Creative Motivation

written on May 24, 2013

I wrote this over 5 years ago1

I value “fun” … a lot … in the work place. Fun is hard to define, but I’d like to work in a place where I feel like we (as a team) are making good decisions and that each person is competent in their position… each person is trusted to be creative and engaged in maximizing their contributions to the end product.

Yes, in 2013, those things still motivate me. I love writing software because I get to create.

I gave a presentation at Gilbert High School’s 2013 career day last month. I was asked to share about life as a Programmer. I focused on creativity. Sometimes that looks like creating solutions that deconstruct hard problems into manageable tasks. Other times that will combine many small steps into a larger and simpler system with the details removed. I was reminded of what I love about writing software – I am building things.

On Motivation…

Earlier this year, my coworker sent me a TED Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation. I think it is a fascinating video (Find 19 minutes to watch it sometime). In the video Dan Pink argues the main motivation for creativity is: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Now I am not sure that this is true for everyone, but I suspect that these are common themes for the majority of the population.

Clarifying my Motivations

Last year I went through a process with SIMA International to identify my “Motivated Abilities.” The results were fascinating. It helped refine how I think about my motivations. There was nothing that was shocking. After 33 years of living, I have a rough understanding of who I am. I generally know what I am good at and where I stink (and what areas of my life I still desperately need help).

The result of going through the SIMA process is the production of a Motivated Abilities Pattern (MAP). The MAP is a twenty-some page explanation of what motivates me. It was not produced by a computer program or multiple choice test. I had to write and talk about myself. I wrote a couple dozen pages about events that I found made me happy — from childhood to the present. I had an interview with a real human and shared the enjoyable moments of my life with them. (It was actually a lot of fun to do!)

I might upload the full document, but for now I am going to post summaries of the three main motivators:

  1. “You are strongly motivated to comprehend a body of knowledge, a set of skills, or a “toolkit” of techniques, and then give expression to what you have learned by developing a finished product of some kind. You are primarily motivated to use your powerful ability to learn and research in order to design some kind of output.”

  2. “This ability is especially powerful when you act as a resource to others, providing the knowledge, products, expertise or support that they need. You are especially adept at analyzing difficult problems and creatively applying your knowledge of systems and technology to solve those problems.

  3. “It should be pointed out that the creative, developmental side of your motivation is particularly powerful. You are strongly driven to design applications based on the things that you have learned.”

Design is all over the place. I enjoy attempting to make difficult problems manageable and complex ideas comprehendible.

None of this means that I am any good

Becoming good (at anything) requires a lot of work2. But if I want to have the most fun in my job and the most success in my career I’ll need to master the craft of developing software to maximize my ability to create. Which means: - constant practice, - constant learning, - always being curious, inquisitive and hungry3.

These things take determination and discipline, even if you do get significant value out of writing software.

…and of course these motivations play into things even more important than career-oriented tasks…


“a person who is learning a trade from a skilled employer.”

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked with great software developers and architects. Many who have taken a serious interest in my development. They have given me countless hours of coaching, modeling and encouragement. They have patiently reviewed my code, demanded perfection and stood by, hopefully, as a I stretched my programming-wings. Not only did they model the craft of writing software, they demonstrated the responsibility I have to pass this art on to others. Thank you Ed, Erik, Hristo and Margaret!

“When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions. Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

  1. This is from an email interchange between me and a couple of friends. I was trying to understand what I wanted in a job.

  2. Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice from which Malcolm Gladwell coined his 10,000 hours

  3. from the Whole Earth Catalog, referenced by Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement speech. You can read the Full transcript and watch the video. Here is a excerpt: