Autonomy, mastery, purpose – a Covid-19 view

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose’, popularised by Dan Pink in his book Drive:  The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. (See the RSA Animate that summarises it).

He describes motivation as an outcome of three factors, autonomy – our desire to be self-directed/direct our own lives, mastery – our urge to get better at stuff, and purpose – having a clear reason for doing something and being able to make a contribution as you do it.   In the Animate he says ‘I think we are purpose maximisers, not only profit maximisers. I think the science shows that we care about mastery very deeply and that we want to be self-directed.’

The book is largely concerned with motivation at work and the performance cultures of carrot and stick.  In the Animate, Pink suggests that ‘if we get past the ideology of carrot and stick and look at the science, we can build organisations and work lives that make us better off. … It also has the promise of making our world just a little bit better.’   He points out that ‘We have moved on to a new, more creative plane – “heuristic”, rather than “algorithmic”. In other words, we need to be creative. But the trouble is that the old carrot-and-stick model doesn’t work when you want people to be creative.’

However, his thinking applies equally well to our current coronavirus situation.  In one interpretation of it, it has a strong element of carrot and stick.  The daily update I get from my local Council say firmly, each day, ‘Lockdown measures have been extended to keep ourselves, our loved ones and key workers safe. Please continue to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.’

The carrot here is staying locked down helps keep us safe (As Armando Iannucci put it in the latest Big Issue ‘we’ve turned our living rooms into an open prison’). The stick is the implication that if you buck the lockdown rules bad things will happen.

What effect does this carrot and stick situation have on our sense of motivation – even at the level of being motivated to get up in the morning?

Pink tells us to look at the science of autonomy, mastery and purpose to enable motivation, creativity and higher performance, it may be equally useful to look at the anecdote and story of it.  There are so many of these coming out now as we grapple, in our different ways with the situation.

Changing the order of Pink’s framework, I’ll begin with ‘purpose’.  Rather than feeling that we are in a ‘carrot and stick’ situation we could say that we had a common purpose aimed at containing the spread of the virus and stopping our health services becoming overwhelmed, and we subscribe to that purpose.  The Civil Society arm of United Nations, for example, believes ‘that our common purpose will lift us during this difficult time, and that we can learn from and build on each other’s efforts.’

Accepting (if we do) that as our common purpose, and that part of it is to also accept the controls that go with it, there are still choices we can make about our level of autonomy. Some of us will feel fearful and powerless, others will see an opportunity for growth and learning. (See graphic above).

We could, perhaps, reframe lockdown for ourselves and say our purpose in it is, for example, to ‘explore the gift of solitude’ which is what one of my friends – in the vulnerable category – described himself doing last week as he started his 12th week of self-isolation.  (There’s a book A History of Solitude, David Vincent coming out this week.)  An alternative purpose is to explore ‘the gift of togetherness’ – another of my friends said ‘I am lucky to have all my family here so we have a ready-made social group.’

Having an ability, circumstance and/or willingness to look for even small things that provide feelings of autonomy/self-direction and intrinsic motivation maybe hard to find in this situation.

We read heartbreaking stories of loss, mental health decline and surges in domestic violence.  Yet, as a counter balance there are abundant stories of people who are looking at areas where they can feel self-directed and it is worth looking to these for examples of learning and growth.

People who have a garden or balcony, are developing their gardening skills – maybe for the first time – and to the extent that seed suppliers are overwhelmed with demand. Others are baking (no flour or yeast in our local supermarket), while others are contributing amazing acts of kindness and compassion: look at the stories on this from the North East of England, for example.

That form of self-direction illustrates intrinsic motivation – pleasure gained from an activity, divorced from any further elements. It means liking the doing. (See an excellent paper Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Time for Expansion and Clarification.) It may be that for some people this period actually unlocks a new talent or skill – one that in the pre-covid-19 world remained latent and unexplored.  (In my case, I’m attempting to knit a lace pattern for the first time).

Pink talks about mastery as our urge to get better at stuff.  We’ve all seen masses of imaginative encouragement for that during this time – aimed at people and interests of all ages/types.   My grandsons are developing their footballing skills – they are fortunate to have a small back garden –  and are getting daily new activities from their football club.  Time Out published a list of 80 things to do at home, and there are daily new ideas coming from individuals and organisations of all types as they hone their online participation capability.   Now is the time/opportunity to try something you think you never knew you wanted to learn,  something you thought you might want to get learn or get better at or develop higher level capability.

Those hoping to maintain their high level skills are demonstrating their capacity to work against the odds: for example, Olympic athletes are improvising training at home (and sharing workouts if you want to have a go) and similarly ballet dancers are performing their routines in their homes..

What I’m wondering now, is how we can maintain the social imagination and creativity we are seeing in play.  We would gain from keeping it going as we gradually exit the tight lockdown conditions.  And how will we take forward into coming months and years what we have learned and grown, for our individual and collective betterment.

In Geoff Mulgan’s words.  Let’s ‘map out some of the possibility spaces for the next few decades: possible futures for care and health, democracy and property … describ­ing a future in which we can feel at home, and then using the power of that vision to catalyse action today to help us get there.’

How do you think we can do that?  Let me know.

Image: Image designed by Celina Canales,

2 thoughts on “Autonomy, mastery, purpose – a Covid-19 view”

  1. I’ve got a few thoughts about this – mostly questions – about how autonomy and mastery and purpose show up when people are feeling high levels of anxiety. And questioning whether this time will actually shape our future when we’re out of lockdown or if we’ll return to how things were but with more people in a more precarious position.

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