Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose

This is part two in a four-part blog series about the psychology of self-directed learning that underpins the ZTC strategy.

Self-Doubt #1: Motivation

Problem: “I’m not self-motivated enough.”

Solution: Put yourself into an environment that demands intrinsic motivation.

Go-to books: Drive by Daniel Pink & Why We Do What We Do by Edward Deci.

To do college-level work on your own requires self-motivation; that much is obvious. So where does this motivation come from? Are some people  simply born with it, or can it be instilled? Psychologist Edward Deci revealed many answers in a pioneering 1969 experiment involving college students, puzzles, and rewards.

Deci assembled two groups of college students for his experiment. He asked each group to solve a complex puzzle (assembling blocks into predefined shapes) over an 8-minute session, and he held three such sessions. In each session Deci offered the students a different reward for completing the puzzles.

In the first session, Deci simply asked both groups to complete the puzzles, with no rewards.  Each group spent roughly the same amount of time working on the puzzles (before losing interest and picking up one of the magazines strewn about the experiment room).

In the second session, Deci told the students in one of the groups—the “reward group”—that they would get a cash prize for every puzzle that they completed. The other group—the “control group”—wasn’t offered anything. The result? The reward group dedicated more time to the puzzles. The cash incentive—an “external motivator”—worked as expected.

The twist occurred in the third session. Deci told the reward group that there was only enough money to pay them for one day; thus, the third session would be unpaid, just like round one. (The control group continued without rewards, as normal.)

At this point, Deci asked the million-dollar question: Which group would spend more time solving puzzles? The reward group, which had tasted sweet cash, or the control group, which was never offered any rewards for its efforts?

The results were clear and compelling. In the third session, the reward group spent dramatically less time working on the puzzles. When money was no longer on the table, they lost interest. The control group, on the other hand, worked just as hard on the puzzles as before, slightly increasing their time score.

Deci credited the hard work of the unrewarded control group to intrinsic motivation, a then-little-discussed psychological theory that he defined as our “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise [our] capacities, to explore, and to learn.” All human beings possess intrinsic motivation, Deci argued, but it’s fragile: “When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity.”

In the following decades Deci and other  researchers built substantial evidence for intrinsic motivation through controlled experiments. Deci’s 1996 book , “Why We Do What We Do”, and Alfie Kohn’s 1999 book, “Punished by Rewards”, gave credibility to the idea. But it took Daniel Pink’s 2009 book “Drive” to bring out the army.

Pink compiled Deci’s studies and extensive evidence from the business world to make an airtight case for intrinsic motivation. Not only did intrinsic motivation work in academia, Pink revealed, but it was increasingly demanded for the type of work available to developed nations. Most significantly, Pink’s book reinforced the idea that intrinsic motivation isn’t an inborn trait: it’s a product of your environment and reward systems. Self-motivation, in other words, could be nurtured.

So how do you nurture intrinsic motivation? Pink cited three required factors:

  • Autonomy: the freedom to self-direct.
  • Mastery: the chance to build deep competency.
  • Purpose: a connection to some greater good. [1]

To become more self-motivated, Pink argued, you must immerse yourself in a sea of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Directing your own life, building deep competency, and connecting to a greater good must become the air that you breathe. And this air shouldn’t contain too many toxic external motivators like arbitrary threats, cash incentives, graded tests, or other “sticks and carrots,” each of which is detrimental to long-term, self-motivated behavior.

Pink’s advice connects to education in many ways. Think of traditional high school students: they have little autonomy, little chance to build mastery, and little purpose to derive from their fractured, state-mandated curriculum. It’s obvious why teachers and parents must use grades, gold stars, bribes, threats, and other external rewards and punishments to motivate students: high school is the poster child for failure to intrinsically motivate.

Colleges do a better job with autonomy, mastery, and purpose compared to high school. Most college students have freedom in their choice of studies, opportunities for building deep competency, and a community of purpose-driven peers. (Graduate school is even better on these counts.) But college can also stifle intrinsic motivation. What if your choice of studies isn’t available? What if you’re surrounded by ladder-climbing or grade-driven peers? What if your debt load compels you to forsake a purposeful career for a “safe” career? What if you’re pressured by your parents to attend? Such factors can turn college into an uninspiring ordeal.

Remember Deci’s conclusion: Intrinsic motivation is natural to humans, but it’s a fragile flower. As a teenager, college student, and adult, you have the potential to be self-motivated, but only if you put yourself in an atmosphere that nurtures your needs for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Some people require only minor upgrades to their autonomy, mastery, and purpose to feel more self-motivated. Some teenagers, for example, can switch to an alternative school or change their attitudes toward their assignments to improve their high school experience. Some adults just need an honest face-to-face with the boss, a new title, or perhaps a new job altogether to find their intrinsic motivation again. And in the case of college, some students design their own major, take a gap year, participate in campus clubs, join a research team, or write a thesis paper to kindle their intrinsic motivation. [2]

But other people have deeper needs for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I suspect that if you’ve made it this far, you may be one of them. Such people don’t feel self-motivated in alternative schools, ultra-modern offices, or well-run colleges; they feel confined. This kind of teen doesn’t need an alternative school; she needs to leave school entirely. This kind of adult needs to forget about employment and start his own enterprise. And for this type of young adult, finding their self-motivation means Zero Tuition College or a similarly radical alternative.

The answer to the “I’m not self-motivated enough” doubt is this: give yourself more autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Escape the places that rely on bribes, threats, tests, and grades to motivate you. Stop thinking of self-motivation as a  lucky gene and start figuring out how to change your environment.

1 Deci instead called this third element “Relatedness”: the need to interact with and care for others.

2 I document such strategies in the “Uncollege” section at the end of College Without High School (New Society 2009).

The primary source for this article is Daniel Pink’s book, Drive.

See also on the ZTC blog: Understanding Intrinsic Motivation



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