The Five Reasons People Do Things

“Grade school, high school, university…black hole…” – Peter’s Friends

I was born a gifted child which meant that every time I showed the slightest bit of interest in anything, or ability in anything, I was expected to turn into Mozart. This led me to become absolutely terrified of liking anything or being good at anything. This is, surprise surprise, a sub-optimal way to go through life, but I avoided dealing with this issue through the miracle of education, where you just do what you’re told for twelve or fifteen years or so. Eventually, of course, school ran out, and I found my options afterwards were things I hated so badly I wanted to hack my legs off with a chainsaw if that would somehow stop them from being my options.

Part of that was also that I was also depressed so didn’t like doing anything, but I became more and more depressed the more I found literally everything I was expected to do as an adult was literally agony. In order to try and stop my life from being a hellish nightmare from end to end, I devoted everything I had to solving the puzzle of What The Hell Do I Do. This is, I think, an extremely non-trivial problem and getting skills to solve it is something we should teach in schools, not least because school is very much the antithesis of almost every job you will ever have.

The upshot of all of this is between the angst and suffering of a decade, I pumped a huge amount of time, money and effort into studying the science of motivation and job satisfaction, and that has served me well, even if the answer overall was not to do a job at all because of the aforementioned depression. I got a good lens to understand what motivates people, and it helped me understand myself and what I’m good and why I do things which is hugely important in making the decision you have to make every day of your life: should I do the thing? (And which thing, and how, and why should I do it) As an artist and a game designer, you run into this question constantly, and if you don’t have a guide for how to answer it, you will be in trouble.

The amazing Peter M Ball has blogged a few times about these kinds of decisions, and how you need to have a mountain, not a map – a goal you want to get your artistic career to, and to keep checking your decisions to see if they lead towards or away from the mountain. But the problem with the mountain on its own is mountains are deceptive as hell. One of the things I did first when I hit my after-school black hole was attempt to do a PhD, and it exploded spectacularly very quickly. At that point, I read a book which was designed to help you figure out if you should do a PhD and its very first point was to understand the difference between wanting to HAVE a PhD and wanting to do the work necessary to get one.

And this is where you have to be careful, because if you mess this up, you’ll be aiming for the wrong mountain for the wrong reasons. It’s a natural human thing. We see things we value and we see people doing those things and having those things and we think we want those things without understanding the life that comes with them. So when we think “oh I want to be an actor” we mean “we’d love to go to the Oscars and shove canapes down our bra” not “we want to get up at 5am every morning to run twelve miles so our waistline never exceeds Hollywood standards”. When people say they want to be a writer, they mean they want to have their name on the front of a real book in a real shop not sit up till 4am in their underwear crying about narrative structure. But on the other hand, some people are perfectly happy to do the latter to get the former. And that’s where the five reasons comes in.

Expensive and wide-spanning research apparently discovered there are five basic reasons why people do jobs. And here they are:

  1. Money. Plain old money. Which is about lifestyle. We will take a job to suit our desired lifestyle. This isn’t about whether you need to stay alive, it’s whether you’d change jobs if it meant work that didn’t meet the other five requirements but upgraded your lifestyle somehow.
  2. The Environment. The perks. This is a big bucket involving everything about doing the job except what you do and how much you get paid. This is for people who don’t care what they do if they can chat to their friends as they do it. It’s also for people who do a job because the whole town does it or their father did it, or because it’s out in the open air or by the sea side or up in a plane. It’s about the environment around the job.
  3. The Prestige. Prestige is not the same as fame. Fame is a lottery, prestige is something which is assured and bankable and has social capital. People who are on TV and such get this, but so do important folk like doctors and lawyers. Prestige can be a big pull for artists even if they can kick the drug of fame, it’s about being known as a craftsman in your field.
  4. The Meaning. This is about what the job does, how it effects the world. People who join the army rarely do it because they are super into jogging and making beds, they do it because there’s prestige, they like the environment or because they believe it makes a difference. A lot of the time people wonder how billionaires can sleep at night despite poisoning the environment. It’s because they have no interest in this entry whatsoever.
  5. The Task Itself. Weirdly, this one almost gets forgotten even though it’s the heart of the matter. This is the jogging, the bedmaking, the hiking, the sitting around on your butt in a desert that makes up being a soldier. Not something most soldiers talk about as being why they took the job. Because they don’t care much about this number on the list.

The key thing to remember here is that not everybody cares about the five points the same way. A lot of the time when we talk about jobs, we forget this. We tell people they might like a job because it’s a great opportunity for advancement (money, prestige) or maybe it’s changing the world (meaning). I first tried to do a PhD for the environment (I didn’t want to leave university) but I’m not an environment person at all. Then I tried doing medical science because I thought it might mean something if I was helping people but it turns out I’m #5. I have a busy busy mind and if I’m not 100% entirely engaged in what I do for every second, I am out of there. And boy does that matter.

And it matters not just for what job I do in general, but what parts of that job I do. It shapes entirely my mountain.

Example: when I got into freelance RPG writing, it was for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition, a game I adored. Then that game finished, and I thought “aha, I’ll pursue the life of being a freelance game writer”. The moment I tried working on other games, games I wasn’t 100% passionate about, I hated it. It was awful, and boring and painful, and I wasn’t great at it as a result. And I felt like a complete failure. I knew how to be a success at freelancing, it was to prove you could write anything, at short notice. And I couldn’t. I was very discouraged. But I’d been trying to get prestige – reputation as a good freelancer – and money. And I do not care about those things. So it was never going to work.

Today I was watching a video about making good prototypes of your card game. This is important because it gives a strong sense of success (prestige) which engages potential customers and potential investors (money). But what I saw was four hours of tedious repetitive labour gluing and cutting and that would make me very very unenthused. I’ve got enough emotional intelligence now that I could push through and do it if I listened to music but it bores me so much. As does endlessly playtesting the same games. I crave variety. I’d rather learn a new game every time then play an old one. So here my mind remembers: it’s about the task itself. Do I want to be a game designer? Because for me, that means figuring out what the task involves and figuring out if I can do that all day every day. If I can’t do that, then I cannot do the job.

For writing RPG setting material and rules expansions, the answer to that is yes. I love doing that. I do it without being paid. I do it reflexively – as long as I love the setting and the game. That means I can’t be a full time freelancer, because there’s almost never going to be a game around all the time that needs that much work. But it MIGHT mean I can design my own RPG. At least the world. I may need to outsource some of the playtesting. But that’s doable. I can build my career around my needs.

The point is, Peter is right that you need to have a mountain, but you need to know what kind of mountain it is. For some people, they want to make money making games, or make games that can change the world, or make games with their buddies. But for me, none of those are actually my mountain. My mountain is to enjoy every second of making games, and that means I can’t always make games that make money or change the world or work with my friends. Which means I do other things with my friends, and get money from elsewhere, and change the world elsewhere.

In my other job, I’m a dog sitter. Now I could do that self-employed. I might make more money, maybe build a business (prestige). But if I work for an agency, I never have to do a budget or order supplies or put out advertising or build a website or juggle clients. Every second of my job is interacting with dogs. That suits my #5 temperament perfectly. That means I don’t have a nice place to live or a car and I can’t afford to buy board games. But it also means I never have to file a goddamn invoice and that makes me ecstatic. And see how that leavens out two very different ways to do the job of “be a dog sitter”?

As artists, finding our mountains is harder than it is for regular people, and it’s almost impossible for them. This discovery has helped me a lot, and helps every single day. Maybe it’ll help you. I know I like writing blogs, and I like helping people.