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Staying Motivated in Open Source

04 Dec 2011

Open source blindsided business by disrupting the idea that quality work must be tied to monetary compensation. Yet, despite this abundance of intrinsic motivation, developers still frequently get burned out. By understanding what provides for this motivation we can work to maintain both code and motivation.

A crucial component of any endeavour is to have purpose and open source is no different. Unlike many other endeavours, goals in open source can have far reaching implications on total strangers. You should take advantage of the motivation that being held publicly accountable can provide but also be respectful and properly set expectations for myself and others.

For example, with fog I had the goal of making cloud computing more accessible to all developers. On the other hand, with prototypes my goal is simply to learn (so use stuff there at your own risk). These projects have quite different goals, and I hope by being explicit I can meet my goals negatively impacting others.

Being a part of something larger than myself may have drawn me to open source initially, but learning is what keeps me coming back. Open source gives me an opportunity to practice and polish my skills on a huge range of things. I improve through my participation, which allows me to have an even greater impact.

Purpose and mastery are worthwhile goals but I know that neither matters to me when I feel out of control. In an earlier, more totalitarian part of my career, I would frequently flee to the arms of open source for the autonomy that it provided. Work is more rewarding when you have the choice to do it, as well as the freedom to decide how and with whom it will be done.

Open source provides a unique opportunity for the trifecta of purpose, mastery and autonomy. By recognizing the power of these factors, we can keep ourselves motivated and continue to increase our impact. By sharing goals and mentoring contributors while giving them room to do things their own way, open source leaders can avoid burning out and foster community.

I would love to answer any questions you might have and hear about your experiences in maintaining motivation. You can also read more in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which helped me to solidify many of these ideas.