Dan Pink Shares The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

So how is it that we motivate ourselves and others?

A History Of Motivation

Through much of history the idea of motivating people has focused on the external factors. The threat of death helped drive people to pull large rocks around to build temples; while the sniff of large rewards encourages people do things they’d otherwise find repulsive.

The idea of a job rests in this premise. So does school. Put in the effort and you’ll be rewarded with good grades and a high salary, spend your time doodling pictures and passing messages and you’ll fail the class or lose your job.

For a long time this method worked – or at least it sufficed. All those routine, repetitive, mundane tasks that were uninspiring, could be made more persuasive with the right external motivator.

Then in came the 21st century, and with it, machines and computers. No longer did we need humans for the routine tasks, we could rely on stronger, faster, and more reliable mechanical systems.

This change left us humans with what the machines couldn’t do: Be creative. All the jobs and requirements of this new age now rest in our ability to be complex thinkers, to be innovative, to think outside the box.

This change has taken the work away from our physical bodies, and put it into the power of our minds. It’s here that these external motivators go awry.

Finding The Third Drive

Harry Harlow found that our views on motivation were inadequate in his experiments with monkeys. He noticed that monkeys were quicker to solve puzzles when they enjoyed it as opposed to those rewarded for it.

The popular view at the time was that there existed two drives: the biological drive of hunger, thirst, and sex; and the drive of rewards and punishments. Harlow tried to remedy the issue by adding a third drive: intrinsic motivation, or the joy of the task itself.

People would come home from a long day at work, to paint, to write, to do a crossword, what caused them to do this? Intrinsic motivation helped to explain why people were driven to do things without the other motivators.

It seems intuitive that we have an internal drive, something that encourages us to seek intellectual pleasures and emotional thrills. But, outside of these personal pastimes, what does this motivation have to do with work?

It turns out that this intrinsic motivation can both encourage, and stand in the way of, the creative and complex thought that businesses today rely on.

Intrinsic Motivation Requires Intrinsic Rewards

In 1969 Edward Deci set out to study motivation. He used the Soma puzzle cube, a set of plastic shapes that can be assembled into larger shapes, with many different possibilities. He had two groups of participants go through three sessions of solving the puzzle.

In each session, participants sat at a table with the puzzle, drawings of three possible solutions, and three magazines.

At first they all needed to try to create the solutions in the drawings while Deci timed them. The second time around was a little different, in that one group were going to be paid for each correct configuration while the others continued for free — not knowing that some people were being paid. The third time through, they were all to find solutions for no reward, just as in the first session.

Midway through each session, Deci told the participants that he needed to leave the room to get a fourth drawing, and would be gone only a few minutes. He was gone exactly eight minutes, but rather than getting a fourth picture, he observed what the participants did to occupy themselves in his absence.

In the first session, all the participants continued using the puzzle for around 3 and a half minutes. In the second sessions, the group who were now being paid spent more than 5 minutes using it. Clearly the extra motivation was having an affect.

In the third and final session, those that had never been paid remained relatively consistent, in some cases using the puzzle for longer. The group who had been paid in the second session now lost their motivation, only spending 2 minutes on the puzzle.

When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity.

Money gets us going up to a point, for the average earner in the United States that point is around $75,000. After that, we need something different.

The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table: Pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money and they’re thinking about the work.

We all need to earn a decent living, to be able to get by comfortably, but the long held assumption that more money means more motivation doesn’t hold up. In fact, more money for some tasks can result in less motivation. This is an important point for a time when our intellectual abilities are becoming more important.

In Dan Pinks Drive, he looks to three core intrinsic motivators that show us how to get motivated, and that can pull us above and beyond their external counterparts: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

1. Autonomy

We need to be in control. Nobody likes to be bossed around and feel like they have no say in anything.

Dan Pink notes that management is a human invention, an aging technology.

Its central ethic is control; its chief tools remain extrinsic motivators. That leaves it largely out of sync with the non-routine, right-brain abilities on which many of the world’s economies now depend.

