The science of Motivation: Purpose

This is part five in a series on motivation. To recap the basic idea: rather than external motivations, what we actually need are internal motivations. This idea is from Dan Pink’s book Drive, and you can also watch an inspiring TED talk about it which I highly recommend. The three main ideas (which we are exploring in three parts) are Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

Let’s talk about Purpose and what it means for software engineers.

What Is My Purpose?

Purpose (noun) “The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.”

“What is my purpose” is a question that philosophers have thought about for thousands of years, so maybe this is a bigger question than can be tackled in a blog post! But let’s go ahead, join the philosophers, and give it some thought.

Do I Matter To My Software?

Your work has purpose if you feel like you have a reason to do what you do, if you feel like you are important to the success of the software and your work matters.True, nothing is more demoralizing than feeling like your work doesn’t matter. That’s why constantly shifting priorities resulting in throwing away work is a big destroyer of motivation in any company that develops software. In contrast, feeling like the software needs you, and by extension an ecosystem of other human beings (your customers) needs you, can be highly motivating. This can happen when a startup is counting on you, and even in a bigger company if you have critical skills, knowledge or experience.

Does My Software Matter To The World?

Beyond that, software itself can have a reason to exist and be serving a higher purpose. Maybe the domain is something that accomplishes a good cause or makes the world a better place. Of course everybody has different values and might see different things as “a good cause.” But the point is to discover what’s important to you and acknowledge that working on software in those domains would probably be very satisfying to you.


Purpose is just having a reason to do what you do. It’s almost a tautology to say that having a reason to do what you is motivating. But it’s important to search for and recognize work that you feel matters to you, and in a context where you feel you can make a difference.

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