Don’t trade your autonomy for stability

Posted 04 October 2023
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By Henry Oliver
Guest Author
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In 2011, Eric Yuan pitched the idea of adding video to telephone conferencing systems.

But his employer wasn’t interested. Yuan was frustrated by this. It wasn’t a casual idea. This was something he’d been working on for a while. And Yuan had spent time talking to customers. He understood what they wanted, and what they weren’t getting. 

Yuan knew he had an opportunity—but his employer was Cisco, a large corporation where you couldn’t work on something like this without permission. Yuan was Vice-President of Engineering, having joined through an acquisition of the startup where he’d been working on collaboration software. Cisco had whittled away Yuan’s freedom. Now they rejected his proposal for video-teleconferencing  because they were more interested in developing corporate social media. 

So Yuan quit. 

He had thought about leaving Cisco several times before, always held back by his connection to his colleagues.

“You work together with so many other teammates,” he said, “it is really hard to leave.”

What tipped him over the edge was seeing dissatisfied customers. Videoconferencing was a crowded market, but customers didn’t love the products. 

Yuan’s idea was to make a simple, highly reliable, easy to use video-conferencing system. He couldn’t do that at Cisco. He had gone from startup hacker to big business manager— and traded his autonomy into the bargain. 

Yuan is a hugely motivated person. He left China in his twenties because he saw the potential of the internet. He spent eighteen months applying for a US visa, making nine attempts. He learned English while working in America. But if he had stayed at Cisco, it would have crushed his motivation. He told CNBC,

“Every day, when I woke up, I was not very happy. I even did not want to go to the office to work.” 

He had strong internal motivation. But working at a large company meant he was exposed to the wrong sort of external motivation.

According to Cognitive Evaluation Theory, there are two sorts of external events that affect motivation: control and information. Control gives you rewards for following the rules. Information gives you feedback on your performance. Control tells you how you ought to behave. Information tells you what you can do to improve, without the pressure of control. Control sets the direction or expectation about what you should achieve; information gives you feedback about your competence. Control tells you what lane to swim in; information tells you how to improve your stroke. Control diminishes motivation: information improves it. 

According to the business school professors Therese Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, when people are able to make autonomous progress in their work, they are not only happier—they are more productive. Amabile and Kramer found that when managers use too much control and not enough information, they crush their employees’ motivation.

Yuan had the information about what customers wanted. It was critical, yet motivating. But Cisco’s control was demotivating. 

To make Zoom, Yuan needed to get his autonomy back.

Two paths for talented people

Plenty of people have ideas like Yuan. Plenty of them have motivation. But plenty of them get stuck inside a corporation—and they don’t quit. 

Imagine instead if those people could start their careers as business founders. 

Too many people choose a safe career when they leave university. They join large corporations, institutions, or organisations that offer stability, career development, and well-structured opportunity. Those careers can be rewarding but they are often seen as the default, the only smart choice. But when you leave university, you have two paths. You can choose something like consulting where you will have lots of well-defined career paths. Or you can do something less certain—like joining a startup, or founding one. 

Lots of people feel the pull of the second path, but take the first. People who could be developing new companies and new ideas are instead drawn into something more ordinary. 

They would be better off starting their careers by founding a company rather than joining one. Talented people thrive with autonomy and large institutions often restrict them. 

Working for consultancies and large firms can be a useful way to develop skills and experience that will help you become autonomous later. But the people who take that route don’t often come back. (Yuan quitting was the exception, not the rule.) They tell you they’ll do it for ten years, they’ll do it until they have enough money to quit or follow their dream. Then they get stuck. They give up their autonomy for stability.

And without autonomy, you are limited about what you can work on. You get a good salary, good prospects, and all the other benefits of a traditional career, but you don’t get the chance to see your ideas become reality.

Talent needs autonomy

This drive for autonomy is true across all sorts of disciplines. Try to imagine scientific breakthroughs, business innovation, or social improvement without people who are willing to be self-directed. When internal and external motivation are well-matched, talent can flourish. 

Autonomy is a sign of talent in multiple places. It’s why entrepreneurs are more likely than salaried workers to have engaged in illicit activity as a teenager. It’s why young research scientists who narrowly miss out on funding applications early in their careers often outperform those who did get funding over the following fifteen years. And it’s why when capable school students are allowed to miss some classes and undertake self-directed study, they perform better on exams.