Studies have found a link between autonomy and wellbeing in many different countries and cultures. Other studies have shown it’s positive effect on conceptual understanding, grades, persistence, productivity, fighting off burnout, and the aforementioned overall wellbeing.

Pink shows that there are four essential aspects of autonomy: our task, our time, our technique, and our team. With these under our terms, we gain true autonomy.

Everybody is different, with this freedom we are able to chose to work at the times that we’re most productive, with the people that we work best with, on the tasks that we enjoy the most, and in the way that works for us.

Control and direction are central aspects of being human, we’re built to be “players not pawns.”

We still need to work however, misconstruing freedom for the ability to do nothing defeats the purpose. It takes discipline to use that freedom in the right way, but if you truly enjoy what you’re doing that shouldn’t be a problem.

2. Mastery

Our interest withers when we feel like we’re not getting anywhere. That worked adequately for the routine work of the past, where jobs simply wanted compliance in exchange for money. Now we need engagement, a function that’s missing from the old model.

Engagement is the most important route to mastery and personal fulfillment. And, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notably discovered, the greatest point of engagement is when we enter a state of flow.

In the flow state our self-consciousness disappears, our sense of time is warped, but our goals are clear. As Mihaly found, this state is described as the most satisfying time of peoples lives.

The requirements for entering this state are relatively simple: the challenge needs to be achievable, but it also needs to stretch you beyond your current abilities.

Goldilocks tasks as Pink calls them, are activities that are neither too difficult nor too easy. If the task were too difficult we’d become anxious, if it were too easy we’d become bored. The middle ground is where flow happens.

Throughout my athletics career, the overall goal was always to be a better athlete than I was at that moment — whether next week, next month or next year. The improvement was the goal.

Sebastian Coe.

Pink defines mastery as a set of three laws: It’s a mindset, it’s painful, and it’s an asymptote.

Carol Dweck found that what people believe shapes what they achieve, and that our self-theories determine how we interpret our experiences. Often those that go further are those whose goal is to learn, not to prove they’re smart.

In a study of potential military cadets, the best predictor of success was the prospective ratings of grit. Mastery occurs through effort over a long time, which takes persistence and a passion for the goal. It can also be painful.

An asymptote is a curve that is forever approaching but never reaching it’s end. Pink notes that true mastery never occurs, and that “the joy is in the pursuit more than the realization.”

3. Purpose

What we’re involved in needs to transcend the self, to at least feel like we’re an essential piece to a much larger whole.

People can be inspired to meet stretch goals and tackle impossible challenges, if they care about the outcome.

Elizabeth Moss Kanter

Every now and again we stop to contemplate our lives, and often wonder where the time has gone. It’s here we can be struck by our own mortality, the idea that our lives are just not that long, and that we need to be something meaningful with them.

Our purpose often comes in the form of doing something to help others. It’s something that can outlast our own lives.

Companies are popping up today whose mission is to pursue purpose, and to use profit as the catalyst rather than the objective. On a smaller scale many people are turning to volunteer work to fuel their purpose.

How we spend our money is just as important as how much we make, and when we spend it on other people or on a cause, we increase our subjective well-being.

One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The Life Mission

As Edward Deci notes, humans have an “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capabilities, to explore, and to learn.”

Research shows that even when our goals are extrinsic, achieving that wealth rarely leads to greater happiness. Those who look towards the intrinsic goals, however, attain higher levels of satisfaction and well-being, and show lower levels of anxiety and depression.

The old “if-then” rewards are ineffective and often deleterious to our conceptual, complex, creative drives. And as such, need to make room for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

It brings up thoughts of a life mission. The external desires — money, clothing, housing — are products that should support something higher, something less tangible and more meaningful.

The extrinsic rewards provide the base on which our true purpose can flourish, but they cannot stand in the way of our intrinsic desires, lest they kill our motivation and creativity.

The richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice — doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.

