Choice – Why jobs, school, and parents all suck

Posted on December 13, 2011


The title of this post if a little over the top, but I do think that choice, or lack there-of, is at the heart of many problems we face as individuals interacting within groups like work or school or family.

I read a lot about motivation. It usually relates to work (Drive & The Progress Principle), but it obviously fundamental to education as well. It’s also at play a lot in parenting because you want your child to be motivated to do things without a fight.

At the heart of motivation is something called autonomy.  It basically means self-governing, or ones ability to make ones own decisions.

You can basically boil autonomy down to choice. It’s more complicated than that, but it’s amazing how easy we’re all tricked in to thinking we’re acting autonomously when we’re really only choosing from a few available options.

Our environment is constantly putting constraints on us, reducing out autonomy, but we don’t have the desire to fight back. If you come to a wall you might be frustrated that there is a wall in your way, but you won’t feel any animosity toward that wall, it’s just part of the environment. If you come to a person that is actively blocking your way, or worse, pushing you back, then you’ll have a strong desire to fight that person. That person is making an active effort to prevent you from doing something. It’s even worse if they’re trying to force you to do something they want you to do. Given all available options you may have chosen to do the same thing, but because someone is forcing you to do it you don’t want to do it anymore.

The easiest way to get a child to do something is to tell them then can’t do it.

I think there are a lot of issues here. At the heart of them is the sense of control. Are you as a manager in control or are your employees? Are the inmates running the asylum? How can you be an effective manager or an effective teacher or an effective parent if you are not in control?

But we all know that the more someone tries to control us the more we want to fight back. The more someone forces us to do our homework the more our homework sucks.

So you have to figure that control may not be the best option. Or at least direct control. Again it’s amazing what happens when the environment is doing the controlling, allowing for autonomy within a given space. Once that happens then people tend to make the right decisions because they don’t feel manipulated, even though they are being manipulated by their environment.

This may sound conniving, but I don’t think it is. We do need rules and constraints and they’re around us at all times whether we like it or not. The design of products and laws and cities and work environments are all trying to accomplish this goal. A great product makes me feel like I can do what I want to do when I want to do it. It feels intuitive. The right work environment or classroom environment can feel the same way. It can help me make the right decision while still allowing me to feel like I arrived at that decision independently.

If we can create better environments and let go of active control, giving people autonomy to do what they want withing a given environment it’s amazing what can happen. The second we start forcing people to do what we want them to do on our schedule is the second that it all breaks down and everything starts to suck.