Can We Create a Future of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose?

I was reminded today of this Dan Pink talk which I love. It lays out what’s now the consensus view from behavioral economics/behavioral psychology on how to best manage people who do creative work during the day (increasingly known as ‘the employed’ as routine tasks are automated away). It got me thinking about the three motivators of human action, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. I know, in my own experience, that these are my strongest motivators. And, though we are transitioning to a jobless future, I wonder whether we can, positively, architect these qualities into the future world. So here’s a quick thought experiment about how these aspects of life might fare in the future. Please add your thoughts in the comments!

  • Autonomy

Without employment or tyrannical government, autonomy is the default. If you don’t have work, you don’t have a boss. So I see few short-term threats to autonomy. One can argue that mind hacks like advertising decrease autonomy, and perhaps that stuff gets better at manipulating us in the near term. Real mind-control might be possible in the long-term, and that’s truly frightening. One only hopes that the mindware anti-virus is good enough to keep up with the evolving threats.

  • Mastery

Getting good at things is a prime motivator of creative work. This is likely to continue in the future because, for example, no chess lovers gave up chess just because a computer can now beat them at it. People will continue to do new things like writing new software, and old things like woodworking and playing musical instruments, for fun long after the economic incentive is gone. The future seems full of opportunities for mastery.

  • Purpose

In the short term, it’s easier than ever to connect with a group of people who share a purpose and take collective action. Local and global concerns are tremendously more powerful than in the past as a result, and people have far more opportunities to collectivize than before. That said, many people especially here in the U.S. define their work — their employment — as the institution that provides that purpose. We are seeing many companies adopt a purpose-driven frame as a result, but we are also seeing fewer and fewer people working their whole lives at one company (or in some cases working ever again period). That’s a major source of purpose — work — that will be more scarce in the coming years. This is dangerous, because a purposeless generation or two could see reduced productivity or worse.

In the medium to long term, I see us replacing that source of purpose with our families, hobbies, faith, and cultural pursuits of altruism, science, and art. These are already valued in human culture. The only question is whether they can close the gap left by employment, and if so, how quickly.

So to conclude this little thought experiment, I am hopeful and positive that the abundant future will provide opportunities to be autonomous, challenged, and part of something larger than yourself, which I believe will motivate further creativity on the part of humans and our creations, but there are cultural and technical challenges that we must face along the way.

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