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Ask HN: What motivates you to do what you do?
64 points by ivanjovanovic 179 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments
I've been in transition for a while, leaving a big enterprise and moving towards more independent work through own consulting business.

In the process I reflected a lot and one of the important topics I am trying to understand is about underlying motivations for my actions.

I can see what is going on in my head, that I tend to materialise some image of my future self, create value for the family and the environment I live in, position myself good for the future-needed skills, have joy in what I do, have more freedom to decide of my future direction ... there are many different triggers of motivation for my actions, but from time to time they seem random and misaligned.

As said, I can see what is going on in my head but I was curios about how others interpret and manage their motivations which trigger their actions.

Would be happy to have some insights into your heads if you may allow :)

That I need money and this is my best choice. I would guess 90+% of people who say theres anything more to it than this are lying to you and probably themselves. There are people with broader aspirations, but actually just saying you have some deep passion is a part of the culture, and in most cases, I don't think true.

I disagree. Once a certain skill level is achieved, money can be taken off the table. When you have a six figure salary, more money is not as significant as it once was. After this threshold is crossed, you gain the luxury of mostly choosing where to work.

I definitely notice a huge difference in desire to get up in the morning depending on the importance of what I'm working on. If it's menial or ultimately unimportant work, I can feel burned out working 30-40 hour weeks. If it's world changing stuff that's never been done before and will save thousands or millions of lives, I feel engaged working 60-80 hours a week.

When an employer is trying to recruit me, they don't need to offer more money than everyone else. They need to sell me on the importance of what I will be working on. For example, autonomous vehicles present continuous research and engineering challenges for which you often must provide the first solution anyone has ever devised. This addresses the problem of menial work. Accelerating the overall global development, production, and adoption of autonomous vehicles by a single day could save over a thousand lives. This addresses the problem of importance of work.

At the end of the day, money is secondary. I need enough that I don't need to worry about struggling financially; but, the primary reason I will accept an offer has nothing to do with money. We spend a large portion of our lives working. So, we better enjoy whatever it is that we do.

> I disagree. Once a certain skill level is achieved, money can be taken off the table. When you have a six figure salary, more money is not as significant as it once was.

More money is always better. More money means more savings, which means sooner retirement.

The Mexican Fisherman and the Investment Banker (Author Unknown)

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “only a little while.”

The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”

The American scoffed. “I have an MBA from Harvard, and can help you,” he said. “You should spend more time fishing, and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, and eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middle-man, you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening up your own cannery. You could control the product, processing, and distribution,” he said. “Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and eventually to New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “Oh, 15 to 20 years or so.”

“But what then?” asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time was right, you would announce an IPO, and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions!”

“Millions – then what?”

The American said, “Then you could retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos.”

More realistically, assuming you have some experience as a developer, you can retire in 10 years of work if you play it right and are not against a move to a low cost of living location (country). That's much better than a life of toil until you're 65.

While I agree with the OP's statement that most people work for the money because they have bills to pay, there comes a point where one can earn half as much as they currently do and stay afloat. Working for money less means/allows spending time, the only resource no one can get more of, doing things they love and enjoy. If someone does work they enjoy, or live a satisfying life (even when considered "toiling" by others) then money isn't that important or a driving force. Some people bust their butts now, while young and able bodied, for the possibility of retiring later on. Other people don't really think much about their life or have future goals or plans... those people's life's plans tend to be chosen and dictated by others. Whatever you (anyone) do it's just best to be intentional about it.

While this is funny it misses the point that life is a journey and not about the end result.

I have to strongly, strongly disagree with this.

First, let's talk about your assertion - we're basically all just in this for the money. If you want to make that claim, you have to be able to answer why. Why is money important? Why would we do anything just for money? Money itself is irrelevant, we only want it because of what we can get with it. So, let's go a step further and figure out what we'll buy with that money. Sure, you're going to buy things for yourself - most people likely will. But are they going to spend it all on themselves? Most likely not. Many people will spend that on gifts for their spouse, a vacation for their family, school for their children, a new house or car to improve the lifestyle of their loved ones. All of these things are honest reasons we justify spending our lives working - to improve not just our own life, but the lives of those we love (and for many great people in the world - the lives of people they've never met).