What engages and drives you beyond everything else? Have you found your purpose?

How To Set Goals and Achieve Them

You hear a lot about the importance of setting goals – if you enjoy reading about success and accomplishment as much as I do, you’ll find a common thread among successful people is that they all set goals (without exception), and they all work extremely hard to make them a reality.

Well that’s all well and good, but how exactly do you go about setting a goal? Contrary to popular belief, goal setting isn’t simply about imagining what you want to achieve. When applied properly, goal setting is actually a tool in itself that can greatly increase your chances of making your dreams a reality.

Here is a lesson on how to set goals from two men who have devoted their lives to unlocking the secrets to success and accomplishment.

Napoleon Hill – Think and Grow Rich

Before “The Secret” convinced a generation that you could make your fat credit card bill disappear by sending positive vibes into the universe, there was “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill.

Think And Grow Rich is “The Secret” for hustlers, for people who want to go out and make things happen for themselves, but just need a push in the right direction. The fact that it is 70 years old and written during the great depression doesn’t make it any less relevant today. If anything, anyone reading it today will feel like it was tailored specifically for this point in history, archaic references notwithstanding.

But who was Napoleon Hill, and what exactly qualifies him to teach us about setting goals? Napoleon Hill spent a quarter decade interviewing the 500 richest men in America of his generation, distilling all of that wisdom into this seminal work. Some of these men included Henry Ford, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, William Wrigley Jr., Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, John D Rockefeller, Charles Schwab, and many more.

In fact, it was Andrew Carnegie – one of the richest men of all time – who suggested that Hill write a book and share his accumulated wisdom with the world.

How does Think And Grow Rich address goal setting?

While I highly recommend reading the book, the process of goal setting taught in Think and Grow Rich can be distilled into the following points:

  1. Determine exactly how much money you desire – don’t be vague.
  2. Determine exactly what you intend to do in order to earn the money you desire. What value are you going to offer? Remember, there is no free lunch.
  3. Establish an exact date for when you plan to possess the amount of money you desire.
  4. Establish a definite plan for achieving your desire, and start right this moment, whether or not you feel you’re ready.
  5. Write out a clear statement of how much money you are going to acquire (the amount from step 1), what you intend to do in exchange for the money (the value from step 2), the date you’ll acquire it by (the date from step 3), and your specific, actionable plan for reaching the desired monetary goal (the plan from step 4).
  6. Twice daily, read your written statement out loud to yourself. Do it once in the morning, and once at night. While you read the statement, visualize yourself executing on your plan and visualize the money in your possession.

The goal setting principles above fit into a larger framework of what Hill calls creating “burning desire to win”, but it is essential to the framework presented in Think And Grow Rich. While Hill focuses on goal setting as it applies to financial success (the book is called Think and Grow Rich after all), the same principles can be applied to anything you want to achieve.

Tim Ferriss – 4 Hour Work Week

In the 4 Hour Work Week*, Tim Ferriss describes how he went from working 100+ hours a week on his online supplements business to turning it into a passive income business that funded his travels and hobbies. He accomplished this by creating what he calls a “dreamline” for his ideal lifestyle.

*Note: Don’t let the catchy title fool you, the 4 Hour Work Week isn’t about only working 4 hours a week – it’s about rejecting social norms regarding how we “should” live and work. It’s about using out-of-the box thinking to minimize the work we don’t want to do, so we can spend time doing what we really want.

What Ferris calls a “dreamline” is essentially a list of things you want to acquire and/or accomplish, without concern for how exactly you will accomplish it. The idea is to not limit yourself to your preconceived notions of what is or isn’t possible, but to design an ideal lifestyle for yourself, figure out how much money you’ll need to accomplish that lifestyle, and then aim to create income streams that will support that lifestyle. Its about setting fixed deadlines for creating our dream lifestyle, rather than using a vague notion of “the future” to indefinitely defer what we truly want from life.

Here is an excerpt from the 4 Hour Work Week where Tim talks about creating a dreamline.

