Avoiding sticky situations (and carrotty ones)
What motivates you to do what you do? I am particularly engrossed in exploring this question right now. It’s beginning to become clear that it is best for me that my pursuits grow from free will and authentic enjoyment, in order to allow a meaningful and sustained effort.
Let me set the scene with Zoe Harcombe, a nutritionist and author who, with her husband Andy, is spreading a disruptive message in the world of dietary advice. Their approach is based on observing rigorous science and totally ignoring conventional interpretation of it.
I have followed the development of their thinking for 10 years. I have always understood their powerful message, and felt it would be a good idea to follow it. I gave it a go sometimes but it never truly stuck. Until recently, when I found myself willingly eating liver. Liver?! What changed?
I think the difference this time is that I made a genuine commitment to live more healthily, whereas before I just thought I ought to. Now I find it easy to do the unpleasant things associated with it, and can actively enjoy the whole experience.
I see this as relevant to anything that is important but not instantly gratifying, whether it’s a healthy diet, exercise, A-levels, another presentation to your client.
Time for a doodle. I find myself drawing a scale that looks like this:
Let’s say you have a child studying for an A-level. There are many ways to pass an exam, and one way is to threaten that you’ll blow their brains out if they don’t pass. That’s not just a stick, it’s a shotgun, and it’ll definitely make them study. A less violent way might be to threaten them with dire predictions for their future, bully them with your own expectations, or bribe them with a reward – how about a car.
A very different approach, however, might be to help them find a way to really enjoy learning the subject, by making it fun and putting into context the lifelong benefits of mastering it, so they pass without your meddling.
The immediate result can be identical: an A-level certificate. But only one will promote long-lasting motivation and self-esteem. The others invoke anxiety, guilt, unadventurous compliance and dependency – all of these are demeaning. It’s pretty arrogant to think that someone else’s motivation can be forced by your clever intervention.
The gun and car analogy is frighteningly accurate for many work situations, especially ones where you are regularly made to fear for your job or your level of pay. But what if you could motivate your employee in a different way? How much more fulfilled and effective would she be if she went to work primarily for the love of it, for her own reasons and not yours? That’s tough – now you need to work on the very fabric of your organisation, rather than command or manipulate your people.
It feels so unrealistic and idealistic to suggest this (“Hardly anyone actually enjoys their job”, I am often told), and that is because I have become staggeringly conditioned to a life controlled by punishment and reward, rather than driven by gratifying personal development gained from service to others.
On this matter, I am in rehab.
How I create the sort of workplace I’m imagining is something I’ll tackle in due course.
For now, I am practising on myself and my family. When I find myself getting meddlesome, I’m trying to stop and work out a more enduring way by going all the way back to the roots, as difficult and inconvenient as that is.
Just as with Zoe and Andy’s nutritional advice, my hope is that the healthiest way forward need not be an unpleasant struggle, but a natural path to follow, motivated as it is by genuine free will and pure enjoyment.
The motto? Live and Let Liver.