My Introduction to Self Determination Theory

Finals this spring were tough. I'm not talking about Snowmageddon or Coronavirus, neither of which helped. I'm talking about that nagging undercurrent of doubt, that riptide, telling me Electrical Engineering doesn't hold the solutions our world needs to move past our twin devils: one extraction & growth oriented economies, the other authoritarian politicians (& the badgered body politic).

This doubt, the cognitive dissonance between my moral compass and my daily development, has been crushing me. Coming from the medical and disaster relief sectors, I see my peers' tunnel vision on making good grades just to make good money as an chronically inflamed foreign body.

That said, the GPA pressure in our major is real. Even someone coming in with stated higher ideals is likely to fall to its pressure. We have to get 70's or we are held back a year, and you can't help anyone if you are so floundering. Unfortunately, gearing myself towards the extrinsic goal of making good grades -- grades seemingly dealt out arbitrarily and capriciously -- led me to procrastinate, sleep poorly, stress eat, smoke excessively: burnout.

So at the start of this dead week, I was not burying my nose in a textbook (stressing). I was following a rabbit hole from "long term gratification" to "intrinsic motivation" to "Self Determination Theory" (SDT). What I found did not surprise me but reaffirmed what I'd let drift away.

Self Determination Theory

SDT is fundamentally concerned with human motivation, and categorizes people as having one of three "Causality Orientations": Autonomous, Controlled, or Impersonal. A Causality Orientation rolls up whether has intrinsic or extrinsic goals, loci of control, attribution of responsibility, etc.

Starting from the bottom, the Impersonal orientation leads to anxious or apathetic. Impersonal orients believe most outcomes are beyond their control, in the hands of luck or fate. They self-sabotage due to anxiety and fickle motivation, preferring their world to remain static and unchallenging.

The Controlled orientation is, unfortunately, where I would peg many of my peers. I too fell into this trap. Controlled orients respond to extrinsic rewards, gains, and approval: wealth, good grades, fame and fortune, social status. They may be more attuned to the demands of others than their own true desires. These external goals may be internalized, bringing the Controlled orientation closer to the Autonomous, but with imported intrinsic goals -- converting an acolyte.

The Autonomous orientation is where the Flow Butterfly state is attained. When you pursue the intrinsic value of learning or an experience over the external rewards, believe success is attainable through grit and strategy rather than randomly or predeterminely meted out, and base your actions on your own integrated self over outside expectations you are pursuing autonomy. The Autonomous orientation is further broken down into satisfying our intrinsic needs for Competance (displaying mastery), Relatedness (connecting with caring others), and Autonomy itself (to be the prime agent in your life; taking new, radical, and unprecedented action; to create).

The Autonomous Student

It's dead week. I'm even more behind on my engineering studies and starting to panic. But, wait, that psychology detour served a purpose. I came to school to learn. I picked a rigorous STEM major to challenge myself. I want to master the subjects to apply them in new and unprecedented ways. We cannot engineer or technofix ourselves out of this crisis, but we can create new forms of life with technology to accelerate. That is my motivation. If I don't pass this class, that just means my skills are undeveloped -- I'm punching above my weight; another year of remedial instruction is not just what I deserve, it's what I need.

So instead of focusing on drill problems or old midterms -- "teaching myself for the test" -- I went back to the basics. Worked through dozens of guided examples in finding the voltage gain of MOSFET amplifiers. I needed a guide, because I was already so behind in comprehension from obsessing over those damn grades.

You know what? I was able to study far longer, more effectively, than when I was oriented towards (controlled by) grades. Focusing on my comprehension and autonomous goals helped my confidence, inner peace, and yes -- performance on the final. Passed by the skin of my teeth.

There is a lot more to self-determination theory that I plan to integrate into my life on my quest for mastery. I am also looking at the lower levels of our hierachy of needs, for instance safety and physiological needs. Society acts like these needs have been done away with in the developed world, but for many people (including me in a past life) that's not true; and even when they are met, it may be dissonantly or inadequately.

I am trying to reorient the way I meet my physical and physiological needs towards an autonomous mindset, and to remember that these basic building blocks might not be fun or pleasurable all the time -- they're not meant to me. Hedonistic motivations, even though they well from within, are really an injected want. They do not satisfy our internal needs.

That's all I can really say for now, but I am still developing my good habits and intrinsic mindset. By codifying and automating (making routine, not making robotic) intrinsic ways to meet physical and physiological needs, we free up focus to meet intrinsic, self-determined needs for love/belonging, esteem, and mastery.