Book Review: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Review by David Yarian, Ph.D.

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

In this entertaining book on motivation, Daniel Pink quickly convinces us that corporations and schools and parents and maybe most of us are doing it all wrong when it comes to motivating workers and students and kids – and ourselves.

We all know, don’t we, that the way to shape behavior is to reward wanted (“good”) behavior and negatively reinforce unwanted (“bad”) behavior? It’s the time-honored carrot and stick, where-- for a horse at least -- the carrot is the reward, and the stick is the punishment. These external rewards Pink calls Motivation 2.0.

And what was Motivation 1.0? The most basic of all: survival.

When survival is pretty much assured it ceases to be a powerful motivator. For the last few centuries external rewards have been the primary approach to motivation – and the received wisdom handed on by schools of management and business.

There’s just one problem: when it comes to activities that call for creativity and cooperation Motivation 2.0 doesn’t work so well. In fact, many well-designed research studies have shown that attempting to apply external motivators to these activities actually degrades performance. Supersize bonuses have been shown to decrease executive performance, rather than enhance it!

Pink creates an interesting thought experiment. Time-travel back to 1995 and predict the status, 15 years later, of two projects to create a new kind of encyclopedia for the digital world. The first project, lavishly funded by Microsoft and staffed with professional writers and editors, aimed to create a brand new encyclopedia, to be called Encarta. The second project began in 2001 and had no corporate sponsorship, no paid staff, and proposed to be built from articles written and edited by volunteers. Fast-forward fifteen years, and one of these projects was defunct, the other the largest, most popular encyclopedia in the world. Which was which?

The winner, of course, is Wikipedia – the online encyclopedia, now with 3.5 million articles in English alone, and more than 91,000 active volunteers writing and editing 17,000,000+ articles in 270 languages. Encarta was shuttered by Microsoft in 2009.

Why do they do it? Why do so many people volunteer time for a project that provides them no external rewards beyond seeing their words – not even their names – in print? This goes to the heart of what Pink calls Motivation 3.0: intrinsic motivation – the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself. Volunteers build Wikipedia because they want to, because it is fun, or meaningful, or interesting. Likewise, the operating system Linux which runs many computers was built by volunteer programmers; Apache, running some 52% of corporate servers, and Firefox, the second most popular browser, are all what is called “open-source” – volunteer built and maintained.

Pink maintains that Motivation 3.0 is what will most efficiently empower 21st century corporations and build high-functioning communities and creative enterprises. It will do so by emphasizing three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Intrinsic motivation is most powerful when people have control over what they do, when they do it, who they do it with, and how they do it. Many corporations are experimenting with increasing the autonomy of their workforce – and outperforming their competitors. Google grants its staff one day a week to work on any project they choose, with anyone in the company who would like to participate. Many of its current products grew out of projects that first germinated in the autonomous freedom to choose what to work on.

When workers are engaged in their work, they get better at it. Management serves best when it offers guidance to its staff that helps them find engagement in activities that are optimally challenging. Not too hard, not too easy. Mastering a pleasant challenge leads to looking for another one to master. This is significantly different than the experience of boredom, which comes from performing tasks that are too easy; or the experience of failure, which comes from attempting tasks that are too difficult. This process of incremental mastery builds confidence as it builds skills, and productivity only goes up.

The third element of Motivation 3.0 is purpose. When work or study is meaningful to the participant, “motivating” them is no longer a challenge. Kids learning to play music in the garage (or inventing the personal computer, or developing Facebook …) are much more engaged and productive than doing activities which have little meaning for them. Corporations are learning to include meaning and purpose in their mission statements and in their business. Pink concludes: “This move to accompany profit maximization with purpose maximization has the potential to rejuvenate our businesses and remake our world.”

This enjoyable book is enlivened by Pink’s storytelling, his ability to make research studies understandable and palatable, and the wealth of real-life examples. It’s impossible to read Drive without thinking of many ways in which his Motivation 3.0 thesis can be applied to schools, or families, or the individual quest for success.