What Kind of Motivation Works Best?

Amy Wrzesniewski, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, and Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, pen a brief, but fascinating piece in The New York Times that highlights a study of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation (dubbed “internal” vs “instrumental” motivation):

We found, unsurprisingly, that the stronger their internal reasons were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers. Also unsurprisingly, cadets with internal motives did better in the military (as evidenced by early promotion recommendations) than did those without internal motives and were also more likely to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service — unless (and this is the surprising part) they also had strong instrumental motives.

Remarkably, cadets with strong internal and strong instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones. They were less likely to graduate, less outstanding as military officers and less committed to staying in the military.

The takeaway:

The implications of this finding are significant. Whenever a person performs a task well, there are typically both internal and instrumental consequences. A conscientious student learns (internal) and gets good grades (instrumental). A skilled doctor cures patients (internal) and makes a good living (instrumental). But just because activities can have both internal and instrumental consequences does not mean that the people who thrive in these activities have both internal and instrumental motives.

Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success.

Read the rest here.

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For more on motivation, watch this great TED talk by Daniel Pink.

On Looking at Yourself Objectively

Beginning with a (great) history lesson on Ignaz Semmelweis, Aaron Swartz crafts an excellent blog post with some tips on looking at yourself objectively:

Looking at ourselves objectively isn’t easy. But it’s essential if we ever want to get better. And if we don’t do it, we leave ourselves open to con artists and ethical compromisers who prey on our desire to believe we’re perfect. There’s no one solution, but here are some tricks I use to get a more accurate sense of myself:

Embrace your failings. Be willing to believe the worst about yourself. Remember: it’s much better to accept that you’re a selfish, racist moron and try to improve, than to continue sleepwalking through life that way as the only one who doesn’t know it.

Studiously avoid euphemism. People try and sugarcoat the tough facts about themselves by putting them in the best light possible. They say “Well, I was going to get to it, but then there was that big news story today” and not “Yeah, I was procrastinating on it and started reading the news instead.” Stating things plainly makes it easier to confront the truth.

Reverse your projections. Every time you see yourself complaining about other groups or other people, stop yourself and think: “is it possible, is there any way, that someone out there might be making the same complaints about me?”

Look up, not down. It’s always easy to make yourself look good by finding people even worse than you. Yes, we agree, you’re not the worst person in the world. That’s not the question. The question is whether you can get better — and to do that you need to look at the people who are even better than you.

Criticize yourself. The main reason people don’t tell you what they really think of you is they’re afraid of your reaction. (If they’re right to be afraid, then you need to start by working on that.) But people will feel more comfortable telling you the truth if you start by criticizing yourself, showing them that it’s OK.

Find honest friends. There are some people who are just congenitally honest. For others, it’s possible to build a relationship of honesty over time. Either way, it’s important to find friends who you can trust to tell to tell you the harsh truths about yourself. This is really hard — most people don’t like telling harsh truths. Some people have had success providing an anonymous feedback form for people to submit their candid reactions.

Listen to the criticism. Since it’s so rare to find friends who will honestly criticize you, you need to listen extra-carefully when they do. It’s tempting to check what they say against your other friends. For example, if one friend says the short story you wrote isn’t very good, you might show it to some other friends and ask them what they think. Wow, they all think it’s great! Guess that one friend was just an outlier. But the fact is that most of your friends are going to say it’s great because they’re your friend; by just taking their word for it, you end up ignoring the one person who’s actually being honest with you.

At this stage in my life, it’s hard to find friends, let alone honest friends…

I am trying to look up, not down in one area of my life at the moment: fitness.

On Intelligence vs. Motivation

One user on Reddit writes:

I’m a senior in high school this year, and will be graduating come June. I have had all A’s throughout high school except for last year when I got my first B. If it weren’t for that B, I would have been valedictorian.

I like to think that I deserved to be valedictorian; that I am truly the smartest in my class. However, this past year has shown me that I’m really not that intelligent, and that there are many others who are much smarter than I.

Also, I’m kind of an asshole about how smart I am, at least to myself. I’m always telling myself that I was cheated out of an A, but deep down I know I deserved that B. Not only that, but I should have gotten B’s in several other classes as well, but I somehow managed not to get them.

Recently I took the SATs as well, which I got a 1900 on. I figured I was just being lazy, and could have gotten a much better score if I tried. So after taking them a second time, I thought I did much better, but I only got roughly 40 more points than last time.

When I was younger I always believed I could get into MIT, but it has become painfully clear that I stand next to no chance of getting in. I now realize that I am probably going to go a lame local college and stick with my family.