Second, let's go towards your statement that people just can't have a deep passion for things. You're saying that people can't do something because they're particularly interested in or dedicated to a particular issue? Ok, explain Doctors Without Borders, the Boys & Girls Club of America, St. Jude Children's Hospital, or literally any other charitable organization in the world. Are its founders, low-paid employees (relative to market potential), and unpaid volunteers just in this for the money also?

I'm keeping my cool here on this, because ultimately this is a comment and we're all free to express our minds - but I'm offended by the assertion that we can't care about anything other than money. And that's after you get past the fact that the statement on its face doesn't actually make sense, because none of us care about money - we only care about what we can get with it.

Edit: perhaps a bit of an overreaction to otherwise benign comments on behalf of the OP. I still feel strongly about my comments here, but may have misunderstood the intent of OP's statements.

I don't think OP is talking about Doctors without Borders. He's talking about the super hyped engineer at a big Ad company who says she's extremely passionate about her job. This sort of attitude is very common in the U.S., in my experience.

Ok, sure, but the OP didn't qualify his/her statements that 90%+ of us are lying when we say we're anything other than financially motivated. I'm attacking the assertion that we simply can't be intrinsically motivated by things that matter to us.

That said, I do know engineers that work at startups and actually are pumped by the vision - they're excited about what they're building and what it could mean for the future.

You need money to live. As for your other comments, I think you're misquoting me.

"That I need money and this is my best choice. I would guess 90+% of people who say theres anything more to it than this are lying to you and probably themselves."

I'm not sure how I'm misquoting you here - you very clearly and plainly said you assume 90%+ of people who say anything other than money is their motivation are lying to you and themselves.

As for your comment that you need money to live - of course you do. That's a far cry from your statement, which is that people are solely motivated by money. The typical HN reader likely makes above the average salary, so they're already past the point of working for enough of a salary to live, and they're in the disposable income territory.

You said 90+% of people who state any other goal are actually working for the money and lying about it to other people. I think that's very incorrect.

You just said money is irrelevant, then proceeded to list all the useful things money can do for a family?

Money is just a proxy for useful things you can request.

I said money itself is irrelevant. Saying we work for money is stupid, because we don't. We work for the things money could buy. It's an arguably arbitrary distinction, but in this case it's important, because it speaks to the meaningless first statement of the original post.

How can we all be working solely for money when none of us actually care about the money - we care about all the other things that the money gets us that the original comment explicitly stated we don't care about.

Edit: I think we're on the same page here, but perhaps I could have clarified what I meant in my comment. Money itself is meaningless, as you mentioned, it's a proxy for other things we can get. Which is why it makes no sense to say we're motivated by money. We're motivated by the things we want that money to buy for us.

When most say working for the money, what they mean is exactly what you mean. Things money can provide.

Agreed. If you look solely at my comment in response to the one I replied to, it probably seems like I missed the mark. However, take it in context with the OP's comments for the topic

"I can see what is going on in my head, that I tend to materialise some image of my future self, create value for the family and the environment I live in, position myself good for the future-needed skills, have joy in what I do, have more freedom to decide of my future direction ... there are many different triggers of motivation for my actions, but from time to time they seem random and misaligned."

In that context, he's clearly referring to (at least to me it seems) deeper motivations that simply financial. So, to have the top comment on this page say 90%+ of us are motivated financially and lying if we say otherwise, in the context of this topic, I think is just wrong.

That said, I've edited my original comment to clarify I may have misunderstood the one I replied to.

outside of the tech bubble, the truth is ppl need money to live, pay off student loans, support family.

he did say "most" and based on my experience with many people in the industry, i have to agree with OP. most folks are in this for the cash (myself included).

why do you think articles on salary and negotiation are so popular here?

This. As much as I love coding and tech, the kind of projects I care about would not pay the bills. If I didn't need the money, I'd probably spend my days learning hard academics and working on projects I find interesting. I think there are well paying jobs that would probably satisfy this, but they are rare and hard to get.

If I was in it for the money alone I would have become a Hedge Fund trader. Not saying that money is not a motivation here - it is. But its not the primary motivation. Having said that, I'm no longer 20 years old and will not take an exciting project that pays below what I expect to earn, or even agree to listen to the "we'll give you equity" idiom...

It's probably true in your corner of the world, but holding on to this jaded view will do nothing but help you to stay in there. There's another world out there.

