October 16th, 2020

As a Canadian, I have always been confused at my countrymen’s obsession with US politics. This past election cycle, I found myself glued to news articles pertaining to American Government, mindlessly scrolling r/politics, and listening to countless hours of political commentary. A couple highlights really stood out to me though – Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang’s sessions on the Joe Rogan Experience. Both of them brought forth some of their concerns not just about America, but society as a whole – we celebrate the wrong successes and sweep important failures under the rug. They spoke about the heralded growth of American economy and global influence, and Yang specifically spoke about how the 21st century economy is detrimental to our society. In an age where more jobs and livelihoods are getting automated away, it is clear that solely looking at the growth of our economy is not a good measure of human success. Andrew and Bernie both share a common passion for the wellbeing of humanity. They have differing ideas on how society should achieve that, but their focused energy really got me thinking:

“How do we bring people up to achieve their fullest potential?”

On a macro level, a lot of political talk tries to answer that question. We discuss concepts like equality of opportunity, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, and social safety nets. I became more interested about this question on a micro level though. As individuals, we each have very different subsets of goals, dreams, and ambitions in life. I wanted to explore what exactly drives people to chase that, starting with myself within the tech industry.

Over the fall reading week, I sat down with my parents to watch Coach Carter, a movie first introduced to me in my grade 9 gym class. I remember being absolutely floored by the scene when young Timo Cruz gets up in front of Coach Carter to recite the famous lines from Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It's not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Timo Cruz’s character personified the sad reality of inner-city youth at the time – as a young Hispanic male in Richmond California, he was more likely to go to prison than to graduate high school. Coach Carter saved Timo from a life of gang violence and despair. Carter showed him hope, grit, and the determination to see his own potential. Where others saw stubbornness and bad attitude, Carter saw perseverance and strong will. Ultimately, that strong mentor was what elevated Timo and helped him rise above his environment.

I took a moment to look back on my own mentors – how did leaders in my life transform those around them? In business, we often bring up the McKinsey pillars of change: Role modeling, fostering understanding and conviction, developing talent and skills, and reinforcing with formal mechanisms. If these four pillars are achieved, an individual manages to change their mindset and/or behaviour. The more I thought about this, more I started to wonder. How do we develop the motivation to do this? This framework seems to set the external environment properly for an individual, but ultimately the individual still has to find the motivation to transform themselves. So, what are people motivated by in the first place? We define motivation to take on one of two forms – extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic factors could be money, fame, or clout while intrinsic ones are factors that align with your personal values or just sheer hedonistic pleasure. In an ideal society, everyone would be able to achieve intrinsic motivation in everything they do – that’s true individual freedom. From a career standpoint, every person instead looks for the perfect balance of extrinsic and intrinsic. Sure, I want to be able to feel good about my job, but I still have bills to pay and a salary cut hurts more than that job feels good.

I was talking to one of my best friends about this concept, and she really helped me expand my thinking. Society values intrinsic motivation because of its innate power and longer-lasting effects when compared to the extrinsic kind. Employers recognize this – interviews and application processes in many competitive industries are designed not just to find team fit, but highly motivated individuals. We found that it was more prevalent in tech than anywhere else. Pull up any SWE job posting and I can guarantee that you will find some variation of the following: “We’re looking for a passionate individual who wants to change the world with our revolutionary disruptive technology XYZ”. When it comes time for the interview, a hopeful candidate must convince the hiring manager that they are not just there for the salary – they are PASSIONATE about your mission. Maybe I am taking a nihilistic view here, but I swear the corporate world has this disingenuous vibe all the time. My best friend reached a pretty sad conclusion:

Ambition is but a descendant of greed

So, if moving up in the corporate ladder is fueled by ambition, how do we unlock their potential here? We want someone to be able to “create their best work” and walk away feeling proud of what they do. Ultimately, I think we as a society need to work towards a more human perspective in general. Each individual has something that makes them tick, and they just need to right pressure in the right places to activate that. I am not sure if I have reached that myself, but it is honestly the most exciting part in the journey of life. If you have the audacity to believe in your own potential, surely the world has something in store for you.