A version of this post first appeared in my newsletter. Subscribe to receive posts like this in your inbox every Sunday.
I recently spoke to a class of college freshmen. I was supposed to expand their understanding of design by telling them about information architecture. At the end, a student expanded my understanding. “What about your work,” he asked, “brings you joy?”
Boom! Such a great question. Given how much of our lives we spend at work, this might be the question for a newcomer to ask an experienced practitioner.
Many people consider work something they must do, sometimes grudgingly. They celebrate Friday afternoons and dread Monday mornings. Some talk of “quiet quitting,” i.e., doing the minimum necessary to comply with job requirements. But can work itself be a source of joy?
More broadly, why do you do what you do? Psychologists speak of two types of motivations: extrinsic and intrinsic.
Extrinsic motivations are external to you — i.e., they’re provided by others. Think rewards (a bonus or raise, social acceptance) and punishments (embarrassment, losing your job.) Intrinsic motivations, on the other hand, are internal: you take pleasure in the activity for its own sake.
You might expect me to say intrinsic motivation is the ideal, but in reality, we need both. They influence each other: external rewards can increase internal drive and internal motivation can increase external rewards. (And, perhaps surprisingly, excessive external motivations can decrease internal drive.)
During a fifty-year career, the average person will spend almost thirteen years at work. That’s a significant part of your lifetime. If you do it primarily for money, you may wonder if it was worth it in the end. On the other hand, a bit more money and recognition can increase happiness.
As with many things, the key is finding a healthy balance. But people often think more about extrinsic rewards than intrinsic motivations. And if you stop to think about it — as I did when the student asked — you’ll find joy at work. It need not be big things; there can be satisfaction even in slight improvements.
At this point, you may be wondering what I told the student. I explained that recently, my team conducted validation sessions on an IA project. One participant said he found the new system familiar; he could find things without thinking much about it. That sort of “small win” gives me joy — and continues to do so well into my career.
Get updates via email
Sent weekly. I'll never share your address. Unsubscribe any time.