"There is another world out there"

Yeah, it's called a personal life. Work is basically that thing I do to make the stuff I do in my personal life possible or more comfortable. Or simply not starve. Would I rather have some sort of enjoyment in the work I do? Yeah, but the truth is I can be happy enough doing janitorial work or working retail so long as the work environment and pay is good enough. It is just a job, after all, even when the pay is good or it takes studying. While a few folks might hit the work/job lottery and get something they actually enjoy, I think work is just a job for most folks. It isn't cynical or jaded. It simply is.

Would I work if I won a lottery or if I didn't need money? Nope. Definitely not. I might have a few projects that look kinda like work if lottery-rich, but the truth is I'd just hire folks to do most of it for me. I'd mostly want to travel and make artwork and try out different sorts of hobbies. I'd work on getting weird and eccentric.

Well, maybe you'll get lucky and be involved in some work you can do while traveling or doing the other hobbies. Or that pays enough part-time/contract to leave the free time for the other stuff. The whole digital nomad thing has taken off in the past 5-10 years (though it seems most make money selling you e-books on how to be a digital nomad / location independent...).

I like this. You get it. Other people are taking OP too literal with what they said.

I enjoy programming, but I definitely wouldn't be doing it if I didn't need the work.

I think people ream me up about that because they find great anger in someone who is good at programming but didn't want to grow up to be a programmer. Because that conflicts everything they've ever thought in their lives.

What you said describes prostitution. I don't know about deep passion or not, I enjoy writing programs, and it satisfies my need to create things. Learning new stuff, novel ways of thinking is why I am in it. I have previously left jobs which offered higher pay for jobs that are interesting.

Money. I work for a large Enterprise software company and we are not "changing the world." That's fine, by the way, but the answer is money and it always has been.

I have two young children at home and nothing is going to come close to making me feel as fulfilled as being their father. Since we need money to live I have to go away for 8-9 hours a day, working on CRUD applications and their supporting systems. What keeps me in my seat is the money I can eventually bring home to to my wife and children.

To a non-parent this may seem a somewhat bleak and uninspiring vision of what we do as software developers, but the truth is that being able to provide for my family is one of the most intensely satisfying enterprises I have ever taken-on. It allows us to put good, healthy food on the table and live in a neighborhood with walking trails and a nearby lake. My children sleep in comfortable beds. The temperature in our home is always appropriate.

If I can't spend the bulk of my time with my family then next best thing is producing money that directly benefits them.

Yeah, people won't admit it but not much has changed other than the marketing that sells people on the jobs. Whether it's software development now or good-paying factory work a while back (but not too far back...), most people would like to try to work to live. If we lived in some sort of post-scarcity society, people might "work" but it most likely wouldn't be as much and maybe not exactly what you're doing now. There'd probably be a lot more polymaths out there - people that wrote some programs for a few years then decide to play guitar for a decade, etc etc.

> There'd probably be a lot more polymaths out there - people that wrote some programs for a few years then decide to play guitar for a decade, etc etc.

I did that in reverse. Once I "make enough" I intend on going back.

That's great.

I spent a lot of my early 20s working then quitting to travel to other countries. I've been bitten a little in my later twenties, now early-30s having tried to "settle" down but ending up trying out a lot of different careers. Now about 3-4 years into an "IT" career but working to leveraging that into either contract and/or remote work in the future. Plus trying to keep creative outside of it.

fingers crossed

Indeed that's good. You'll never know if you don't like it if you never try it. Many say this age is the perfect time to try something new.

You and me, we are of the same.

Unless someone has a kid, and feels that gravitational pull towards them; they probably won't understand. That's okay with me, it's my little secret I get to enjoy the rest of my life with.

I have to get a job in a big company then... I'm not saving enough now and fear for my future children.

I'm motivated by Freedom. I have a goal to make myself and those around me free from the burden of financial responsibility, and geographical and time constraints. I don't want to have to do a job I don't want for money because I have a mortgage or bills to pay. I don't want to be dictated where I need to be in the world at any given time or how I should manage my time. I want this freedom and I will get it, because I can. My aim is not to be filthy rich (though I won't cry if by freak accident that happens). I just want to remove 3rd parties from having control over those particular freedoms.

