Driving Lessons

I recently finished a book called “Drive,” by Daniel Pink. No, it’s not about putting the pedal to the metal or going on a road trip. The subtitle explains it better than I can: “The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.”

As it turns out, the traditional business world has gotten that particular subject wrong since at least the 1950s. (Not exactly a shocker; they’ve gotten most things wrong). According to Pink, the old “if-then” method of motivating employees, AKA the carrot and stick, is limited at best and often counterproductive. If an employee’s basic needs (fair salary, health benefits, no public hangings) are met, the old-fashioned bonus and incentive programs only work in the short run. Long term, they teach the worker to expect a reward for doing his or her work. It’s similar to when restaurants mail out too many coupons; after a while, you feel entitled to them and won’t visit that establishment unless they give you a deal.

Luckily, science has come to the rescue. Studies show that a “now-that” system of rewards is far more productive. With this, you create a work environment that fosters what people really want from their jobs:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Then, from time to time, you supplement these elements with more tangible rewards, which might be monetary but can just as easily be a day off, praise in front of the entire team, or any number of other meaningful surprises. In this way, the incentive is after-the-fact and doesn’t become the focal point of the project. It’s icing on the cake. (By the way, Pink applies these principles to education and parenting with equally positive results.)

The reason this works is that most people are intrinsically, not extrinsically, motivated. (Again, we can thank science for that insight.) In other words, if autonomy (a feeling of control), mastery (a feeling of accomplishment; the whole “Outliers” 10,000 hour thing), and purpose (a reason larger than ourselves) are present, the work becomes its own reward. That’s where we get into the concept of  “Flow,” which just happens to be a classic book by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (you should see what that does to my spellcheck).

As a writer, I’ve always chased after “Flow,” only to find it elusive. It’s like the Supreme Court’s definition of porn; we know it when we see it (or, in this case, experience it). But one thing’s for sure; when it does show up, there’s no better feeling in the world. Four hours seem like four minutes. The story writes itself. The endorphins are pumping, the fish are jumping and the cotton is high. If that’s not the greatest motivator in existence, I don’t know what is. And, to tie back to “Drive,” it’s all internal. I wish it would happen more often. It probably would if I stopped “chasing” and started “being.”

A number of my creative friends and colleagues won’t be satisfied until they achieve all of the external trappings of success, whether it’s a five-book deal with a major publishing house, a blockbuster movie script, or your everyday run-of-the-mill fame and fortune. I  get it. I’m not judging (well, maybe a little). Surely, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at that book deal. But I wonder if they’re over-valuing the external rewards and under-valuing the internal ones. I think writers have to write, singers gotta sing, comedians need to piss everyone off (the good ones, anyway), no matter what. It’s why I write this blog. Even though I spend my days creating stuff for other people (to keep that wolf from the door), sometimes there’s an itch I just have to scratch. Even at 4 in the morning. Even if nobody reads it. Because, as Nathan once said on “Six Feet Under,” it’s all about the flow.