important external motivator was money. At my last office job, I could not have fathomed being at the income level I am now and being happy. But I AM happier (though I'll still take a winning lottery ticket, thank you). The funny thing is, when money becomes your key motivator, it is never enough. Your bonus is never big enough for the work you put in, your income never as big as you feel you deserve, your self-worth never adequately measured by your bank balance. I’ve been there, and I don't like to think of the things I did and thought in that mode. If only I had listened to science, which has told us over and over again, that happiness levels off at a certain income level ($95,000 apparently). But we never listen to science, do we? We have to feel our gut first.
My gut was telling me that there had to be a better way. According to Pink, in today’s world, lasting personal and professional fulfillment comes from a deeper source: intrinsic motivation. To tap into this, we need three things in our work:
In hindsight, these three metrics easily explain why a life in music was an appealing choice. First, as a self-employed musician, I have a ton of freedom to direct my own life. I decide what projects to do, when to do them, how much to do, and who to work with. Contrast that to my life as an employee in the client services industry, whether law or consulting: you sleep (or don’t) when they say you sleep. You eat (or don’t) when they say you eat. You go where they tell you to go. I'm sure most people don't enjoy such environments, but I really bristled at it.
Secondly, being a performing artist is NOTHING BUT pursuit of mastery. I feel like my job as a pianist is to train for an Olympics that never ends. If I skip a few days of practicing, I’ve lost ground. But, if I put in the work, I continue to elevate my skills. Being able to do something new and cool is a truly addictive feeling, not just for me but for my students. In my teaching, I’ve seen that the best motivator is to get a student to master something that he or she thought previously impossible. In all of my previous jobs, however, I saw how my superiors had long flattened their learning curves. This is why I have quit every single job I’ve ever had within two years. Personality comes into play here too, of course. In first grade, I marched up to the teacher’s desk as my classmates quietly worked on worksheets and declared that I was done and that I was bored. By contrast, I’ve been at the piano six years now, and every week I feel like I discover something new.
Lastly, a life in music, for me, serves a higher purpose. What constitutes purpose for everyone is different, but I’ve become convinced of the transformative power of the arts. The best I can explain it is that in our busy lives, we so rarely connect to our emotions and to those of the people around us. However, I believe that at the end of our lives, it is those moments that will remain: meaningful conversations and experiences with those we love, vistas so breathtaking that we glimpse the astonishing miracle of nature, crisp breaths of air that remind us that every day is a gift of time. Music creates the space and the language to have these moments. The rest is noise, is it not? For me, seeing someone access his or her humanity through music is way more rewarding than increasing a multi-billion dollar company’s bottom line.
The book covers other ground, such as how to foster the creativity that today's economy increasingly values, and how to advocate for an intrinsic approach in a resistant workplace, but I’ll leave all of that for you to read.
Want the book? I’ll ship it to the first person to contact me with your mailing address. Freeing myself from external motivators has worked wonders for me; maybe it will help you too.