Edit: At the same time, I am doing something I love to achieve this goal, so even if it takes me longer than I expected, in the meanwhile I'm enjoying myself and being compensated nicely for this.

Just looked at your profile seeking contact details.

Similar motivations here.

Freedom... I think it is possible to create a company around a common set of values?

I'm doing exactly that. Over the years my focus shifted from creating the One Big Company in favour of multiple Small-Nimble-Company. As an aside, I should probably update my contact details.

The Happy Dance

You know the feeling, when you get something working for the first time. Something that has never been done before and will never be done the first time ever again. And you just did it. You received input, thought about it, build it, tested it, changed it, stewed about it, agonized over it, redid it, and finally, finally, got output. Often beyond your wildest expectations. And you lept out of your chair and yelled, "Yeaaa!" and danced a little bit.

Sure, I have gotten this feeling from other things, from my writing, from my comedy, from sex, from when the Penguins score a goal, and most often, from others. But in the grand scale, those things rarely happen.

Writing software is different. I can Happy Dance all the time if I only set myself up for it.

In the enterprise, I hardly ever Happy Danced. In my own business, I Happy Danced almost every day. What more does one need for motivation?

For me, it's that plus money. I need the money. But getting the money from doing something where I also get to do the Happy Dance? Yeah, that's wonderful.

There's a reason that my explicit career goal is never to become a manager. I want to keep enjoying what I do.

That's how I feel when things come together: http://imgur.com/0uUIa06

I guess I am past the need of motivation. I started coding more than 20 years ago and back then it was all about that I want to really learn how to write good software and create cool projects.

Today I am just happy to have few low pressure customers that I am maintaining products for. I kind of feel like carpenter: sure I can make a table for you and I know it will be quite good. It is not going to be the next big table that is going to be displayed on front page of big Carpentry magazine. It is going to be table for some basement, but thats ok.

I sometimes need more money for bigger purchases, (I am farmer now and equipment is so expensive) which makes me return into high pressure of valley development. And I must say that working in this environment it is always hard to find motivation other then "it is soon going to be over".

Grown up working class, have parents which are older and still have to work in awful jobs. Met many people who are just simply better than I am at most things. So I just grind daily at it. I want to have an "out", not just me but for my family and the people I care about.

I work to live and distribute time to items which nourish my soul and encourage family wellness. Working towards these goals creates a feedback of contentment for me - I'm in a good place and very happy about who and where I am.

I've learned over time that means activities which give you energy: physical fitness, creativity and relationship time (parenthood, spouse, friends, other family etc) and less activities which draw energy from you, inebriation, excessive video games, excess in any form (for example gluttony or work) etc.

I used to try to do projects 'for the money' in my spare time and inevitably I would give up on them. For me, money is not a main driver. I have enough, and toiling extra hours has no benefit for me.

What are some creative activities you'd recommend?

I'm currently learning piano on udemy. There are some great intro courses and udemy frequently discounts for 10 dollars. Previously I've done watercolors from them as well. I know they seem 'small', but I can't explain the thrill I got doing something I previously thought was impossible.

At work, I enjoy tinkering and have the opportunity to go solve interesting problems.

At home - I enjoy tinkering and that feeling of accomplishment with a job well done, whether that's washing my car, or making my home automation system do things that it wasn't intended to do.

If I think about it - these are both driven by a desire to be known as someone who can "do things," i.e. "I want the credit." [1]

[1] https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pm-5gWhJ3qY

Like everyone else, I sell my labour to capital in exchange for a living.

There are two kinds of motivation. There is the desire for the project itself and there is the desire to work on the project. I would be overjoyed if one day, I pulled from master and found that the project I’m working on was perfectly complete!

But until that day, I have to find some way to keep on plugging away: planning, coding, testing, debugging, doing art, marketing, etc. It’s one of those things that maintains momentum through good developer experience and forcing myself to spend a little time on it every day.

And one day it will be done, and I’ll be able to step back and say “Wow. I made a thing.” Honestly, I don’t know if it will be that great of a feeling. But the anticipated satisfaction of a job well done, including the approval of my customers, is something that motivates me.

I’ll add that family can be super motivating too. Of course, I want to provide for them. But working on a side project and having your wife come by and say “That looks cool” is a pretty good feeling.

