In Daniel Pink’s 2009 book Drive, the question of what exactly motivates us to work our best, to care about a project beyond our material enrichment, and to unlock our creative potential is explored in the same way that Pink explores any topic: brilliantly.
In Drive, Pink sets out to burst our common sense illusions about what motivates a human being, and he draws upon some of the greatest findings in psycology that have really changed the way that businesses are run–or, at least, those businesses that are up to snuff with the zeitgiest of the age.
Pink begins by noting that, as biological creatures, we have an innate sense of drives that we cannot ignore: hunger, thirst, sexual urges, and the need for a base level of security, among other things. This he calls “Motivation 1.0.”
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, however, a new set of motivations kicked in. Pink calls this “Carrots and Sticks” motivation, or “Motivation 2.0.” A factory needs human bodies, but they don’t necessarily have to be skilled human bodies. You just plug yourself into an existing algorithm–an assembly line, for example–and play your part. Your motivation is higher wages, and you avoid punishment by doing what you’re told–thus you chase the carrot and you run from the sticks.
“At the core of this new and improved operating system,” says Pink, “was a revised and more accurate assumption: Humans are more than the sum of our biologial urges. That first drive still mattered…but it didn’t fully account for who we are. We also had a second drive–to seek reward and avoid punishment more broadly. And it was from this insight that a new operating system…arose.”
In the Modern Age, up until relatively recently, these two sets of motivation ran a lot of our social systems. Factory jobs were pretty good work to get in 1950s America. You could live a middle class life, so long as you played the game.
But in the last few decades, and especially during the Inernet explosion of the early 2000s, a new kind of motivation has emerged, thanks to both technology and a relatively affluent populace.
In motivations 1.0 and 2.0, the objects of desire, the objects of motivation, were extrinsic. You want the money; you want the carrot (or steak, for that matter). But Pink tells the story of a new, intrinsic motivator coming onto the scene. And the best illustration of this motivator in action is: Wikipedia.
On October 31, 2009, tech giant Microsoft finally ended its massive, labor-intensive encyclopedia. And I bet only a few of my readers will guess its name–or have even heard of it.
Microsoft paid writers to put pen to paper (er…fingers to keyboards, rather) and write thousands of articles. It had to have paid a fortune for such an undertaking. Encarta was massive, consisting of over 60,000 articles and lots of multimedia features. When it first came out in 1993, the sales price was 400 dollars. Encarta was the best of the best.
So, why did it end, if it was so good?
By 2009, there was a new kid on the block, and this new kid is emblematic of the age we live in: Wikipedia. Wikipedia is by far the most popular encyclopedia used today, worldwide. Its free, it consists of many internal links that you can get lost in for hours, and its even become a verb (“I’ll just Wikipedia it”), which is a sign that something is here to stay.
But the most emblematic feature of Wikipedia is that its open-sourced. No one gets paid to write those articles. Why did they do it, and why were they more successful than paid professionals managed by a top-level company?
And it’s not just Wikipedia. New business models are beginning to crop up in the first world, and these include not only non-profits but also various models that mix profit with social benefit and philanthropy. Tom’s Shoes is one example, but Pink offers several in his book.
To see how these businesses are thriving, we have to understand motivation in a different way: “to fully understand human economic behavior, we have to come to terms with an idea at odds with Motivation 2.0.” Further, Pink writes “…intrinsic motivation is of great importance for all economic activities. It is inconceivable that people are motivated solely or even mainly by external incentives.” Motivation 3.0, as Pink calls it, is about understanding how intrinsic rewards work for human beings, and the bulk of the book is dedicated to bringing the answer to light.
Economists, Pink writes, divide “what we do on the job or learn in school into two categories: ‘algorithmic’ and ‘heuristic.’ An algorithmic task is one in which you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion. That is, there’s an algorithm for solving it. A heuristic task is the opposite. Precisely because no algorithm exists for it, you have to experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution.”
Now, factory work, which was perfect for the ole’ Sticks and Carrots model of motivation, is algorithmic. You just do as you’re told; rarely, if ever, do you employ some creativity to a problem, because the solution has already been mapped out for you. You’re a cog in a giant machine.
But the factory model is old hat now for most Americans. In fact, one estimate has it that 70 percent of work in the US is now heuristic-based, and only 30 percent is algorithmic. A lot of this economic change has to do with the fact that much of the algorithmic-based work can be mostly outsourced, often on the cheap.
In fact, Pink reports that “America alone now has more than 18 million of what the U.S. Census Bureau calls ‘non-employer businesses’—businesses without any paid employees. Since people in these businesses don’t have any underlings, they don’t have anybody to manage or motivate. But since they don’t have bosses themselves, there’s nobody to manage or motivate them. They have to be self-directed.” Some of these are non-profits, but an increasing amount of them are freelancers, like editors, writers, graphic designers, A/V professionals, and the like.
What’s this have to do with Wikipedia? Well, writes Pink, “As organizations flatten, companies need people who are self-motivated. That forces many organizations to become more like open source projects.”
