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December 2005
January 2006

2005-12-14 »

Motivation, Part 2

I don't remember who, but a few people have told me in the past that salary is not a motivator - but at worst, it can be a demotivator. I don't know if this is true for everyone, but I think it's very true for certain kinds of people, particularly software developers. If they're getting paid enough that they're satisfied with it, paying them more won't make them work any harder.

I think there are basically three states of motivation:

  • demotivated (negative)

  • motivated (neutral)

  • hypermotivated (positive)

I like to believe that, by default, most people are in the "motivated" state. That is, by default, most people want to do useful stuff rather than sit and not do useful stuff. Maybe I'm wrong, but in any case, I like to at least think that we don't hire people who are unmotivated by default, so it doesn't really matter if literally everybody is the way I think they are.

From this neutral state, you can go in two directions. The things that take you in one direction versus the other are actually unrelated to each other. More of thing A might demotivate you; less of thing A might demotivate you less. But no amount of it, or a lack of it, will ever hypermotivate you.

For example, you will never achieve hypermotivation because we pay you more, or give you clear (instead of unclear) specifications, or don't chain you to your desk and whip you, or don't make you play kindergarten-style HR role playing games.

It's unlikely that you'll become actively demotivated because we don't have a foosball table, or because we don't have an inspirational leader, or because you don't believe the work you're doing can really change the world.

The fact is that merely motivated people can do really good work. Some companies do just fine running entirely on merely motivated people. It's just that hypermotivated people can do even more... lots more.

I've written a lot lately about the two sides of various issues, and the fact that not compromising, but instead maximizing both constraints, is the only way to really succeed. For example, you research, write, and comply with excellent functional specifications in order to make people not hate your product; you do excellent design in order to make them love your product.

Companies and motivation work the same way. Carefully following some boring, well known HR guidelines to avoid the common demotivators can make people not hate working at your company. (Avoid the stupid parts of the well known HR guidelines, though, because some of them are demotivators themselves.) But hypermotivation isn't just about removing demotivators; you have to also have the right hypermotivators in the right places. For every person, those hypermotivators are different.

Not many people are hypermotivated; of the people that are, I'm not sure they could honestly all tell you exactly why that is. I think I'm in that category. But not knowing those things gets in the way of sharing those things with others.

I'm CEO at Tailscale, where we make network problems disappear.

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