It’s not that entrepreneurs are natural rule-breakers. Rather, like many sorts of creative people, they want self-direction. They aren’t going to take the world at face value. They have to figure it out for themselves. Failure improves those scientists’ prospects because it gives them an increased dose of drive and perseverance. Once the system has rejected you, you are emboldened to be more autonomous. More freedom doesn’t mean capable students bunk off school: it gives them room to focus on their work. 

A large recent study of artists’, film directors’, and scientists’ careers found that before they start a hot-streak of high-impact work, they take influences from a wide range of sources, which they then use to produce their breakthrough. They don’t work on the most popular topic they find or their most recent discovery. They choose what they are most interested in, where they see the most potential. Self-directed discovery is what sets-up the hot streak. 

In short, what Paul Graham says about coders could be generalised about talented people. “Good hackers insist on control. This is part of what makes them good hackers: when something’s broken, they need to fix it.” 

Talented people need the autonomy to follow their motivation: that’s how they get their best work done.

Yuan saw something broken, but Cisco wouldn’t let him fix it. How many other people are sitting on ideas inside big organisations — people who didn’t manage to leave?

This is what doesn’t get considered when people are choosing their careers. The ideas you won’t be able to implement once you are stuck inside the machine. The motivation you will lose from too much control. The autonomy you won’t experience.

Choosing a new path

So, to do the most interesting, impactful work you can do, you need to find something that gives you autonomy. Something motivating. If you end up inside a big organisation, you will often find that trying to get your idea put into practice is demotivating. You can’t just focus. You have to go through process and procedure, stakeholder management, and committees. Conventional career success often means trading your autonomy for their control. Bureaucracy is everywhere and waiting for its chance. 

Choosing to be a founder first—to start your own business without first going off and spending a decade or longer in large institutions—avoids this problem.

Most of us, though, are educated in a system that discourages that sort of risk taking. Schools do not value the personality traits of creative people. One small study found said, “Even teachers who say they value creativity may actually find creative characteristics undesirable.” This paragraph is especially striking:

… schools tend to make students risk averse; not only does the classroom culture discourage intellectual risk taking, but students also lack knowledge of how or when to take sensible risks. Thus, it comes as no surprise that teachers have historically taken a less than positive view of classroom behaviors associated with creativity.

Creativity is often seen as disruptive. Not everyone agrees that school kills creativity—but it seems clear there is a difficult balance to be kept between conformity and autonomy for creativity to thrive.

It’s not just schools. Academic careers in science come with motivation-killing levels of control. Tenure, publishing requirements, and review criteria make it hard for academics to do original work. More broadly, there is a “pivot penalty” in science, which puts institutional barriers in the way of scientists working outside their narrow fields. That might sound sensible in theory but it caused major problems in early 2020 when scientists in various fields tried to pivot to covid research.

We trust scientists less and less to be self-directed and this damages our ability to respond to critical events.

This is a stark contrast to entrepreneurship where the ability to experiment and pivot—under suspenseful conditions—is essential to success. To find a good strategy, a business must explore their options, pivot to the best ones, and do so without knowing what will work in advance. Obviously, you need luck, but you need the autonomy to pivot.

That’s exactly what Yuan couldn’t get at Cisco. And it’s what people choosing conventional careers won’t get today.

We aren’t educated to choose the path of autonomy instead of security—but talented people will thrive like that. If you wait until you’re stuck inside a corporation to pursue autonomy, you’ll have to keep the difficult balance of conformity and independence. Eventually, to work on your idea, you’ll have to leave, like Eric Yuan, mid-career, mid-life. After a decade or more of corporate life, this will feel like digging a tunnel with a spoon. 

Remember, Yuan felt miserable. And he had to work out all the aspects of quitting a good job while raising a family. It takes a big psychological effort to pivot like this. 

Yuan was trapped and he had to get out. Start your company now, before you get trapped. 

Henry is a writer, with a book about late blooming talent coming out next year. His Substack, The Common Reader, focusses on biography, literature, philosophy, and talent. In 2022 he was awarded an Emergent Ventures grant.