Besides Money, What Else Motivates Us?

One of the things I’ve been reading a lot about lately is intrinsic motivation.

Basically, the thing that motivates you and me to do what we do, assuming all our other needs are met.

You’d think money would be the primary reason for us to do anything, but you’d only be half right.

Money is the primary motivator up until your financial needs are met. After that, money stops motivating people to do much of anything. Actually, in a lot of cases, introducing money into the equation after our financial needs are met can have the opposite effect of motivating us or create unethical and shitty behavior, which is why incentivizing people through bonuses is dumb and you shouldn’t do it.

So think of it like this: If you can pay all your bills and have a little bit left over to mess around with? All your financial needs are met. If not, then the money remains the primary motivating factor until you can get to that point.

Sadly, the economy sucks. Few of us, particularly in my generation (Millennials) and the generations behind me can say all of our financial needs are met. And thanks to software, automation, and outsourcing, money is a thing most of us have to worry about. That’s why I’m an advocate for the Universal Basic Income.

By taxing multimillion-dollar real estate transactions, high frequency transactions on Wall Street — Most of which these days are made through dumb algorithms anyway, which is why the stock market no longer reflects any sort of reality — and other high priced intangibles generated by the knowledge economy, you would be able to provide every American over the age of eighteen with $1,200 a month.

The idea being, for our purposes, that a Universal Basic Income may not meet all your financial needs, but it gets you to at least 50% of the way there. You wouldn’t need to work, although statistically, most people say they would still like to do so after receiving a UBI.

The UBI would then force employers to raise their wages since people now have some flexibility in the job market and actively want to participate in it, and that raising of wages would take care of the other 50%, meaning all your financial needs would be met.

In theory anyway. But like Homer Simpson once said, “In theory, Communism works.”

We’ll talk more about UBI some other time. I just mention it here because we’re talking about money as a motivator, and I think the Universal Basic Income is an eventuality. So, money won’t be as important as we think in terms of motivating people within our lifetime.

Or … your lifetime. I’ll probably die before most of you reading this, so do me a favor: If that happens, I want you to make sure my ashes are loaded into a t-shirt cannon at Citi Field and fired at unsuspecting Mets fans during a pivotal series. Like when the Braves or Nationals are in town.

But let’s get money off the table and assume — stop laughing, it will happen — that money is not a factor.

To figure out what motivates people past money, you have to dig deeper. It’s not enough to ask someone why they want something. That’s a great start, but a lot of people don’t know why they want the things that they do in the first place.

A lot of people don’t stop to think about what they want. Either because society somewhere along the way told them they should want a thing, like going to college straight after high school.

(The numbers found in “iGen” by Dr. Jennifer Twenge support the idea that students should instead take a Gap Year after high school, to help figure out what they want first, before continuing on to college … If they even want to continue on to college at all. I think they should in most cases. A Liberal Arts education is strong protection from the forces of automation, as is learning a trade like plumbing. But that’s just me.)

So, when it comes to motivating people to put in those three to four hours of “deep work” every day that I talked about previously, they (and you and I) really should know why they want what they want and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Otherwise, you wind up like a lot of college students where you find yourself in a Constitutional Law class and have no idea why you’re taking it other than it was part of the curriculum, leaving you not terribly motivated to do much of anything beyond the minimum to pass the class. (For those of you who have gone through a state college like I have, you know exactly what I’m talking about. We’ve all known or even been, that kid, that’s just there in a class because someone told them to be there, or told them getting a college degree in some field they don’t really care much about was the thing to do because that’s what was expected of them.)

And to make matters worse, as great as society may be at telling us to want things, without really giving us enough time to process why we want those things in the first place, society ALSO is really good at trying to cut you down and stop you from getting the things you actually want in life.

Weird, right? It’s almost as if we’ve let rich people shape the world we live in …

But there’s a problem here because when we’re talking about what really motivates people to do what they want to do, a lot of what we want is recognition. You can call it ego, but I think that’s just the desire for recognition gone too far. What we really want, and are hardwired to need, is for someone to say thank you, pat us on the back, tell us we’re doing a good job, and to be thought of in some positive way. Maybe a bunch of positive ways.

So we’ve got this weird thing going where people may be intrinsically motivated to do what they do in order to stand out from the crowd, whether it’s to make art or be a performer of some kind, and then you have society telling them not to pursue those things and instead pursue something like a college degree in a field they don’t care much about, to be “just like everyone else.”

“Good, obedient consumers” is what George Carlin used to call those people. Not thinking critically. Just going from one thing to the next on some treadmill, buying shit they don’t need and mostly going through the motions throughout their life. Go to college! Get married! Get a kid! Get a house! Get a car! Get two cars! Blah blah blah.

You follow? If we’re not talking about money, one of the key drivers for what motivates us is to be recognized for doing something we like to do, something that’s fun! Something involving play. NOT something we have to do because that’s what we’ve been told to do, which I’d argue is the majority of us. Just going through the motions.

What I’m saying is, and so is your biology, is that if you want to make porn, make porn. If you want to be a professional wrestler, be a professional wrestler. If you want to write video games, go write video games. Those are fun, ridiculous examples, but you get what I’m saying. Doing the thing you want to be recognized for doing is what motivates people. We find it satisfying, and ultimately, not only does doing the thing we want to do motivate us, but it also makes us happy.

Because! And this is really important: “Work” isn’t a thing humans are hardwired to do. We’re hardwired to play, to sleep, to eat, and to fuck. That’s it. Before we moved to an agrarian society that required labor and private property, people did what they needed to do in terms of maintaining their life, getting food for today and the next, building habitats as needed, but that was it. Once those things were done, we didn’t do anything else that we’d qualify as work.

A big part of play, which is the biggest intrinsic motivating factor once you get past money, is having fun and playing with people who recognize you for introducing play (in whatever form that may be) into their life. That’s what motivates us.

So think carefully about why you are doing what you’re doing, and if you find you don’t like it, start making small, incremental changes to transition into doing the thing you want to do. It won’t happen right away, but you can steal time wherever you may find it (putting down your smartphone more often, as just one example), to start getting to where you want to be.

Otherwise, work will kill you if you’re not motivated to be doing it, and that’s what we’re going to talk about next time.

B.J. Mendelson is the author of “Social Media Is Bullshit” from St. Martin’s Press.

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