Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Everyone works differently, in various spaces or times. But is motivation the same for all? (Photo Courtesy of Ellie Thompson)

Let’s face it: quarantine is hard. Isolation isn’t fun for anyone, and we all might claim to be bored. But what’s also true is that we may never have had this much free time before. For five weeks, time at home has been abundant. According to businesses and schools, motivation should be down as there are few tangible rewards. No grades for schools, working from home — there is no face to face stamp of approval when you accomplish something great. We should have no motivation, right? Dan Pink says otherwise.

Pink is the author of When and Drive, in addition to being an engaging and persuasive speaker. He spoke in a TedTalk in 2009, but the message is still extremely relevant today, especially during our “shelter in place” order. In his talk titled The Puzzle of Motivation, Pink claims, “There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business [or school] does.”  

He points out the “carrots-and-sticks” model of motivation in our schools and businesses. The model shows that rewards will increase motivation and productivity and punishments will decrease negative behaviors. The radical facts he presents flip this idea on its head. In issues involving “even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward [leads] to poorer performance.” But businesses and schools don’t reflect this.

Pink proposed three key concepts that should drive us to success: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Autonomy is the urge to direct our own lives; Mastery, the desire to get better at something that matters; Purpose is doing all things for the sake of something bigger than ourselves. Here is a glimpse into what that might look like for high school students, especially during quarantine.


Definition: self-directing freedom and especially moral independence. (Merriam-Webster)

This word is often used in talking about governments or countries, but it has a huge implication for individuals. In high school, autonomy looks very different than elsewhere. Because teachers instruct and plan your time, it can feel like there is no room for you to either pursue your own interests or find different ways to do schoolwork. 

Now, there is an abundance of time to discover your own interests. Lack of free time might be the biggest obstacle in the face of autonomy, but now you can push that aside as an excuse. The challenge is, are you taking advantage of your freedom? What are you trying to accomplish while you have the independence of working on your own time from your own home? Hopefully, you have done more than just elevate your screen time. 

The biggest problem for high schoolers in the area of autonomy might be time to accomplish your interests, but now that issue is off the table. You have the freedom to do anything solely because you like it. Are you motivated?


Definition: possession or display of great skill or technique. (Merriam-Webster)

Mastery can apply to almost anything: a school subject, a hobby, writing, art, gardening, technology coding, literature, fitness. You name it, you can master it.

Mastery doesn’t come naturally. That’s why I believe autonomy is the first step. If you control your schedule, you can make time to do the research necessary, to practice, and to truly master something. In school, often we are not mastering what we are learning. That’s why you cram study the night before a test or race through your homework. And a week later, a month, a semester, you don’t know the material anymore. 

How many things are we capable of actually mastering? I don’t want to propose the notion that doing a lot of things at once is inherently bad. Rather, I think it is usually unproductive. While the internet has provided unlimited resources to study anything under the moon, it has also created a system where it is all too easy to dabble in a hundred subjects and master none. What are you going to take the time to learn and master?


Definition: the reason for which something exists or is done. (

In his TedTalk, Pink describes purpose as “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.” Purpose may be the hardest concept to grasp, especially now. Most of the time, you would say your purpose is in the “carrots-and-sticks” mentality. You work hard for the reward, for the grade, for the bonus. In high school, your hard work is often for that good grade or to please your teacher/classmates. You will ultimately find no purpose in that measure of success, and it shows now. Without teachers looking over your shoulder, what are you working for, if you’re still working at all?

Purpose is hard to find. Beyond material things, what do you fight for that shapes what you learn and do? Why are you working if there is no reward? We should work hard because we desire to be smarter, to work towards a complete education in order to help others. 

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. These should drive us to become better versions of ourselves and to learn new things. This kind of motivation is wholesome, untainted by the rewards society offers. We need to start striving to make a difference, and it starts with motivation.

Pink closed with the following: “the secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, but the unseen intrinsic drive… the drive to do things because they matter.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.