It is widely accepted that motivation to do work goes beyond just the paycheck. People don’t work just to get paid, we want to feel challenged, have independence in our work. We want to get good at stuff worth getting good at, serve a purpose larger than us.
Unfortunately, that’s not the reality.
The dreaded nine to five is commonly used to describe the absolute minimum number of hours people have to work a week before they can get the hell out of the office. A 2013 Gallup Poll revealed that around ~90% of Americans either actively hate their jobs or go through their workday mindlessly on autopilot. That’s ninety percent of adults who spend half their lives doing something they don’t want to do.
Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore, conducted an experiment to study motivation in a group of nursery school children. The children were given time to draw, and Schwartz then awarded some children with a special marker. The next time they were instructed to draw, those awarded with the markers were less likely to draw at all, and drew worse pictures, than those who were not given awards. Children draw because drawing is fun, but introducing a reward took away from that internal fun – it transformed an activity that wasn’t instrumental to an activity that was.
This idea of intrinsic and instrumental activities is interesting. Consider why a painter paints: to produce beautiful art AND to make a living. However, there is an intricate connection between producing beautiful art and painting – the only way to make beautiful art is by painting. Painting and making money, on the other hand, have an instrumental relationship. There are many other ways to make a living, not just through painting.
Isn’t this counterintuitive? Wouldn’t giving people two reasons, rather than one, be more motivating for people? You can draw because it’s fun and there is a reward for outstanding students! You can paint because you can make beautiful paintings and you can make money! You can take this course because it’s interesting, and you can fulfill requirements! Don’t more rewards motivate you to do these activities? No, in fact, the very notion of separating “work” and “play” perpetuates the instrumentalization of activities that we might enjoy. So many people feel miserable about their work because they are making connections between intrinsically and extrinsically related things. There is only one way to make beautiful paintings, and that is by painting.
Classes are fun, they are play. Grading classes turns them into work. The importance of play is that when you are playing, consequences do not matter. Turning something into work (grading) inevitably brings up those consequences. (I need this GPA to get into med school, etc.) In turn, the rewards (higher income, social status, school rankings) shifts the intrinsic fun that came from learning into an instrumental one. (I should start taking easier classes to boost my GPA), do things that I might not like to achieve a goal. When there is a misaligned connection between intrinsically and extrinsically related activities, people will subject themselves to unpleasant forms of activity of anything but play to achieve that thing.
Let us look at a another example of this happening in the real world. A daycare was having issues with parents coming to pick up their kids too late, so it imposes a fine on parents who come late. They thought that this would give a new reason for parents to pick up their children on time:
Reason 1) Parents have a sense of responsibility for staff and children
(New) Reason 2) They won’t have to pay the fine.
The result? Lateness increased, and when the daycare revoked the fine, the lateness increased even more. After introducing the fine, the responsibility to show up on time was completely thrown out the window, it then became all about personal interests. Sure, I would pay a small fine to come a little later. The worse part is that once the instrumentalization happens, it seems irreversible. This phenomena draws many parallels with the college admissions hustle of high school. For many people, the whole experience of high school was instrumentalized into a process to build up impressive admissions files. Similar to the daycare scenario, we have become, in a sense, jaded to many aspects of school; transformed in a way where the initial desirable motivation – the fun – is lost.
So how can we achieve a pure form of success solely fueled by fun, internal desires?
Several years ago, Interface, a carpet tile company launched a mission to reduce its carbon footprint to zero. The company was prepared to lose some money because it was going to focus its efforts on upgrading the infrastructure used. However, Interface didn’t lose money, its profits had actually increased by a great margin. Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface, had instilled a sense of civic responsibility among his employees. The workers who just showed up to make money were transformed into people driven to save the world. Employees worked harder and worked more, flattening the hierarchy of the company because supervisors saw how enthusiastic workers were. Supervisors were excited by employees’ motivation to learn more, so employees were offered more leadership roles and autonomy.
Finding and making salient a sense of purpose, whether it be a sense of civic responsibility or a drive to expand and mature your mind, is the key to making the world your playground. The process of finding and aligning with a sense of purpose will permeate throughout all aspects of your life; it will deter you from the common notion of separating your life into work and play. You’re able to throw any instrumental consequences out the window, throw the work out the window. The bigger picture is not learning to make money, it is learning to have fun.