(Not Quite) The Grand Unified Theory of Motivation

You've probably heard of Einstein's Theory of Relativity as the theory of the very large and Planck's Quantum Physics as the theory of the very small. It's all way too much for me to completely understand, but scientists have been trying to come up with a "Grand Unified Theory" that encompasses everything; they're not quite there yet. I'm not a scientist, but I find it fascinating nonetheless. 

I've also been thinking about all of these different ways to explain what motivates people, but all the different models don't quite fit together yet, either. Here's my attempt at pulling together the factors that I believe play a part: intrinsic motivators, behaviors driven by internal rewards; extrinsic motivators, behaviors driven by external rewards; and context together could form the Grand Unified Theory of Motivation. I just need to somehow resolve them into a single model and then, voilà! 

I'm not quite there yet. 



Many others have written about intrinsic motivators and have greatly influenced my own thoughts on the matter. Daniel Pink is a well-known author of many books including Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (highly recommended) where he paints a compelling picture of intrinsic motivators that really matter. Here's a fantastic RSA video illustrating one of his talks on the subject; you can also easily find his TED talk on motivation here

Dan identifies what he calls the three true elements of motivation: 

  • Autonomy – our desire to be self-directed
  • Mastery – the urge to get better at stuff
  • Purpose – making a contribution to something bigger than oneself

These ring very true to me and it has had a significant impact on how I approach my work. However I think the psychological experiments miss the social dynamic that's at play when we are working with other people in an organization. 

Related to all of this is the full-throated support of finding your passion and doing what you loveIn the Name of Love by Miya Tokumitsu makes a good argument that this attitude has a strong whiff of elitism that those of us in a position of privilege take for granted: 

DWYL (Do What You Love) is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.
— Miya Tokumitsu

I agree with her that it's not fair to extol the virtues of only pursuing your passion as if nothing else matters. We hear about the winners whose stories are written after the fact, and the narrative is made to tell a story and not necessarily the truth. We never really hear about the losers and those whose passion led them astray or to failure. 

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has also said ‘Passion’ at Work Is Overrated:  

If you’re lucky in your career and success finds you, a reporter might someday put a microphone in your face and ask why you succeeded when others did not. You don’t want to say you were lucky, because that sounds as if anyone could have done what you did. You don’t want to say you’re brilliant, because that sounds arrogant. And you don’t want to say you worked hard, because lots of unsuccessful people work hard too. The reporter is waiting for an answer. So you say the only thing that doesn’t make you sound like a lucky idiot or a total d-bag: ‘I’m passionate.’
— Scott Adams

I think Dan Pink and others who extol the virtues of intrinsic motivators are correct but are, at best, incomplete or, at worst, dismissive of other factors. I believe it's much more complicated than that. 



I've worked in a number of organizations throughout my career and I've seen corporate politics play out ad nauseum. I'm sure that intrinsic motivators drive all of the people I've interacted with, but I believe that other factors than intrinsic motivators play a huge role in driving behavior towards others at work.

I haven't done psychological experiments or read all the related literature on this, but I believe that the extrinsic motivators at play can be boiled down to these three: 

  • Influence – our ability to have an effect on someone or something (a.k.a. power)
  • Status – our relative personal, professional, or societal standing 
  • Resources – the supply of money, materials, and other assets that we can draw upon 

These three are what we end up competing for in an organization, regardless of what drives us internally. Not everyone is equally motivated by each one, but I believe that the pursuit influences how we behave and feel at work. The wider the gap between a person's desired versus actual reward levels, the greater that person's dissatisfaction and motivation to do something about it. The more there are other people in the way of achieving it, the more that person will be motivated to engage in politics to get what they want.

Another thing influencing behavior is that these factors are zero sum, meaning that your gains are at the expense of someone else. There are finite levels of influence – some people have greater decision-making authority than others – and when you gain additional authority, someone loses some. Status isn't equally distributed, and not everyone can become Chief Executive Officer or Chief Designer or whatever. And resources are clearly limited, so when budget time comes, every dollar you get is generally at the expense of someone else's budget. We don't fight for intrinsic motivators, but we do fight for extrinsic ones when there isn't an unlimited supply. 

