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Self-determination triangle: A map for a good life

What do you need to have a good life?

Ondrej Markus
Ondrej Markus
6 min read
Self-determination triangle: A map for a good life

I'm on a hunt for frameworks that explain how life works.

  • What drives our actions and decisions?
  • What motivates us to do what we do?
  • What do we need and why?

I study them to better understand myself, improve my life, and enable others to design better lives for themselves.

And the best framework I found so far is the Self-determination theory (SDT). It's a motivation theory heavily backed by scientific evidence and it seems to be valid in all cultures.

SDT says that beyond our physical needs for food or shelter, we have 3 main psychological needs we strive to fulfill:

  • Autonomy - You need to feel in control of your life. It doesn't mean you're independent of others but that you can freely choose what you want to do based on your values. You don't feel trapped by unbreakable bad habits or other people. You can change your life however you want.
  • Relatedness - You need to feel like you belong. You are connected and care for the others in your life. But you also feel cared for by them. You don't feel isolated or lonely but as being part of something more than yourself.
  • Competence - You need to feel able to get things done. You are learning new things, feel productive, and strive for excellence. You don't feel like you're beneath others, but that you are capable of whatever you set out to achieve.

Now, where does the triangle come from? The original SDT theory doesn't use a triangle to represent itself. This is something I experiment with to expand on its ideas.

The point of the triangle is to visualize what connects the needs together. These relationships between them can be things, skills, or other variables that join them into one piece.

For example, what connects Autonomy and Relatedness? Communication. My relationship with others is shaped by the ability to communicate, understand, and influence each other.

What connects Autonomy and Competence? Learning. It's the ability to get better at whatever you aspire to do and change the world because of this.

This is very much a work in progress. I'm not trying to develop a new scientific theory here, I'm trying to better understand my life and help others do the same thing. So take the inaccuracies of these models as a feature, not a bug. Inaccuracy is a core part of their DNA.

Frameworks are useful despite being inaccurate

Why look for frameworks to understand life?

To me, frameworks have the same function as maps. Nobody expects maps to be 100 % accurate representations of reality, but we use them anyway. Why?

Because they are useful precisely because they are not the reality. Maps are simplified images of reality. It takes real exploring and experience to figure out what is going on in real life. You can't solve your life by looking at a map.

Maps are useful because they are simplified versions of reality.
Maps are useful because they are simplified versions of reality.

However, the benefits of maps and frameworks are obviously real. You can't draw your life on a piece of paper and carry it with you in your pocket. That's what maps are good for. So it's fine that frameworks are simplified. That's what makes them useful for planning.

Look at your life through the SDT lens

SDT is my favorite framework because it helps me to look at my life and understand what is going on.

Whenever I feel something is wrong, it helps me figure out where exactly are the sources of dissatisfaction, understand their causes, and decide what I should do to fix them. (I mostly do this when writing my Morning Pages.)

Let's make a shallow dive into my life as an example so you know what I mean by this.

Autonomy - Do I feel in control of my life?

I feel pretty good on the autonomy front. My life runs on a couple of well-functioning routines for getting my work done. I feel productive and that's very important for my daily well-being (a little too much to be honest).

Me judging myself based on the work I do.
Me judging myself based on the work I do.

I'm a kind of entrepreneur slash writer slash designer who doesn't do almost any design at the moment because I'm focusing on writing without getting paid for it. But I teach an innovation design course at a university that partly pays my bills.

So the biggest itch I feel these days is that I sacrifice a lot of potential income to do what I do. Mostly because I'm spoiled by doing entrepreneurial things for the last 6+ years and I probably couldn't do a "normal job" even if I wanted.

Anyway, I have enough money saved to invest time and energy into learning and building something I enjoy rather than trading my time for more money I don't really need. I'm okay with that for now. (Of course, I don't have a family to take care of.)

That said, this doesn't mean my brain doesn't freak out on me from time to time because it lacks the security money offers. I had this talk with myself many times, and I know I can't let it go beyond a certain limit or money becomes a problem. That's the one thing I need to watch.

All things considered, I feel in control. I'd say 8/10 overall.

Relatedness - Do I feel like I belong?

This is probably the weakest of these needs for me at the moment, but I already have a plan.

Even though my personal relationships are going great, what's lacking is a feeling of belonging in my work-life – primarily in my writing world. It's another symptom of being a solopreneur-writer-kind-of-dude who mostly works alone.

I'm working on improving this right now by being more active on Twitter to connect with like-minded writers and other creators. It's really stretching my comfort zone because I'm otherwise social media abstinent. But I see some results already.

We'll see how it works out in a couple of weeks. I'd give 6.5/10 here with 7 lurking behind a corner.

Competence - Do I feel able to get things done?

I'm a learning junkie. I never specialized in anything for longer than a year. I'm a generalist who likes to learn new things and, once I feel good enough, I move on to some new challenge.

Luckily, I found that writing scratches the right itches in this area. It's a meta-skill for cultivating other skills. Other than being very hard but worthwhile to master, it also works as a medium in which I can think and learn – a combination of reflecting and teaching others by explaining my ideas in public. Bingo.

So as a rookie writer, I feel very challenged and learning fast. It's more about where I'm heading than where I am right now. Just yesterday I committed to writing 100 articles in 100 workdays to kickstart my learning even more.

Anyway, this checkbox feels checked off at the moment, even though I'm not very useful as a writer to others right now because I'm invisible to the world. This sucks a bit. But that's something else I will soon start to work on (I'll have to) to feel helpful. This is 9/10 because of the intensity of learning I experience.

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This was just a brief example that didn't mention most of what is going on in my life, obviously. But you can, hopefully, see what I mean by looking at your life through the SDT lens.

Doing this helps me realize what I need to work on next. Right now it's my feeling of (not) belonging in my work-life, so I try to connect with other writers and creators.

Enjoy the chase of your needs

We mostly feel what we lack. So even after you get whatever you don't have right now, something else is going to stand out as missing. It's a never-ending process. And you'll save yourself a lot of pain if you make accept that. I'm trying to.

All of us are chasing the feeling of harmony and peace – that everything is alright and we are where we are supposed to be. The feeling that we are at home.

But this feeling is more of a choice you can make rather than some future place you'll arrive to. Being dissatisfied is in our nature. It's what keeps us going. We need the expectation of better days to come. And that's fine.

The best thing I know of is to learn to enjoy the process of constantly chasing improvement. That's the fun part. The game we're all playing.

So don't be mad if everything isn't 100 % perfect. You'd be bored out of your mind if it was for more than a day. Everyone needs something to strive for. Everyone needs something to look forward to.

Enjoy the chase.

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Ondrej Markus

I help creators design a system for work, so they can finish the right things while enjoying the process.