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Interesting TED Talk on Motivation

Posted Mar 15 2010 2:39pm
The teacher of our PD workshop mentioned this talk in class the other day, and I watched it yesterday morning. The speaker is Dan Pink , and the topic is "The Surprising Science of Motivation." You can watch, too, if you want



I remember discussing this in grad school over ten years ago. I remember discussing motivation ideas with my bosses, and with my employees. I remember participating in motivation programs so I could get bonuses. With my children, as you probably are aware, we do not use motivation programs (reward systems).

There's lots I'd love to discuss and simply don't have the time right this second. So I'll just make a couple of quick points about the video.

First, I really liked what Dan Pink had to say, but he is clearly not an Objectivist, and there are several philosophical issues that he touches on about which I'd disagree (mainly, he's pro-altruism, and he used to be a speech writer for Al Gore, so we clearly disagree about much). So keep in mind I'm not in 100% agreement with everything he says.

Nor have I evaluated the studies for myself--at least recently. I got out of grad school 10 years ago, and left my last "real job" 9 years ago, so that's about the last time I've thought about the issue of motivation in business, outside of reading Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn, who cites some of those studies in his book. I wish I had the time to sit down and read some of these studies (has anyone compiled them? Maybe Pink has.) and hope one day to do just that.

One thought that came to mind as I watched the video was: "Yeah, you say reward systems don't really work unless they are focused on easy, repetitive tasks. Maybe the problem isn't reward systems as such, but they way in which the reward system is designed. Maybe the problem is really building better reward systems."

Then I remembered trying to design incentive programs for my employees. It was really really hard because you had to motivate them to do X while maintaining a certain level of Y (time, quality, etc.) and not accidentally provide them an incentive to do Z. (Z = Those "unintended consequences" that our politicians are so notorious for accidentally encouraging.) Extremely difficult, not to mention time- and resource-consuming. And then we'd have to change it up after a little while because the system stopped being motivating for the employees.

Then I thought about the time I got desperate and tried to reward Ryan for using the potty . Sigh. One problem with extrinsic motivation is that the person on the outside who is thinking up these programs must constantly monitor and adjust the reward system to "catch" a Z before it happens, or make sure that the level of Y is met, and redirect people back toward X. It's a lot of work as a manager and a lot of work as a Mommy. Easier for me (speaking as Mommy here) to set a limit, ensure compliance with the limit, and then I'm off the hook for having to come up with tweaks to the reward system. (I have to monitor anyway, of course.)

Mr. Pink is talking about businesses, managers and employees. But much of what he says can apply to children as well. At about 13:22 in the video, Mr. Pink says (my transcription)

"Traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance. But if you want engagement, self-direction works better."


The same statement can apply to parenting as well. If you consider that the child's "job" is to grow up, and when he's grown that he will possess certain life skills (like knowing how to do laundry and reading), and hopefully good morality (including virtues such as honesty and productiveness) and will know how to use his mind to think rationally and solve problems, then parenting strategies that focus on getting the child to obey and encourage him to look ever outward for his sense of accomplishment and self-worth--toward a gold star or a smiling parent or a "Good Boy!"--can unintentionally create a tendency toward second-handedness , a dependence on others.

Freedom and non-interference can help kids develop their Intrinsic Motivation Muscles (to adapt a phrase from PD), in much the same way as Google's 20% Time (mentioned in the video) has resulted in amazing developments for that company. And indeed, my personal parenting premises are centered around providing my kids with as much freedom and non-interference as I possibly can.

And I'm sure you know this, but I feel compelled to state this, lest I'm misunderstood. I'm not suggesting a free-for-all anything-goes lifestyle for children. I think permissive parenting harms kids (and parents, and the relationship between kids and parents), too. Children are not adults, and we parents must always be ready and willing to step in to set and enforce reasonable and rational limits. And that must happen sometimes--it is part of the parenting deal.

Also, the issue of motivation in a parent-child relationship has different challenges than in a business environment. Parents hold considerable influence over their children, who are still developing their brains (not fully rational), and are completely dependent on their parents. As my friend Kelly pointed out yesterday (and in lots of conversations we've had on this topic, 'cause she's so smart), in a business situation, the employee is free to leave if they don't like the terms of employment; a child is not (except in very rare cases). Sure, the decision to leave might be difficult for that employee, and it may not be something he especially wants to do (sometimes choosing between two enormous values is hard!), but he CAN leave. He knows this, and so do his bosses.

Children have no such option, which is why I still view the parent-child relationship as more akin to a government-citizen relationship than a business-employee relationship. I'm free to leave and take jobs, and yes, I am free to decide not to pay my taxes. But I don't think employers are going to throw me in jail for quitting a job when they didn't want me to quit; the government has real power over me to restrict and remove my freedoms.

Parents have a similar kind of power over their children. I can restrict and remove my kids' freedom to act. I have done this, and will continue to do this as I see it is necessary. But I am not the government, and their happiness is tied up with mine--meaning, I want my children to grow up and become happy adults. That would make ME very happy, as it makes me happy when anyone I care about deeply is happy.

For happiness, I think they need rationality and to use the virtues in order to achieve that happiness. I also think that they need practice at doing this while they are growing up, to try things out and make mistakes in an environment of loving support. They can't practice, not really, if I entice them with rewards or make them fear a punishment for making a mistake. And if I keep their focus on external motivators, they will not get to strengthen their Intrinsic Motivation Muscles.

Okay, so I really had a lot more to say than I thought I did. Surprise, surprise! Anyway, interesting stuff, motivation. And kind of tricky, too. Lots of food for thought there.
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