Really Useful Engine

Jonathan Clements

MY DAYS ARE CONSUMED with a hodgepodge of activities—writing books, speeches, radio interviews, my newsletter, blogging and more. What ties all these activities together? More than anything, I want to be part of the conversation.

When I first entered the work world more than three decades ago, I imagined that—once my finances allowed—I would happily retire to a rural area and retreat from worldly hassles. But now that I can afford to retire, I’ve come to realize it’s the last thing I want: The quiet, unproductive life would likely keep me happy for 72 hours before boredom and restlessness set in.

What’s the alternative? As we age, the satisfaction from external rewards—the promotions, pay raises, bigger homes, faster cars—tends to fade. We care less about what our bosses and our neighbors think. Instead, we become more motivated by work that we think is important and that we’re passionate about. These activities can be the cornerstone of a midlife career change and a more fulfilling retirement.

Being “intrinsically motivated” is often viewed as far more admirable than being motivated by external rewards: We’re undertaking tasks not because somebody is dangling carrots or threatening us with sticks, but because we think they’re truly worthwhile.

Yet internal and external motivation can’t be separated quite so cleanly. Very few of us would happily spend our days creating art that others would never see, doing good deeds that others would never know about, writing books that others would never read or cultivating gardens that others would never enjoy. We want to do good work—but we also want the validation of others.

There’s no shame in that. Like Thomas the Tank Engine, it’s okay to want to be a “really useful engine.” But it’s also a slippery slope. If our goal becomes not usefulness, but fame or even immortality, we can hardly claim to be intrinsically motivated—and our desire for applause is arguably no worthier than that of the corporate climber who hungers for the next promotion.

As I like to remind people, there have been 43 U.S. presidents (but 44 presidencies, if you count Grover Cleveland twice). No doubt all thought they had achieved some measure of immortality. But today, you would be hard pressed to find many folks who can name all 43 presidents, let alone tell you much about each. If immortality is proving elusive for U.S. presidents, there isn’t much hope for the rest of us.

The bottom line: There’s some satisfaction to be found in the adulation of others. But it’s fleeting at best. Instead, sustained happiness lies in doing meaningful work day after day, week after week, no matter how loud the applause is.

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