Sunday, January 10, 2010

Who is Daniel Pink and What is He DRIVING at?

Went to see the best-selling author Daniel Pink last night at the Lincoln Square Barnes and Noble, which is in my experience the best bookstore in the city, and just a few blocks from our door. Barnes and Noble has this terrific performance space on the second from the top of its 5 levels (the bottom floor, a kind of basement, has an incredible supply of CDs and DVDs) where many fine authors and performing artists appear. I am a fan of Pink because of his previous book called "A Whole New Mind" in which he argues that it is right-brain people who will guide the future by virtue of their aptitudes in six areas: Design, Story, Symphony (more or less an ability to synthesize), Empathy, Play, and Meaning. His new book is called "Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us," and the essence of it is that when it comes to complex work that involves creativity and out-of-the-box thinking the best way to encourage it is by giving it free rein. That is, that the work itself is its own best reward and that by honoring this notion and carving out time for people to be creative, creativity will be more likely to flourish. Apparently, in fact, if you use only traditional rewards such as money to reinforce creative behavior you may find that you are actively decreasing the likelihood that it will occur in the future.

Pink relates a simple experiment that has been tried many times. Two groups of participants are presented with the same materials: a candle, matches, and a box of tacks sitting on a small table. They are told to affix the candle to the wall so that the wax from the candle does not fall on the table. The members of the first group are presented with this problem and told by the experimenter that they will be timed in completing this task and so the faster they do it the better. The second group is given money for finishing, the faster they finish the more money they will receive. Which group do you think on average completes the task faster?

It turns out that this experiment has been replicated many times and that it is the group without obvious incentives that repeatedly does it at a considerably faster rate. Members of both groups at first try to tack the candle to the wall, which doesn't work; others try to melt wax to the wall and then stick the candle to the melted wax. That doesn't work either. In any case, there is a simple solution, but the point is that the group without extrinsic incentives solves it more readily, apparently because they are less constrained in how they think about the problem, more open and creative really, and thus better positioned to discern the solution. Whereas the incentivized group is literally more narrow-minded in its thinking, more focused on a specific goal and thus less inclined to see, say, alternate uses for ordinary objects.

If you haven't figured it out already, the solution is to empty out the box of tacks, use a couple of the tacks to attach the box to the wall and then to place the candle on top of the affixed box. Simple? Sure. But easier to see, and the evidence is overwhelming on this, when the rewards are not carrots but the simple satisfaction of doing an intriguing job well.

Of course, there is much more to the book that this, but this is the gist. Or, as Pink himself puts it, "Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives." So that's what Daniel Pink is driving at, and it's probably a good idea for schools and community groups and organizations of all kinds to at least consider whether they have left room for the free play of that vital human drive. It can't hurt and it could do a whole lot of good.

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