Many people offered their thoughts, but perhaps this response from user Inri147 that was accepted and enrolled to MIT is particularly enlightening:

Term rolled in and I was getting crushed. I wasn’t the greatest student in high school, and whenever I got poor grades I would explain them away by saying I just didn’t care or I was too busy or too unmotivated or (more often than not) just cared about something else. It didn’t help that I had good test performance which fed my ego and let me think I was smarter than everyone else, just relatively unmotivated. I had grossly underestimated MIT, and was left feeling so dumb.

I had the fortune of living next to a bright guy, R. R. was an advanced student, to say the least. He was a sophomore, but was already taking the most advanced graduate math classes. He came into MIT and tested out of calculus, multivariable calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, real analysis (notoriously the most difficult math class at MIT), and a slew of other math courses. And to top it all off, he was attractive, engaging, sociable, and generally had no faults that would make him mortal.

I suffered through half a semester of differential equations before my pride let me go to R. for help. And sure enough, he took my textbook for a night to review the material (he couldn’t remember it all from third grade), and then he walked me through my difficulties and coached me. I ended up pulling a B+ at the end of a semester and avoiding that train wreck. The thing is, nothing he taught me involved raw brainpower. The more I learned the more I realized that the bulk of his intelligence and his performance just came from study and practice, and that the had amassed a large artillery of intellectual and mathematical tools that he had learned and trained to call upon. He showed me some of those tools, but what I really ended up learning was how to go about finding, building, and refining my own set of cognitive tools. I admired R., and I looked up to him, and while I doubt I will ever compete with his genius, I recognize that it’s because of a relative lack of my conviction and an excess of his, not some accident of genetics…

From my personal experience studying at Georgia Tech and Caltech, I think one of the most important lessons I had to learn was how to ask for help. And that it was okay to do so. There is nothing humiliating about asking for help if you are truly trying to make an effort to understand the material.

MIT has an almost 97% graduation rate. That means that most of the people who get in, get through. Do you know what separates the 3% that didn’t from the rest that do? I do. I’ve seen it so many times, and it almost happened to me. Very few people get through four years of MIT with such piss-poor performance that they don’t graduate. In fact, I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head. People fail to graduate from MIT because they come in, encounter problems that are harder than anything they’ve had to do before, and not knowing how to look for help or how to go about wrestling those problems, burn out. The students that are successful look at that challenge, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, and begin to take steps hiking that mountain, knowing that bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top. They ask for help, they acknowledge their inadequacies. They don’t blame their lack of intelligence, they blame their lack of motivation. 

Very worthwhile advice.

Readings: Highest Paid Athlete, Trying Again, Usain Bolt

Some short (but interesting!) reads over the last few of days:

1) “Greatest of All Time” [Lapham’s Quarterly] – who is/was the highest paid athlete of all time? Hint: it’s not Tiger Woods or LeBron James. According to Peter Struck, associate professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, that honor goes to a Lusitanian Spaniard named Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who worked as a charioteer in Ancient Rome. According to Struck:

Twenty-four years of winnings brought Diocles—likely an illiterate man whose signature move was the strong final dash—the staggering sum of 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money…His total take home amounted to five times the earnings of the highest paid provincial governors over a similar period—enough to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for one year, or to pay all the ordinary soldiers of the Roman Army at the height of its imperial reach for a fifth of a year. By today’s standards that last figure, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for the same period, would cash out to about $15 billion.

2) “At First She Didn’t Succeed, but She Tried and Tried Again” [New York Times] – teachers: this is the story you forward (or discuss in class) to your students…How one lady in South Korea didn’t give up after repeatedly failing to pass the driving exam. Remarkable:

This diminutive woman, now known nationwide as “Grandma Cha Sa-soon,” has achieved a record that causes people here to first shake their heads with astonishment and then smile: She failed her driver’s test hundreds of times but never gave up. Finally, she got her license — on her 960th try.

Talk about motivation:

For three years starting in April 2005, she took the test once a day five days a week. After that, her pace slowed, to about twice a week. But she never quit.

3) “Usain Bolt: Fast and Loose” [The Guardian] – the world’s fastest sprinter sits down for an interview and explains that he actually wants to play football (soccer):

Ultimately, he [Usain Bolt] says, he’d love to make a go of playing football professionally. He’s being deadly serious. One of the perks of being Usain Bolt is that sporting stars love to meet him, so whenever he’s travelling and there’s time, he tries to train with a top football team. Last year it was Manchester United, a few days ago it was Bayern Munich. He’s still carrying a copy of the French sporting newspaper L’Equipe, which features a spread on his football skills and praise from Bayern manager Louis van Gaal. He shows me a photo of himself with his arm wrapped round the dwarfed 6ft German forward Miroslav Klose. “If I keep myself in shape, I can definitely play football at a high level,” he says.

A question I asked recently: will the 100m sprint be ever run in under 9 seconds? When do you think it will happen? In the next ten years? The next twenty? In other words, I am wondering if we’ll see the 10 second barrier become the nine second barrier…