Three and a half months ago I graduated college with a B.A. in psychology. I was 29 before I finished my degree, knowing damn well what happens when you finish your bachelor’s in psych. You either go to grad school, find a job in an insurance agency cubicle, settle into management, go entrepreneur, or work for Chik-fil-A. Unless you’re a one percenter, getting your masters or doctorate is going to bury you deep in the debt hole. So what do you do?
Well, no one can answer that but you. I’ve struggled to answer this very question for what seems like my entire life. At three months into the job search I’d been rejected by 70 different jobs, and yes, I kept count. Around this same time, I hit a brick wall. I’d feel awful some days, riddled with anxiety and the stress of finding the right job. Other days I’d feel motivated, like a young and emphatic Tony Robbins talking to a crowd full of drooling self-help enthusiasts.
The process of searching for a job can be downright dreadful. I went to a panel interview a couple months ago where they ripped apart my entire portfolio for an hour and a half. Now, as easy as that may have been for them to do, it sucked being on the opposite side of the table. When the interview ended, I sat in my car and just stared at the steering wheel. “At what point do I start to let it get to me?” I wondered, “When do my intrinsic motivations stop being so…intrinsic?”
The Job Motivation Research
A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology looked at the role motivation played in 149 people’s job searches. They collected a total of 691 surveys across 5 weeks, measuring a bunch of different variables. What starts to make this study unique though, is it didn’t look at motivation as a static property. It went further. Pulling from the well-established Self-Determination Theory (SDT), the research team took a close look at the interplay between a couple dueling types of motivation: autonomous and controlled.
Think of autonomous motivation as your intrinsic motivation, and controlled motivation as more of your extrinsic motivations. If you’re looking at jobs that line up with your core values, are congruent with what you find enjoyable, or you’re seeing the job hunt as fun endeavor, you’re running on autonomous motivation. On the other hand, if you’re taking to the job hunt because you know your parents and friends will bitch at you if you don’t, you just need to pay your bills, or maybe shave off some of that accumulating student loan debt, you’re using controlled motivation. You experience both motivations at different intensities throughout the job search, and we now have a working model of just what that looks like.
So What Did They Find?
Autonomous motivation decreased until mid-way through the job search, when it plateaued. Contrarily, controlled motivation held relatively stable throughout the process. If you go into the job search with high controlled motivation, it may not be the best starting strategy. However, once the hunt progresses, it turns around and becomes a major motivating factor. As your intrinsic drive fades and societal pressures pile up, it’s actually this extrinsic motivation that eventually helps you land that job. This is the first time research has provided evidence of changing motivations throughout the job searching process. It really gives us a great look into how time can change our perspective and motivation throughout life.
Moods, feelings, word definitions, concepts, whatever…they’re never stable. When you start your job search, it may be fun. Exploring the careers out there and envisioning yourself working in different roles won’t ever leave you bored. As things move along though, you start to see the real world knocking on your mental door. You peer out the peep hole, you see your controlled motivation at your doorstep, and it’s getting less patient. As the rapping gets louder, your nerves tense until the door finally flies open and you get thwarted out into your picket-fenced yard wearing a pantsuit and carrying a briefcase like a good young lad, because we all know you can’t eat your pudding if you haven’t had your meat (that’s a Pink Floyd reference).
Wrapping it up
At four months into my job search, I finally landed a writing gig other than this’n (I do this on my free time because I love psychology). I saw my controlled motivation walk up the stoop to my place, but that was a good thing, right? My job search was pretty standard. Starting with huge aspirations, I struggled through months of rejection and disappointment until extrinsic fear finally set in and made things work.
Most of SDT talks about the detrimental effects of controlled motivation, but this study shows how that actually changes over time. I truly hope your search isn’t as painful and discouraging as mine, and that you come away unscathed from the crushing feeling of seeing your autonomous motivation rapidly fading. If things go more like they have for most of us though, don’t spend your time staring at your steering wheel after a bad interview. It’ll get ya nowhere. Instead, learn to embrace the pressure that comes your way. It just may be the thing that ends up getting you hired.