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How Will You Measure Your Life? Chapter 2 - What Makes Us Tick

Guadalupe National Park

January 4, 2020

[This chapter struck home to me. Too close to home.  The summary is long because I couldn’t find a better way to say these things than Christensen did.]


To have a meaningful conversation about happiness we need to understand what makes each of us tick. And most of us have no idea, or even worse, the things that we think make us tick are wrong and actually derail us.

When we find ourselves stuck in unhappy careers—and even unhappy lives—it is often the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of what really motivates us.

Incentives and Motivation - How They Relate

There are two broad camps on this question.

In 1976, two economists, Michael Jensen and William Meckling, published a paper that focused on a problem known as agency theory - why don’t managers always behave in a way that is in the best interest of shareholders? The root cause, as Jensen and Meckling saw it, is that people work in accordance with how you pay them. The takeaway was that you have to align the interests of executives with the interests of shareholders. This belief has been widely used as an argument for skyrocketing compensation under the guise of “aligning incentives.”

Many people and organizations have adopted Jensen and Meckling’s underlying thinking—believing that when you need to convince others that they should do one thing and not another, you just need to pay them to do what you want them to do, when you want them to do it. It’s easy, it’s measurable; in essence, you are able to simply delegate management to a formula.  But does it hold water?

One of the best ways to probe whether you can trust the advice that a theory is offering you is to look for anomalies—something that the theory cannot explain.

The problem with principal-agent, or incentives, theory is that there are anomalies that it cannot explain. For example, some of the hardest-working people on the planet are employed in nonprofits and charitable organizations. Some work in the most difficult conditions imaginable—disaster recovery zones, countries gripped by famine and flood. They earn a fraction of what they would if they were in the private sector.

How do we explain what is motivating them if it’s not money?

There is a second school of thought— called two-factor theory.  It acknowledges that you can pay people to want what you want. But incentives are not the same as motivation. True motivation is getting people to do something because they want to do it.

This type of motivation continues, in good times and in bad. Frederick Herzberg found the common assumption that job satisfaction is one big continuous spectrum—starting with very happy on one end and reaching all the way down to absolutely miserable on the other—is not actually the way the mind works. Instead, satisfaction and dissatisfaction are separate, independent measures.

This means, for example, that it’s possible to love your job and hate it at the same time.  This theory distinguishes between two different types of factors: hygiene factors and motivation factors. 

On one side of the equation, there are the elements of work that, if not done right, will cause us to be dissatisfied. These are called hygiene factors. Hygiene factors are things like status, compensation, job security, work conditions, company policies, and supervisory practices. It matters, for example, that you don’t have a manager who manipulates you for his own purposes—or who doesn’t hold you accountable for things over which you don’t have responsibility. Bad hygiene causes dissatisfaction. You have to address and fix bad hygiene to ensure that you are not dissatisfied in your work. Herzberg asserts that compensation is a hygiene factor, not a motivator.

You need to get it right. But all you can aspire to is that employees will not be mad at each other and the company because of compensation. This is an important insight from Herzberg’s research: if you instantly improve the hygiene factors of your job, you’re not going to suddenly love it. At best, you just won’t hate it anymore. 

The opposite of job dissatisfaction isn’t job satisfaction, but rather an absence of job dissatisfaction. They’re not the same thing at all. It is important to address hygiene factors such as a safe and comfortable working environment, relationship with managers and colleagues, enough money to look after your family—if you don’t have these things, you’ll experience dissatisfaction with your work.

But these alone won’t do anything to make you love your job—they will just stop you from hating it. 

So, what are the things that will truly, deeply satisfy us, the factors that will cause us to love our jobs?

These are what Herzberg calls motivators. Motivation factors include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth. Feelings that you are making a meaningful contribution to work arise from intrinsic conditions of the work itself.

Motivation is much less about external prodding or stimulation, and much more about what’s inside of you, and inside of your work. Hopefully, you’ve had experiences in your life that have satisfied Herzberg’s motivators. If you have, you’ll recognize the difference between that and an experience that merely provides hygiene factors.

The lens of Herzberg’s theory gave me real insight into the choices that some of my classmates made in their careers after we graduated. While many of them did find themselves in careers that were highly motivating, my sense was that an unsettling number did not. How is it that people who seem to have the world at their feet end up making deliberate choices that leave them feeling unfulfilled? 

Herzberg’s work sheds some light on this. Many of my peers had chosen careers using hygiene factors as the primary criteria; income was often the most important of these.

