Contributor, Competitor, Craftsman: A Commentary On Motivation And Vocation

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Contributor, Competitor, Craftsman: A Commentary On Motivation And Vocation by Brince Wilford, Covenant Capital Management

Clients and prospective clients often ask about our personal motivations for the ‘work we do’.  I have been asked… why we chose this line of work, what our goals are, and if I want my children to work in this industry.

Relative to the time and effort we put into our careers, it seems that we spend relatively little time thinking about the nature of work, what we believe about work, and how those beliefs impact our lives – both individually and collectively as an economy.

When it comes to motive, I believe that there are three primary archetypes… the Contributor, the Competitor, and the Craftsman. These archetypes are not mutually exclusive and people are often led by one archetype in their professional vocation while other archetypes influence the work they direct toward family, recreation, and philanthropy. Each of these archetypes is, in my view, healthy and essential to what we collectively accomplish as a society.

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The Contributor.  Contributors are dedicated to a cause, and they view their career as an opportunity to contribute to something ‘bigger than themselves’. Their motivations are aligned with those of their organization and they identify personally with the success or failure of their company, cause, or campaign. Academics, law enforcement, politics, healthcare, and not-for-profit organizations tend to attract higher numbers of Contributors.

The Contributor sees his career and his world-view as inexorably linked. He rightfully feels that his work matters, not only to himself, but to society and to the unfolding of human history. To the Contributor, this is more satisfying and motivating than the promise of wealth or power.

Most everyone has a degree of Contributor within them, even if it is not their dominant archetype. In the days following World War II, British poet and essayist Dorothy Sayers recounted the following: “The reason why men often find themselves happy and satisfied in the army is that for the first time in their lives they found themselves doing something, not for the pay, which is miserable, but for the sake of getting the important thing done”.[i]

The Competitor. Rather than viewing the work itself as an end unto itself, the Competitor views work as a catalyst to personal achievement. Oftentimes this ‘personal achievement’ is measured in wealth, fame, power, or lifestyle – and sometimes it’s measured in more altruistic ways, such as providing for one’s family or philanthropy. The Competitor may be extremely passionate about his career or he may detest it. But he tends be motivated by how well it compensates him rather than whether or not he believes the work is worthwhile. And this is not a bad thing, it is actually good thing. A great societal benefit from Competitors is that they are an efficient distribution mechanism for skill and talent.  Their willingness to devote themselves to a career that rewards them materially enables a society to fill the roles that it most needs or requires. This is especially true in “free-market” societies. A society that demands more cardiologists or computer programmers can draw in Competitors gifted in science to fill those roles by offering increased incentives.

This is not to imply that Competitors are selfish. In my experience Competitors are most often very generous excellent team members. Most of all, the Competitor is – as one would expect – competitive. He will measure himself against his peers rather than against himself or his craft. Motivation is more external than internal and the target of his effort will always be achievement rather than the work itself. The only drawback to the Competitor’s well-being tends to be restlessness, as in the words of Maya Angelou, “Achievement brings its own anticlimax.”

The Craftsman. For the Craftsman there is no work, no cause, no money. The Craftsman’s primary objective is the work itself. Work is not something he does, it is something he pursues. The craftsmen among us often rack up thousands of hours of dedicated practice to their craft before they reach adulthood. Imagine if every moment you have ever spent watching television and surfing the internet had been refining a single skill. This is the craftsman’s path.

Gifted craftsmen can emerge from obscurity and reshape the world around them. Almost 300 years ago, somewhere in central Europe, an unknown craftsman created the first clock from simple gears and wire springs. At that moment mankind captured the ability to measure the elusive dimension of time, and that changed everything. People living in towns with clocks could efficiently coordinate their lives and commerce. Armies that had clocks coordinated their maneuvers to defeat their enemies, and ships at sea used clocks to accurately navigate using the sun and stars. Today, using the same technology, these devices mark virtually every aspect of our daily lives. Try going a whole day without looking at a clock. A craftsman did that.

In 1998 scientist Craig Venter announced that he would sequence the entire human genome in just three years and for only $300 million — 12 years and $2 billion less than a federally funded project established to do the same thing. Instead of relying on the standard methods, Venter invented a method he called “shotgun sequencing”. Three years later he announced the completion of the human genome sequence, as promised. Today, Venter’s technique is the de facto standard, and genome sequencing is accomplished in just two hours at a cost of $1000. A craftsman did that.

Summary. We are all unique and there is a blend of each archetype in each one of us. And as all good work is noble, all forms of motivation for such work are also noble. Each is essential to societal balance, growth, and advancement. French philosopher Luc Ferry expresses it this way, “….it (work) becomes an arena for self-realization, a means not only of educating oneself but also of fulfillment… Work becomes the defining activity … His aim to create himself by remaking the world….[ii]

-Brince Wilford

[i] Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?” in Creed or Chaos (Harcourt, Brace, 1949). 51.

[ii] Luc Ferry, Brief History of Thought, 122.


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