On Work, the Psychology of Motivation, and Small Business

  • By Graeme Donaldson
  • Published 10/12/2014

Here at Able we make small business loans. But we’re not just all spreadsheets and risk analysis (although we do love that stuff). We’re also thinkers and want to contribute to the great American conversation of liberty, human potential, and good work. We believe that our relationship with ideas shapes our behavior. It is only through honestly engaging ideas, examining them, living with and testing them that we can incorporate them into our selves, relationships and businesses. It is our intent that this humble blog space can be a forum for this relationship with ideas.

In one sense, what we are doing at Able is a simple business and an old idea: we are providing credit in order for businesses to exist and grow. I like to think of this as a kind of time travel. We bring businesses the money they will make in the future to the present, so that their future can happen.

But when we strip away all of the technicalities of our business—credit scores, interest rate models, and other predictive tools—we come up to the fundamental question: why does man work?

What drives an individual to produce, to exchange their leisure hours for labor? What causes one to regulate their other human interactions of friendship and family in order to do something else—something that is often risky and not immediately beneficial? As creditors we need to have this question be a bit of a center of gravity for us. In so doing not only will we make good loans, but we will be helping grow the type of work that produce human flourishing, in all meanings of the word.

The first answer to this question as to why we work is easy: people work so that they can make money to survive. While making money is a necessary condition to why we work, it doesn’t seem like a sufficient answer. Mere survival isn’t (or, at least, ought not be) the sole function of work. It also doesn’t seem to account for the stunning examples of human flourishing in history: the Dutch weren’t just surviving when they stumbled on creating the stock market; Americans weren’t just surviving when they posited that a nation should exist that allowed mankind the freedom to make, take risks etc. Something more must be at play here to account for flourishing.

Dan Pink gets close to a good explanation on this in his great TED Talk on Human Motivation. His conclusion: human beings are fundamentally driven by a desire for mastery, autonomy, and purpose. When basic needs are taken care of, fulfilling these desires is what drives us. It then is a small step to link this description of the psychology of motivation to our discussion of work. What drives good work is when we act in accordance to these natural motivations.

First, mastery. It is in our nature to master things—we want to get better at the things we apply ourselves to, and a legacy of betterment is a fundamentally satisfying thing to the human heart. This idea is as old as western civilization itself.

The Greeks referred to this concept of mastery as arete—an almost mythical description of excellence. For example, how many of you know a programmer that talks about “elegant” code vs “clunky” code? That qualitative difference is arete-­language and you can bet that that programmer is immensely satisfied with code that not only works, but is beautiful.

Secondly, we want autonomy. It is natural for us to want to chart our own course, make our own plans, and reap the consequences (positive and negative) of our planning. Autonomy is often the driver for starting a small business—the desire to be one’s own boss. Autonomy and freedom are so central to our natures that it is no coincidence that the nations that have understood this, and who have laid the groundwork for autonomy and freedom have been the most successful in human history.

Lastly, Pink posits that humans are motivated by purpose. We desire for our work to be more than just about the self. This drives us into vocations such as teaching or medicine. Even small businesses that are morally neutral—such as shoes or energy bars—are starting to tack on social causes to their business model. Buy a shoe, shod a child etc. We are not satisfied with expending energy into the void. Purpose resonates with us.

Pink’s conclusions regarding motivation helps begin to answer our original question. We work in order to develop mastery, exercise autonomy and seek purpose. With all good answers come more questions: how can we get credit into the hands of those who are undertaking projects of Good Work, seeking autonomy, mastery and purpose. This is Able’s present calling and one that we are very excited to help make happen.

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