Yesterday I summed up my activities of the past year to a friend: “I’ve spent countless hours working on a project with no end or tangible rewards in sight, and yet I’m obsessed with it. It makes no sense, but I keep doing it. ” I’m referring, of course, to the novel-writing task that consumes my days and weeks. However, today I was relieved to learn that this is not as strange as it seems.
I just watched an animated cartoon presentation by Dan Pink called “The surprising truth about what motivates us,” which reveals results of a research project paid for by the Federal Reserve Bank. The question the study asked was whether higher cash incentives led people to produce better quality work on certain assigned projects. The answer was “yes” when the research subjects had to perform a routine, mechanical task, and “no” when they were required to use reasoning, perception and judgment.
The study didn’t show that people preferred to work for nothing, only that if they were earning enough, high-quality performance didn’t depend on being paid more. They chose to create, explore new ideas, innovate, and even spend as much time volunteering in their field as working, without a large cash incentive. High performers responded best to having the freedom to work independently, opportunities to master the skills they needed to do a better job, and a purpose beyond making more money.
This is the perfect way to describe my situation as a writer: enough money (retirement), plenty of autonomy (only get pushed around by a cat), nothing standing between me and attempts to master new skills (except for a tendency to react to multiple, appealing distractions), and working with a purpose (telling a good story that people will want to read). The upshot of this is that I’m content to keep working on this project without the promise of a large cash incentive, which is a good thing for a writer.
There’s nothing like reading new research to make one feel better about…well, spending one’s days writing, deleting, rewriting, editing, deleting…