Thursday Thought: Dan Pink on Autonomy & 21st Century Business

Ice Climbing at Frankenstein
It was cold, brutally cold. The kind of cold that one only seems to find in the depth of February in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. And it was only exacerbated by the fact that we were ice climbing, which means standing in the cold for hours on end with your hands above your head.

My twelve year old body was trying hard to generate some heat at the belay station atop pitch 1 of Standard Route, and my father helped with cups of hot chocolate from our little plastic Thermos. I was cold, I was tired, I hated it…but really I loved it. Every frozen, painful, fearful moment of it.

I loved it because our guide and friend, Nick Yardley, allowed me to. He allowed me to because he made it fun. And, he made it fun not by slinging jokes or doing cartwheels on the ice, but rather by allowing me to be a climber, not a client; by not micro-managing my every move, but to figure it out based on what I already new. Nick made the suffering fun by giving me autonomy, by allowing me to make my own decisions on the ice (assuming I wasn't endangering myself or others), and thereby allowing me to take deep pride in the climb and in the process and eventual outcome.

As a guide today, I try to approach every outing with clients with the same perspective as Nick did years back: to give my clients autonomy (within reason and the bounds of safety), to allow them to figure out the problem at hand, to apply their skills and knowledge creatively and take pride in the process and the outcome. I try to focus on what Nick said to me in 1986:

I guess I will have done my job when you don't hire me anymore…when you no longer need me…when you've got the skills and confidence to climb by yourself. If I tell you what and how and when and why to do everything, you'll never be able to do any of it without me. 

Autonomy. A simple concept, tough to embrace and implement. I know this more than ever as my wife and I try to effectively rear our 2 year old daughter, Lila, helping her learn the skills necessary to live a confident, creative, caring, and compassionate life.  

Author and speaker Dan Pink has some great thoughts on motivation and autonomy. He speaks a great deal about how the old paradigm of fostering productivity by applying financial incentives simply does not work as well as we think it does. As he says: "There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does…"

Rather, he argues, we foster productivity and creativity by encouraging autonomy, mastery, and purpose. What do these fluffy words mean? He describes them as "the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses" and, I would argue, our lives:

  • autonomy – the urge to direct our own lives
  • mastery – the desire to get better and better at something that matters
  • purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

In other words, people need to feel connected to, involved in, their work in order to be successful and productive at it. They need to feel like they are a true part of it, rather than simply another cog in a big piece of machinery. And, they need to feel validated in being creative, in finding solutions to problems both current and future.

So, for today's Thursday Thought, rather than transcribe Pink's thoughts into this blog, I want to share some of his thoughts on video. I think, while very different, they echo those thoughts of Nick Yardley many years ago. They echo my approach to guiding and teaching. They echo what my wife and I are trying to foster in our children. And, most importantly, they speak to a new way to look at business, at life, at our world.

First, a short bit from PBS's News Hour on "What Drives Motivation in the Modern Workplace":

And, second, Pink speaking at TEDGlobal 2009:

You can learn a lot more about Dan Pink on his website, or follow him on Twitter.

Jake Norton is

an Everest climber,
guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from


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