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Is Intrinsic Motivation Becoming An Unhealthy Obsession?

Intrinsic motivation is all the rage these days—and for good reason. When we do interesting work that makes the world a better place, we are more engaged, more creative, and perform better in almost every measurable way. But an article I wrote for Quartz got me wondering: Is our love affair with intrinsic motivation morphing into an unhealthy obsession?

Maybe that’s just me? Or maybe not.

Could this same phenomenon help explain why people my age and younger are now the most depressed generation and the most disengaged employees and chronic job-hoppers? Have we made ourselves slaves to the pursuit of an anatomically impossible job?

The great irony of intrinsic motivation is that it still depends largely on extrinsic factors. Your degree of autonomy, mastery, and sense of purpose is directly related to how much of each factor your organization chooses to provide…or withhold. For example, autonomy by definition doesn’t happen unless your boss chooses to stay off your back. If you demand intrinsic motivation to be content and satisfied at work, you will always be at the mercy of your boss and your company. You have handed someone else the keys to your happiness.

Most leaders I know have a sincere desire, and feel an ethical responsibility, to create an engaging work experience for their people. But I wouldn’t bet my happiness on their ability to deliver it day in, day out. Not because those leaders are bad people or because your organization is fundamentally flawed. But because work will always involve…well, work. Even at Google or your favorite purpose-filled non-profit, the garbage still needs to be taken out and TPS reports still require cover sheets. (Did you get that memo?)

So how do we set ourselves free?

We can take a cue from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He wanted to be a philosopher much more than a statesman. So he struggled to find a “flow” state while quashing barbarian uprisings, feeding Christians to wild animals, and performing other tasks commonly found on the imperial to-do list.

But one day the stoic philosopher-king had a simple revelation: Wherever life is possible, the good life is possible. Since life is possible in the palace, the good life is possible in the palace.

That means it’s totally okay to gravitate toward work you are passionate about at companies you believe in. But in the meantime, cut yourself a little slack. There is no shame in crafting a good life within the confines of the imperfect job you already have. Whether you’re scrubbing toilets, processing coupons, or performing kidney surgery, every job provides you with the opportunity to affirm your identity as a capable, respectable individual, upon whom the people around you can rely.

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