The Problem With Carrots and Sticks
Recall that Motivation 2.0 uses reward and punishment as the motivating factor. The assumption behind this mentality is pretty intuitive: “Rewarding an activity will get you more of it. Punishing an activity will get you less of it.”But a whole host of research, which Pink discusses more thoroughly than I will here, pokes holes in these old assumptions.
Of course, we are motivated by monetary reward; we all know this. We all need a baseline of incoming resources, and we will absolutely work harder to make sure that this “Baseline Reward” is met. These “Baseline Rewards” are those monetary motivations that you need just to stay afloat, and beyond that, to be happy. But after this baseline is achieved, more reward can actually become a detriment to the heuristic activity. “…once we’ve cleared the talbe, carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims. Mechanisms designed to increase motivation can dampen it.”
How on earth can this be the case? If you’re like me, you’d jump at the chance to get paid more money; few of us wouldn’t. So why would more money, after reaching our “Baseline Reward” needs, actually result in a drop in work performance?
Enter the “Sawyer Effect,” named after Mark Twain’s character, Tom Sawyer, who tricks his young friends into whitewashing a fence for him, while he enjoys their apples and lazes under a tree. The Sawyer Effect is the name given to the strange phenomon of turning a reward into a punishment, or a punishment into a reward. Says Pink, “…rewards can perform a weird sort of behavioral alchemy: they can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn work into play.”
And vice versa. If it becomes all about the money, or any other extrinsic motivation, it can harm creativity and heuristic activity.
Motivation 2.0 is called a “Contigent Reward;” “If you do this, then you’ll get that.” But notice that when you turn any task into a transaction, you end up making it into a chore. As Pink explains, “If-then rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy.” You no longer engage in an activity because you need it to survive, but if you’re primary motivation is simply financial reward, than you’re still extrinsically motivated. But it’s the ability to tap into an internal motivation that provides the real gas you need to steadily improve your performance and get progressively better at what you do.
Another way to see this problem is to recongnize that rewards actually narrow our focus. Pink cites a study, for example, which showed that commisioned artwork (that is, paid artwork) tended to actually narrow creativity. The science shows that goals assigned by someone else can narrow our focus, promote unethical behavior, and short term thinking. Unsurprisingly, cash rewards actually spike dopamine in the same way that drugs can–which means that you need more and more of the cash in order to reach the same level of motivation that you had originally. So although paying somebody more money up front may result in a short term boost in productivity, the effect soon wears off, and in fact acts as a de-motivator in many instances.
The heart of Motivation 3.0 is really in what’s called “Self-determination theory,” or “SDT.” SDT proponents claim that we have three innate psychological needs: “competence, autonomy, and relatedness;” “Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.” And, Pink writes, “The most successful people, the evidence shows, often aren’t directly pursuing conventional notions of success. They’re working hard and persisting through difficulties because of their internal desire to control their lives, learn about their world, and accomplish something that endures.” Pink breaks down SDT into three repurposed parts: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. These three elements make up Motivation 3.0.
It is autonomy that serves the most important function. Pink, quoting two leading experts on the psycology of autonomy: “Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice, whereas controlled motivation involves behaving with the experience of pressure and demand toward specific outcomes that comes from forces perceived to be external to the self.” Clearly, Motivation 2.0 acts to diminish autonomy, rather than to expand it.
Autonomy, as Pink sees it, has four aspects: : “what people do, when they do it, how they do it, and whom they do it with.” Pretty intuitive, of course. And many companies have begun experimenting with creating autonomy for workers in these areas.
The next part of STD is mastery, and there has been a lot of great research in this area within the last three or four decades. Pink defines mastery as “the desire to get better and better at something that matters.” I’ll be writing a bit more on mastry in future blog posts, but, briefly, I want to point out that the basic idea here is that human beings love taking something that they are innately good at–say, basketball–and increasing their skills over time, never reaching perfection, but moving ever closer to it by focusing on minute details and practicing over and over and over. This is called “Smart Practice”, which can be loosely defined as the deliberate, conscious practice of working on the minutia of technique, seeking critique, and doing the process all over again. The goal isn’t to gain praise or reach a desired end. Rather, the process itself is the reward. When human beings can find an area to master, it puts them in what has become known as the “flow” state, which itself has generated a lot of literature on the topic.
Autonomy and mastery are not enough, of course. They need to be fused to a higher purpose, which is the third part of STD. “The most deeply motivated people—not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied—hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.” Those companies, those individuals, and those societies which can find a greater purpose for all their striving, can outperform those companies that do not. And, as I’ll be writing about in my upcoming book, “Rescuing Your Future: A Manual For Those Who Feel Left Behind,” having a higher purpose is absolutely essential for forming goals; your purpose is like the Pole Star which aligns all of your other activities. It keeps you committed, on track, and ensures that your goals are less likely to conflict with one another.
More than that, and I’ll end this blog on this final note: serving a greater purpose, like the cause of humanity or the environment, is absolutely healthy for you. We seek connectivity, and we seek to be a part of something greater than ourselves. Many a fool has been lured into some political or religious cause because of this need in the human heart. Instead, we must try to fill it with something beneficial. If you have a company or a skillset, I hope you’ll find a greater purpose for it. That makes the world better–but as I hope you’ve learned, it can also make you better.