Autonomy is different from independence

Autonomy… is different from independence. It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice – which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others. And while the idea of independence has national and political reverberations, autonomy appears to be a human concept rather than a western one. Researchers have found a link between autonomy and overall well-being not only in North America and Wester Europe, but also in Russia, Turkey and South Korea. Even in high-poverty non-Wester locales like Bangladesh, social scientists have found that autonomy is something that people seek and that improves their lives.

Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, p. 90

I’ve written about the Dan Pink’s research into motivation twice before: once to highlight the idea of intrinsic motivation and once to discuss the importance of having a purpose.

A few months ago, I finally got around to reading Drive. The idea that stuck with this time was the importance of autonomy in ensuring people are motivated. Not surprisingly, people are not very motivated when they feel that they’re working on something they have no control over.

What really struck me, though, is the distinction between autonomy and independence: that having autonomy is not the same as working entirely on your own. I’ve certainly found that I work better with other people than on my own. It’s not just me, at Pixar managed collaboration is prized over genius design and Steven Johnson has written about how breakthroughs often come about through the collision of different ideas.

What has also occurred to me is that the distinction between interdependent autonomy and independence is very much at the heart of the distinction that Lewis Hyde makes between civic republicanism and commercial republicanism. The more I think about it, the more I’m firmly convinced that I am a civic republican. It’s a model that provides better exposure to other ideas and helps people learn the habit of compromise.