Bring two or more people together in an organization with uneven distributions of influence, status, and/or resources, which is practically every single organization out there, and you will have politics. Every group of human beings engages in politics, whether it's the family, club, association, tribe, boardroom, or prayer group. It's neither good nor bad; it's simply part of the human condition. Politics is how we as a species are able to take advantage of our numbers to do great and terrible things. 

Many people say they don't care about any of these extrinsic factors – it's a bit gauche to admit that you do – but it's quite obvious that we do care about them much more than we let on. Think about this more broadly. It's not just about the highest aspirations for each (I want to be CEO), but there is a minimum level that we need to simply survive. This leads into my last point regarding context and circumstance. 



There are so many things out of our control but set the context where this all plays out. Where you're born, how you're raised, whether you were able to hold off on eating that marshmallow (see the study on delayed gratification), how your brain is wired, etcetera. Research suggests that some of these things can be learned or trained, but where we start off seems to be unevenly distributed. Nobody said that life is fair. 

The infamous Stanford Prisoner Experiment suggests that our behaviors towards others are greatly influenced by social and institutional norms. Volunteer test subjects were randomly assigned as prisoners or guards, and each group behaved to extremes based on their roles either doling out or accepting psychological abuse. It was meant to last 7-14 days but was stopped after only six. The participants were paid $15 a day for the privilege, thank you very much. 

At any rate, studies strongly suggest that context plays a huge role. Our genes and how we're raised (the age-old nature vs. nurture argument) shapes our intrinsic motivators, whereas our socioeconomic environment and workplace culture affect how extrinsic motivators drive our feelings and behaviors towards others. 

We need enough influence over our work and environment to feel some ownership, pride, and self-worth; this is strongly correlated to our feelings of autonomy. Based on our circumstances and personality, the satisfaction levels of influence or autonomy vary greatly. 

Some people are driven to achieve complete mastery over one or a few domains: the piano soloist who wants to play Carnegie Hall, the physicist who wants to understand the fabric of space, the teacher who lives to spark the fire of knowledge in children. Others pursue mastery over many domains and get bored easily. Some pursue mastery in secret, while others do it in the full light of day. And there are those who find mastery through the traditional model of apprenticeship. I would bet that there are many undiscovered prodigies who could master the most difficult domains if only they were born under better circumstances instead of the slums of New Delhi, Kigali, Paris, or Los Angeles. 

There are those born with status through aristocracy, wealth, a family name, a business, or tradition. We need enough status so that we don't feel shame; this could simply be pride in having a job and being able to provide for your family or pride in having independence and personal identity. When I took my first post-college job I took great pride in being able to be on my own even though the job wasn't necessarily the sexiest one out there; having made a choice to pursue art and design in college, I wanted nothing more than to be able to make a living so that I nor my parents would regret that choice. 

Do you know someone who seems to constantly seek purpose and meaning in their lives and others who seem not to think about it much? How much of that is due to their their socioeconomic status and upbringing? And how much of the seeking is focused inward or outward? I believe that we are all driven to make a difference somehow; the question is, which metric do we want to be measured by? If you haven't seen Taylor Mali's "What Teachers Make", take three minutes to do so now. 

Lastly, we need a minimum amount of resources to do our jobs, live our lives, pay the bills, put food on the table, and keep a roof over our heads. If you are born to wealth and never have to worry about financial security, you have a tremendous advantage that plays out throughout your life. If you have a family to take care of, a chronic condition, or a looming future to consider, the stakes are very different.  

As the old adage goes, the only constant is change. Our circumstances change, so how we feel about each of these factors also, understandably, change with it. It's easy to get distracted by the romantic or idealistic notions you had as a youth, but I have slowly learned that you should focus on who you are and who you want to be, not who you thought you were or how others want you to be. 


I'm fascinated by the psychological and sociological factors that drive us, and I'm always looking for a better way to understand how we behave towards each other. There's a lot more that I can write on all of these, but since this is a blog post and not a book, I'll stop here. 

I don't have it all figured out, but I think people are much more complicated than what many books and articles have been saying. Intrinsic motivators may explain what drives us. Extrinsic motivators may explain how we behave towards others in an organization. Context and circumstance define the conditions under which these behaviors play out. 

Recognizing how important each of these are to us, seeing the gap between what we need and what we have, and understanding our circumstances will go a long way towards helping us determine what truly motivates us so that we can make meaningful choices in our lives.