Motivation, it’s what we need in all our learning and development as human beings. But how are humans motivated? What drives them? This is the topic of Daniel H. Pink’s book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.’ This insightful book looks into the research behind what motivates humans and then seeks to show how this can help us in understanding our own motivations. The book also provides examples of people who have sought to apply this knowledge in new ways.
Pink uses the analogy of an operating system to explain why earlier understandings of human motivation are insufficient for life in the 21st century. The human understanding of motivation is needing an upgrade. Outlining the history of humans, Pink points out that our initial motivation was simply one of survival. He calls this ‘Motivation 1.0’. Eventually, we became aware of the use of incentives (carrots and sticks) to influence motivation. Pink calls this ‘Motivation 2.0’. For our upgrade to ‘Motivation 3.0’ we need to come to understand “the three elements of true motivation — autonomy, mastery, and purpose”. Or said another way, we have a “deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”
I can wholeheartedly agree that this is indeed the message that comes up repeatedly from the research and I have also found it to be true in my own life as well as from my observation of others. However, in this article, I want to focus on and discuss the applications of these principles that Pink mentions.
His book mainly seeks to apply motivational principles to businesses and gives a number of examples including the company ‘Atlassian’. Atlassian was the first company to implement ‘20% time’. This is specially allocated time making up to 20% of an employee’s total work time when employees are free of any obligations and can simply tinker on whatever side project they want to. This can be taken either daily, weekly or monthly. Google also adopted this and it led to innovations such as Gmail.
The thought behind ‘20% time’ is that as humans we are the most creative when we have autonomy and are working on things that directly interest us. Not surprisingly, these times showed some great results for companies who have tried this. Although as mentioned in an Atlassian blog post, “Far and away, the biggest problem was scheduling time for 20% work. As one person put it, “Getting 20% time is incredibly difficult amongst all the pressure to deliver new features and bug fixes.””
Other efforts at giving employees more autonomy and purpose to their work include initiatives such as FedEx days, where employees have a chance to work on anything they want for 24 hours and deliver it overnight (hence the name). Another one is a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). This is a human resource management strategy wherein employees are paid for results (output) rather than the number of hours worked.
I have also seen these types of autonomy initiatives in my time as a schoolteacher. For example, children have a wider variety of subject choices that they can choose. There is also a greater focus on doing project work rather than strict, ‘sit down and memorise’ tasks. Children may also have greater choice in the books they read and study. There are numerous other examples too.
The issue is this;
There is a large difference between giving people ‘more freedom’ and people being truly free.
Because at the end of the day an employee still has to work first and foremost for the good of the company rather than themselves. The freedom that is given by a company is given for the express purpose of increasing the output of work for the company. (Note: Being employed is a voluntary arrangement, unlike schooling and taxation that I also discuss in this article, but more on that later.)
Similarly in schools, more freedom is given only to the extent that the schools still maintain control of the person they are trying to mould and create for society.
All of this is not actually new. History shows we have understood this for a long time. Humanity has now been on a long trajectory of exchanging overt control to more covert methods of control.
Back in 18th century Prussia during the advent of compulsory schooling, similar ideas regarding motivation were also coming to the fore with the rise of the Pietist religious movement. James Van Horn Melton in writing about pietism and the educational reformer Hermann Francke in his book ‘Absolutism and the eighteenth-century origins of compulsory schooling in Prussia and Austria’ notes;
“Pietist pedagogy, like Pietist theology, blended devotional inwardness with an emphasis on the individual’s social obligation. One of the most important of these duties was the obedience to authority… Francke held that mere outward obedience, like outward piety, was insufficient. The subject of a lord or a ruler had to obey voluntarily and from inner conviction, even in the face of an unjust master or ruler… Francke reminded the pupils of the Halle orphanage that “genuine obedience is not merely outward, but comes from deep within the soul. It is not rendered out of coercion but with a willing heart.””
Francke himself was also very much for restraint when it came to corporal punishment and beseeched his teaching candidates to “strive to be a father, not a disciplinarian.” So even back then they knew very well that overt methods of control didn’t work so well.
The aim of the schooling system was to create an obedient population. Obedient to the church authorities as well as governmental authorities. But in order to create this obedience, citizens were essentially offered the freedom that comes from access to literacy in exchange for being subject to indoctrination.
Getting back to the economic sphere, another major change during this time were the agrarian reforms. At the start of the 18th century, most peasants were still obligated to work directly for their lords. Lords often had the power to ask peasants to work the lord’s fields and depending on the lord this could be anywhere from a few weeks a year, to six days a week. Being a land-leasing peasant was hard and this certainly incentivised the rise of landless labourers who had no landholdings.
After a number of uprisings, the issue of agrarian reform became an urgent political issue. Melton notes; “For proponents of agrarian reform, the most insidious aspect of the labour services was their coercive character. Reformers believed it self-evident that peasants who laboured freely, for themselves, were more productive than those whose labour was coerced by and for others.”
An example of the thoughts being discussed during this time includes an anonymous pamphlet from 1775 which states that peasants rendering labour services displayed “an almost bestial indifference to God and religion, a coldness towards their lords bordering on hate, and a stupid insensitivity to all morality. Neither disgrace nor honor can move their bitter hearts. They manage their households carelessly, perform their work resentfully and reluctantly, and are lazy and disloyal, all because they know that they work not for themselves, but their masters.”
And this is a major reason as to why we have the system of taxation today. Taxes are far less overt than forcing people to do manual labour. Giving people the impression that they are working for themselves is far more likely to increase motivation. Combine this with schooling; a process of indoctrination aimed at obedience to authority and you can well understand the reasons why freedom was “increased” during this time. I say “increased” in quotation marks because the reality is that this was not done in the name of giving people more freedom but was actually done to increase control.
Getting back to the situation today, we can see that this trend of giving people ‘more freedom’ though not full freedom is continuing. In this sense, I do have some optimism. The truth is that governments and schools are actually too incompetent to maintain this control fully. In giving people more freedom the old phrase “give an inch and they’ll take a mile” comes to mind. The world is slowly moving towards greater freedom, “slowly” being the keyword.
So what does this all mean in terms of ending the game of ‘giving freedom in order to control’? I think we certainly need to let go of the involuntary systems of compulsory schooling and government. As for our employer-employee type system? I’m questioning this too. Even though it is a voluntary arrangement and so I have no moral qualms about it, the tension between freedom and control still exists. As was noted earlier, in a work environment our human desire to play and tinker with those things we have a deep interest in eventually clashes with e.g. “the pressure to deliver new features and bug fixes.” for the interests of the company.
Daniel Pink further notes in his book, ‘Drive’, that while incentives and rewards can work to some extent in regards to repetitive and uncreative tasks, when we are doing creative tasks we need the three elements of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to truly be successful. This is why I tend to favour moving towards a ‘free-agent’ way of doing work. Incidentally, even though I had already outlined what I was going to write in this article, I discovered that Daniel Pink has actually written a book called “Free Agent Nation” which explores this concept. I am certainly looking forward to reading this as it may seem we have more in common than I first thought.
So in summary, while I do see some value eventually coming from schools, governments and employers giving ‘more freedom’, I still want to be very clear that ultimately I do not accept the game of ‘giving freedom in order to control’. And anyway, freedom should not be something that is reluctantly given to us. The truth is, that we should be born as free and autonomous human beings. Free to pursue mastery of our interests and free to live in a way that gives meaning and purpose to our lives. Only then will our real motivational drives really kick in. May we all learn to become free agents in this world.