For the last few weeks, my colleagues and I have talked extensively about employee motivation and a particular book that details this discussion, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. One of those colleagues actually beat me to the punch on part of this blog, but as we’ve talked as a group, one area that I keep coming back to was the hypothesis that many people are driven intrinsically by the “brain candy” they derive from their daily job.

Such a phenomenon occurs with IT start ups. Brain “food” is often more critical to the people who work for such companies than the potential for stock options and even personal wealth creation. Late night and long hours are not filled with dread, rather the opportunity to work on something exciting and to contribute to a grander vision. Employees are energized by the work. Galvanized to push on regardless of any short term sacrifices and often, loyal to the core. Google is frequently used as an example of such an environment (though maybe not as much, recently, if you read some of the exit reports of departed employees).  Not uncommonly, most start ups skew towards a more twenty something demographic.  This youthful workforce, often fueled by Red Bull and Starbucks during long hours, invests emotionally in what they’re building which motivates them to push on. But what happens to that passion or motivation as personal goals become more important for our career? And what about the change that occurs once you hit your mid 30’s?

My personal caveat to the theory presented in Drive is that it’s age sensitive, especially as you hit your mid 30’s.  This is the stage of your career where most people hit their stride. Whether that’s in a big company, a non profit, an artistic endeavor or even as a small business owner/entrepreneur, by the time most of us reach this critical inflection point in life, we have a decent understanding of our career path. And those that don’t feel fulfilled, they start to evaluate other new opportunities. At that stage, another thing occurs: the rewarding elements of your life begin to diversify. Family relationships, marriage, children, financial stability, long term opportunity, etc. become equally or more important that the pure excitement of conquering the world at your company.

I’m not doubting the theory presented in Drive at all. And it’s definitely not a theory specific in that book.  However, what interests me is the way this changes depending what career stage you’re in and other personal items influence your career choices.  Not because the people are substantially different, but in many cases, because people progressed to a new life stage and the brain candy just doesn’t fill them up.