book cover of Drive by Daniel Pink

Book Review: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink

Without external rewards and punishments, people wouldn't do much. Or would they?

Rewards prompt us to do more of a behavior. Punishments deter us. Without external rewards and punishments, people wouldn't do much.

This is a simple, straightforward model of motivation. It's also wrong.

In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books, 2009), Daniel H. Pink explains when and why external rewards and punishments fail, and how we can harness intrinsic motivators to get the results we desire. While the book is aimed at the business world, it has applications far beyond it, and provides a solid, accessible introduction to the science of motivation.

Solving puzzles for fun

In 1950, psychology researchers gave rhesus monkeys mechanical puzzles to solve. The monkeys were not given any biologically-driven reward for solving the puzzles (such as food, water, or sleep). Strangely, the monkeys still tried to solve the puzzles. In fact, they appeared to be solving puzzles for fun.

Next, the researchers gave the monkeys raisins when they solved puzzles. Monkeys like raisins. The researchers expected this to improve the monkeys' performance: a reward gets you more of a behavior. But the opposite happened. The monkeys' performance decreased.

This was one of the first results in psychology to show that the simple motivation model of external rewards and punishments could not account for all the behavior we observe. Other researchers replicated this work later, with humans as well as monkeys. And whether human or monkey, being rewarded with money or raisins decreased both puzzle solving performance and intrinsic motivation to solve puzzles.

Naturally curious and self-directed

People are not only motivated by external rewards and punishments. We are naturally curious and self-directed. We seek novelty and challenge. As Pink says, we have

"[an] innate need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world."

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan divide our innate needs, our intrinsic motivations, into three categories: competence (excellence, mastery), autonomy (doing things by one's own choice), and relatedness (social connection with others). I discussed this in my recent post on self-discipline and in my review of How Children Succeed.

But the evidence Pink presents isn't only from psychology studies—Pink has also been around young children! (He has three of his own.) Young children, to a fault, are curious and self-directed. From the moment they can explore, they do.

Goals and rewards narrow our focus

In the book, Pink explains why external rewards don't always work as expected, using examples from the business world to illustrate his points.

"Like all extrinsic motivators, goals narrow our focus. That's one reason they can be effective; they concentrate the mind. But as we've seen, a narrowed focus exacts a cost. For complex or conceptual tasks, offering a reward can blinker the wide-ranging thinking necessary to come up with an innovative solution. Likewise, when an extrinsic goal is paramount—particularly a short-term, measurable one whose achievement delivers a big payoff—its presence can restrict our view of the broader dimensions of our behavior."

As Pink points out, most companies these days focus on short-term goals, like quarterly earnings, not long-term vision. Honestly, I think Pink could have gone broader with that statement—I'd speculate that most people these days focus on short-term goals, not long-term vision, not only in business, but across most of society. The focus in education on short-term goals: class projects, papers, grades—at the cost of creativity and helping children develop their lifelong individual potential. The focus in the housing market on short-term, fast development cycles, without thought for beautiful architecture, strong towns, or what might last for centuries. The focus on the individual, rather than on family and future generations.

The world has too many extrinsic motivators and it is costing society.

When is extrinsic motivation useful?

Work can be loosely categorized as either algorithmic or heuristic. Algorithmic work is directed and includes routine tasks, following a script, a series of steps, a formula, the same thing over and over, generally something to eventually be outsourced or automated. Heuristic work is nonroutine and often self-directed, involving experimentation, developing novel solutions, creative thought, empathy, and knowledge.

Pink explains that extrinsic rewards can be useful for algorithmic work, quoting Deci, Ryan, and Koestner:

"Rewards do not undermine people's intrinsic motivation for dull tasks because there is little or no intrinsic motivation to be undermined."

I appreciated that he explored when external motivators can be useful, since most of the reading I've done on motivation has only talked about the problems of extrinsic rewards.

Heuristic work requires more intrinsic motivation and is more often hampered by extrinsic rewards. Pink discusses how businesses and managers can carefully use rewards to help their employees be more productive and how they can use positive feedback to greater effect (e.g., by providing useful, specific feedback rather than generic praise about what an awesome job that was).

Type I vs Type X

Pink proposes dividing people into two types, Type I and Type X (with the names, he is paying homage to earlier work on the Type A/Type B distinction and Douglas McGregor's theory that people find work to be as natural a state as play or rest).

Type I: People mostly driven by intrinsic motivation; self-driven; all about autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Type X: People mostly driven by extrinsic motivation and external rewards; passive and inert without prodding.

Type I is the default. Many people learn to be Type X through faulty environments, such as experiences at home, school, and work. Being a business-focused book, Pink blames management practices. Being a mother, homeschooler, and scholar of learning and psychology, I'm more inclined to blame conventional education. Anyway, Pink's point is that you can learn to be Type I again if you try, since Type I is clearly better.

I found the terminology to be silly. It felt like Pink was trying too hard—like he wants to be novel and propose a categorization just like all these psychologists he reads; he wants readers to introspect and figure out if they're Type X and then fix it if so. But because of the instability of being Type I/Type X, it fell flat for me. Most other personality categorizations assume you are relatively fixed (perhaps you change a little as you mature and age).

How to support autonomy, mastery, and purpose

The remainder of the book focused first on how businesses can capitalize on their employees' intrinsic motivation by supporting autonomy, mastery, and purpose; and second, on how individuals can build up their intrinsic motivation through a set of practical exercises and resources.

One practice, for instance, was "results-only work environments," in which employers don't care where, when, or how their employees work so long as the work gets done—supporting employee autonomy. Pink shared an example of how amazingly this went for a company that did software, design, and other high-level creative, heuristic work. It's harder to apply to algorithmic work, though Pink found one example: Zappos, the online shoe company, significantly decreased turnover in their call center by not giving employees a script, time limit, or monitoring; instead, they simply told employees to solve the customer's problem. They're rated as having great customer service.

Regarding competence and mastery, Pink talks about the importance of engagement and flow. He quotes liberally from Csikzentmihalyi and explains that "people are much more likely to reach flow in work than in leisure." Work is as natural to humans as play and rest. Part of the problem is people's mindset about it: that work is not play, even though the boundary between them is entirely artificial and work often actually is play.

I found the section on purpose interesting because of how incredibly important purpose is for workers today—as Pink explains, most people no longer rate monetary compensation as the most important factor in a potential job. People are looking for work that serves the greater good, creates value, is ethical and sustainable, and makes the world a better place. People are looking for purpose. Purpose provides the context for autonomy and mastery; it provides activation energy; people reminded of why they work will work harder.

Why are people looking for purpose now—why the trend? The fact that Pink replaces "relatedness" in self-determination theory's trio of intrinsic motivators (autonomy, competence, and relatedness) with purpose gives us a clue. People lack community and the social ties that give us purpose. People tend toward extrinsic motivators and short-term thinking (as I mentioned above), which takes away long-term, generational focus. Some of the most common environments people are in—schools and workplaces—treat people exactly the wrong way.

I think Pink is wrong to emphasize purpose separately from other aspects of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is inherently about long-term endeavors: autonomy and control of your life; working toward mastery and excellence; building relationships and social connection. Purpose is a side effect of all of that.

Our society has some serious issues regarding motivation. This wasn't news, but the book highlighted it in neon yellow. If you're interested in changing that—if you'd like to be Type I instead of Type X—then reading Drive is a good place to start.

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