What Survives

Daniel Pink’s book Drive brought out the missionary in me. I hadn’t gotten through the introduction and I was already quoting it to my wife. Drive is about what motivates people to do what they do, and the introduction begins with a story of an experiment conducted on monkeys years ago. The monkeys had to solve a simple puzzle, and what the test discovered, to the scientists’ confusion and amazement, was the monkeys solved the puzzle without any reward whatsoever being offered. No food, no affection—nothing. What’s more, when food was offered as a reward, the monkeys did worse.

I knew I wanted to interview Daniel as soon as I read this. Why did the monkeys solve the puzzle if doing so didn’t bring them food, shelter, or affection? Apparently because solving the puzzle pleased them. And apparently this need—this intrinsic need, as Pink describes it—is as strong if not stronger than all those survival-based needs. Pink goes on to show how humans, to the contrary of all the motivational thought of the last few centuries, are far more motivated by an intrinsic need for progress and pleasure than the rewards of money and fame or the threat of punishment.

How revolutionary. And yet it is. There is a comfort in the simplistic carrot and stick approach to motivation. If people are at base animals trying to survive, then in the end the best way to get them to do what we want them to do is to appeal to their need for safety or their fear of harm.

But if you’ve ever tried to write a book, you know the carrot and stick not only don’t apply, they don’t even exist. No one will punish you for not writing a book they haven’t asked to read, and if it’s money you’re after, writing is probably not the quickest means to that end. Yet you have to love writing to write a book, and once you have discovered something you love to do, you would just about rather crawl into a ditch and die than have that thing taken from you.

Survival is a fear-based, ersatz motivation. In fact, it is not even motivation; it is merely racing away from death. True motivation moves us toward something. Not moving toward what you love is a death all its own, though fortunately a death from which you can be resurrected with something as simple as a choice.

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