What motivates you?
A $1500 bonus, or two weeks holiday?
Recognition? Praise? Interacting with people? Not interacting with people?
We all pick our career paths based, in some part, on our personalities. We gravitate to what we believe we are good at; what we are passionate about doing; a job title we think sounds sexy at a networking event.
Yet the 9–5 burnout is more real than ever, and the job market is a hot mess.
In these times, how can we still find work we actually enjoy and engage with?



In 1976, organisational psychologists Greg Oldham and J. Richard Hackman created the Job Characteristics Model summing up what makes work engaging, enjoyable, and meaningful.
In short: what keeps you motivated on a minute-by-minute basis.
They found three key aspects of rewarding work: work with higher performance, motivation, and satisfaction. All are easily found from a side-hustle or start-up venture.
They drew from the experiences of hundreds of real-world workers across 62 different professions. The model has been replicated and expanded upon in the intervening decades.
Surprisingly, none of the motivators are money. Research shows money can help us stay on boring tasks for longer, but actually decreases our intrinsic motivation and creativity on tasks that are interesting.
Money is a tasty carrot/stick to most of us, but it cannot buy moment-to-moment engagement.
Here are the three characteristics found in the work we can love.



#1 High task identity

Imagine building the same part — say an arm — and sending it down the conveyor belt for an unseen robot, day after day after day.
Now imagine designing and building that same robot, from scratch, with every aspect yours to personalise.
Which sounds more appealing?
Both make robots. The difference is task identity.
“The extent to which a job involves doing a complete from beginning to end with a visible outcome, as opposed to doing only a portion of the job.” — Business Dictionary
The first example has low task identity; the second, high task identity.
Unfortunately, many jobs have a task identity problem. Ground-level warehouse roles almost always look like the first example. In the office promotions tend to specialise us, until our experience is expert-level niche. While this is financially well-rewarded, it often robs us of the big picture.
Job specifications are designed for company productivity: to make robots fast. Not to make the robot yours. Unfortunately, this results in disengagement on an individual level.
Think of the story of the blind men and the elephant: if you’re only feeling along one part of the elephant, its tail, you’re not going to appreciate what it is as a whole being at all.
Designing a whole robot, you understand the process from trunk to tail. By seeing the process through from start-to-finish, you develop a sense of ownership for your work. Having sole responsibility and the creative direction is incredibly rewarding.
It feeds creative and attention-disordered minds by providing the freedom to vary and change between types of task often, knowing it all shares a purpose. (Using a variety of skills is also crucial to motivation, so keep the polymath efforts going!)
Some philosophers go so far as to say task identity is not only motivational but essential to a meaningful life. This sentiment is found in All Things ShiningThe book praises work which makes us engage all our senses, take ownership and see the world differently: such as craftsmen who grow intimately acquainted with the texture, properties, and strength of different kinds of wood from years of carving it. They talk about their work with reverence and love.
Here are some examples of work roles & side-hustle ventures with high task identity:
  • Running a publication as its editor
  • Crafting jewelry
  • Working for the same client/cause over time, eg. elderly in care homes
  • Designing an app
  • Managing an independent café
Responsibility, rather than something to be shunned, is incredibly beneficial and motivating when we are given a sense of psychological ownership and control over our own work.
Rule #1: Take on roles with high task identity, aka responsibility for one task from beginning to end. A pile of robot arms is meaningless; a working robot is a triumph.



#2 Direct & regular feedback

Imagine driving a car that only turns ten seconds after spinning the wheel.
Somewhere between frustrating and a literal car crash, right? Responsive feedback is important. This is true of a car, and true of a job.
Employees feel the most satisfied when they receive actionable feedback. We all benefit from finding out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong as soon as possible, so we can improve. Otherwise, we ingrain bad habits and neglect good ones.
Poor quality and delayed feedback, just like an absence of it, hamstrings your ability to learn from work.
Sometimes in a large organisation, this happens because outcomes are hidden from you on the ground. You may receive an overly critical manager who blames you for problems beyond your control; or not be told when a part you designed truly excelled and was complimented by buyers.
Other tasks let you see exactly what works and what doesn’t, straight away. On Medium, for example, the Statistics page provides us with plenty of data to see which stories readers are enjoying the most, and which ones we could rework or do better next time. This keeps writers coming back and experimenting.
We all benefit from responsive feedback in our jobs. It helps us excel, feel more comfortable in new positions, and feeds our desire for personal growth. Without feedback, we are at risk of stagnation.
Rule #2: Work somewhere you can be trained properly and receive fair and honest feedback. This means keeping an eye out for mentions of compulsory trainingshadowing, performance reviews, or supervision.
Trust your gut instinct about the company culture and interviewer. Do you trust them to tell you when you’re on course to crash, or just to scream at you afterward?



#3 High autonomy

We all need some level of routine and discipline to get a job done. Deadlines are motivational.
However, if company culture dictates you must use green pen only for this specific document just because that’s the way it’s always been done…it doesn’t feel great. It makes us feel frustrated, caged, and restless.
Being in a role where you have the freedom to i) make judgment calls and ii) accomplish things your own way is motivational. Adjusting to somebody else’s preferences that don’t change the work itself, is not.
Autonomy is work that isn’t micromanaged. You want a set goal; and then freedom over the specifics of how to accomplish your set goal.
Managers who are satisfied as long as the desired outcome is reached, rather than managers who dictate exactly how to reach it, are more popular with their team, retain their team for longer, and are more productive as a whole. In contrast, being micromanaged leads to stifle creativity and increased workplace stress.
Start-ups generally strive to retain the “low hierarchy” structure where equal contributions are valued, and people are trusted with independent tasks and roles. This becomes harder to maintain as a company blooms in size.
Remember, there are some situations where you may appreciate more hands-on management: such as starting a job in a completely different area of expertise for the first time, or starting out in a high-pressure and high-stakes role. As a general rule of thumb, however, higher autonomy in the workplace leads to greater job satisfaction.
Rule #3 Apply for roles where you have a level of independence that is comfortable for you. Think back over previous positions, and what level of autonomy you had and were comfortable with, to inform your future applications.
Eg. If you disliked corporate culture and bureaucracy in your old workplace, explore working for small local businesses and start-ups this time. If you were stressed out by that manager constantly looking over your shoulder, apply for roles with a manager on-call rather than in-office, or the option to work remotely.



To summarise

The Job Characteristics Model is a powerful framework from work psychology to examine how motivational a job is — and help us design better ones. The three traits of the most satisfying and motivational jobs are high task identitydirect feedback, and high autonomy. More of these makes you feel happier at work.
When applying for new roles, keep an eye out for hints of these three traits in the job specification, and see how they tally up. Also feel free to phone up for more details, and ask questions in the interview judiciously. It’s far better to find out if a role sits wrong with your instincts before you start than after the fact.
You want a healthy sense of responsibility, backed by supportive feedback and training, with the freedom to use your own brains and ingenuity to accomplish the set tasks.
It’s worth noting all three — task identity, feedback and autonomy — are inherent in side-hustles, where you take on a whole role from start-to-finish, receive constant feedback in how to improve directly from clients, and are free to do it how and whenever you like.
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
-Thomas Edison
2020 is one of the most confusing eras for new hires in our lifetime. I hope these three rules can help you find direction in the chaos.
Remember the checklist of motivational work:
hands holding hundred-dollar currency#1 It has a high task identity. You can take on responsibility for a whole task.
#2 It gives direct & regular feedback. You can learn how to improve.
#3 It has a high level of autonomy. You have options in how you approach the task.
Good luck, remember your worth, and keep striving forward.