Doing a good job with care, investing myself in the work. It doesn't matter if no one sees it or appreciates it (though that's nice), it's important that it's done well, with economy of design and good judgement for where to invest some time in the code, and where to flesh out with less finishing.

Higher order goals are all well and good, but usually the best way to achieve those is to make as much money as possible and then direct the money towards the goals, rather than to change what you do and work on the higher order goals directly. While working directly towards higher order goals might feel more satisfying and meaningful, it's unlikely to be the most effective way of making a difference if you've got good skills as an engineer.

My personal higher order goals aren't much more than to live the good life, but being sure to live it - be in the moment, rather than living for some tomorrow.

Learning and discovery. The satisfaction of scheming and realization. A less trodden path. Not having to have a mortgage, be stuck in one location, to tow a cultural line, or dress up or follow schedules. Knowing that you are leaving the world a slightly better place.

Software Engineer @ a big tech firm : I like the fact that the work engages me to a reasonable degree. I am okay @ coding and I like it to an extent - it keeps me engaged, which is a massive plus. My co-workers are fantastic, which makes the job better. Needless to say, the money helps a lot, which lets me enjoy my weekends and other times.

Ofcourse, I yearn for a life where I am free and completely in control, doing something I like, but I really appreciate the fact that I have a job that keeps me going as well.

1. Freedom to use my time wisely. 2. Fulfilment of my potential.

I try to visualize the end days and if I don't do 1 and 2, I will regret it. That is what drives me to do whatever that I do today.

If your intrinsic motivations, which probably map closely to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, are not aligned with your startup's strategy and goals, then of course you are going to experience a feeling of being unmoored. The answer is to deploy massive amounts of patience and energy in figuring out who You are. In the immediate term, recognize you are not the only one with this conflict and perhaps develop a set of "motivation management" tools to help crystallize and make manifest your personal journey.

To help with understanding your place in the grand scheme, I'd also check out this lecture by Michael Dearing from Reid Hoffman's Blitzscaling class at Stanford:


Although nominally about Creative Destruction and the capitalist work ethic, it gets at the root of our entrepreneurial ambitions. There is a reason the mission statements of the Erie Railway Company from 1857 and Facebook's circa 2017 sound so eerily similar. Their duty isn't to build train tracks between cities or link nodes in the social graph. It's to spread knowledge, commerce and communication deep into places that have never known it before.

1. Life is short and there's so much to do.

2. I'm building a business and I have competitors who want to take my market share.

Either of these two thoughts are enough to galvanise me. #2 in particular can snap me wide awake with blood pumping and ideas firing.

Ultimately I am guided by the principle of least regret, although I find that more useful as a decision making construct than a motivation tool.

I strive for balance in my life, so what motivates me is the combination of being able to solve complex problems using computer technology coupled with the ability to properly care about my own physical self and the ones around me (family, good friends).

I have been one of those workaholic people that only cared about amassing money. No more.

Thanks for the comment! This really reflects the way I started thinking about it lately. Sorry for the investigative tone of the following question: Was there anything in particular that enlightened you towards changing your attitude or was it just through reflection and incremental adjustment of the behaviour?

My motivations constantly change (and are therefore not the best foundation for action), BUT, right now I'd say that I'm motivated by whatever enables me to stay upwind.

I'm always finding myself interested in new things (and sometimes disinterested in old passions), so I optimize my career and actions around being able to freely engage with those "new things" without jeopardizing stuff like my financial stability. I also try to be as broadly educated and capable of learning so that those "new things" are never too difficult to immerse myself in.

I want to make life better for people who are often marginalised.

I don't have a fear of change, I have a fear of staying the same. I have a fear that I will be stuck in the same job for the next 40+ years. I don't want that, I don't want to work for someone else, to have all my hard work on their projects do more for them than it has for me. I am hoping to quit my job soon and go off and do my own thing or die trying.

Seems like you have a career, unlike me, as I'm a student but I'll give it a go.

-Doing and making something great via Human Computer Interaction

-Being hired as an intern at a technology company

-Generating money with a side project ie ramen profitable

Curiosity, and fear.

To get acknowledged for my skills and effort.

Bucking the existential weight that in the grand scope the life of a single human is nothing.

Currently - Money.

2 things: the people I lead day to day and money, even with six figure salary, they are never enough, that's why I have a side project I am going to retire soon...

Someone has to.

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