On the surface, they had lots of good reasons to do exactly that. Many people view their education as an investment. You give up good years of your working life, years you would otherwise be making a salary. Compounding that is often the need to take out big loans to finance your time at school. You know exactly how much debt you’ll have the minute you graduate.

Yet it was not lost on me that many of my classmates had initially come to school for very different reasons. They’d written their entrance essays on their hopes for using their education to tackle some of the world’s most vexing social problems or their dreams of becoming entrepreneurs and creating their own businesses.

Periodically, as we were all considering our postgraduation plans, we’d try to keep ourselves honest, challenging each other: “What about doing something important, or something you really love? Isn’t that why you came here?” “Don’t worry,” came back the answer. “This is just for a couple of years. I’ll pay off my loans, get myself in a good financial position, then I’ll go chase my real dreams.” 

It was not an unreasonable argument. The pressures we all face—providing for our families, meeting our own expectations and those of our parents and friends, and, for some of us, keeping up with our neighbors—are tough. In the case of my classmates (and many graduating classes since), this manifested itself in taking jobs as bankers, fund managers, consultants, and plenty of other well-regarded positions. For some people, it was a choice of passion—they genuinely loved what they did and those jobs worked out well for them.

But for others, it was a choice based on getting a good financial return on their expensive degree. By taking these jobs, they managed to pay back their student loans. Then they got their mortgages under control and their families in comfortable financial positions. But somehow that early pledge to return to their real passion after a couple of years kept getting deferred. “Just one more year …” or “I’m not sure what else I would do now.” All the while, their incomes continued to swell.

It wasn’t too long, however, before some of them privately admitted that they had actually begun to resent the jobs they’d taken—for what they now realized were the wrong reasons. Worse still, they found themselves stuck. They’d managed to expand their lifestyle to fit the salaries they were bringing in, and it was really difficult to wind that back. They’d made choices early on because of the hygiene factors, not true motivators, and they couldn’t find their way out of that trap. 

The point isn’t that money is the root cause of professional unhappiness. It’s not. The problems start occurring when it becomes the priority over all else, when hygiene factors are satisfied but the quest remains only to make more money. Even those engaged in careers that seem to specifically focus on money, like salespeople and traders, are subject to these rules of motivation—it’s just that in these professions, money acts as a highly accurate yardstick of success.

Herzberg’s theory still works the same way for everyone. If you get motivators at work, the theory suggests, you’re going to love your job—even if you’re not making piles of money. You’re going to be motivated.

When you really understand what motivates you, it becomes illuminating in all kinds of situations—not just in your career. It is hard to overestimate the power of these motivators—the feelings of accomplishment and of learning, of being a key player on a team that is achieving something meaningful.


I realized that if the theory of motivation applies to me, then I need to be sure that those who work for me have the motivators, too. The second realization I had is that the pursuit of money can, at best, mitigate the frustrations in your career—yet the siren song of riches has confused and confounded some of the best in our society. In order to really find happiness, you need to continue looking for opportunities that you believe are meaningful, in which you will be able to learn new things, to succeed, and be given more and more responsibility to shoulder. 

People who truly love what they do and who think their work is meaningful have a distinct advantage when they arrive at work every day. They throw their best effort into their jobs, and it makes them very good at what they do. This, in turn, can mean they get paid well; careers that are filled with motivators are often correlated with financial rewards. But sometimes the reverse is true, too—financial rewards can be present without the motivators. In my assessment, it is frightfully easy for us to lose our sense of the difference between what brings money and what causes happiness. You must be careful not to confuse correlation with causality in assessing the happiness we can find in different jobs.

We should always remember that beyond a certain point, hygiene factors such as money, status, compensation, and job security are much more a by-product of being happy with a job rather than the cause of it. Realizing this frees us to focus on the things that really matter. For many of us, one of the easiest mistakes to make is to focus on trying to over-satisfy the tangible trappings of professional success in the mistaken belief that those things will make us happy. Better salaries. A more prestigious title. A nicer office. They are, after all, what our friends and family see as signs that we have “made it” professionally.

But as soon as you find yourself focusing on the tangible aspects of your job, you are at risk of becoming like some of my classmates, chasing a mirage. The next pay raise, you think, will be the one that finally makes you happy. It’s a hopeless quest. 

The theory of motivation - the two factor theory - suggests you need to ask yourself a different set of questions than most of us are used to asking. Is this work meaningful to me? Is this job going to give me a chance to develop? Am I going to learn new things? Will I have an opportunity for recognition and achievement? Am I going to be given responsibility? These are the things that will truly motivate you. Once you get this right, the more measurable aspects of your job will fade in importance.

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