Create a two timelines—six months and twelve months—and list up to five things you dream of having (including, but not limited to, material wants: house, car, clothing, etc.), being (be a great cook, be fluent in Chinese, etc.), and doing (visiting Thailand, tracing your roots overseas, racing ostriches, etc.), in that order.

For now, don’t concern yourself with how these things will be accomplished. That’s all covered later.

Consider the question: What would you do, day-to-day, if you had $100 million in the bank? If still blocked, fill in the five “doing” spots with the following:

  • 1 place to visit
  • 1 thing to do before you die (a memory of a lifetime)
  • 1 thing to do daily
  • 1 thing to do weekly
  • 1 thing you’ve always wanted to learn

Chances are that the ultimate TMI figure will be lower than expected, and it will decrease over time as you trade more and more “having” for once-in-a-lifetime “doing.” Mobility encourages this trend. Even if the total is intimidating, don’t fret. It is possible—case studies in the book prove it—to get to more than $10,000 per month in extra income within three months. This is usually 3 or 4 times more than is needed. Getting to an extra $2,000 or $3,000 is seldom a problem.

You can have it all—really.

Of course, learning how to set goals, or creating a “dreamline”, is only the first step in the process of success. To find out how Tim accomplished his dreamline and how you can as well, I highly recommend reading the 4 Hour Work Week.

The key takeaway from the 4 hour work week as far as goal setting goes, is not to let our preconceived notions of what is and what isn’t possible dictate our goals. Much too often, people set goals based on what they think is realistic.

The other takeaway is to set both a short term and long term goals. You can write down a specific goal with a specific deadline, but if the end goal is 5, 10 years down the line, how do we measure progress in the meantime? Its important to create short term goals that you can start working towards right now, and to always give yourself less time than you think you’ll need to accomplish any given goal.


So now that we’ve looked at goal setting from the perspective of two authorities on the subject, what common elements can we draw here? Whether we’re talking about the great depression, or the modern internet era of remote working and the digital nomad, it looks like there are certain elements that remain universal truths when it comes to setting goals:

  1. Don’t let your pre-conceived notions of what is and isn’t possible define your goals. Rather, describe what you want to achieve, and work backwards from that to create a plan to get from point A (where you are now) to point B (where you want to be).
  2. Part of your goal setting should involve a plan of action to achieving your goal, starting from today.
  3. Goals must be specific and exact in nature. They should state exactly what you want.
  4. Goals must have a specific timeframe for accomplishment.
  5. Goals should be written down so they’re concrete.
  6. Re-visit your goals daily.

Have you used these goal setting techniques to make big progress in your own life? Do you have your own process for setting and achieving your goals? Feel free to share in the comments below.

On The Importance Of Goal Setting: 6 Reasons Why You Need To Set Goals

Ok, so this isn’t the first time you’ve heard someone talk about the importance of goals, and its definitely not going to be the last.

But clichés aside, understanding the importance of goal setting and knowing how to set goals for yourself is crucial to accomplishing great things in your life. Here are 6 important reasons why you need to set goals for yourself:

1. Goals Propel You Forward

Having a goal written down with a set date for accomplishment gives you something to plan and work for. A written goal is an external representation of your inner desires; its a constant reminder of what you need to accomplish.

There’s a very common pattern that comes with working towards goals that we’re all familiar with: you set your mind to something, you get excited and work like mad, and then motivation starts to wane. Having goals that you can focus on and visualize helps you better connect yourself with your inner desires, and gives you the motivational energy you need to work through periods where your focus inevitably starts to wane.

2. Goals Transform Insurmountable Mountains Into Walkable Hills

walking up hill
Photo credit: Peter Lewis

Most of us have big dreams that seem impossible to accomplish. Its easy to feel discouraged when you’re staring at a massive, seemingly insurmountable mountain.

Proper goal setting can help break larger, intimidating aspirations into smaller, more achievable stepping stones. Planning towards these smaller goals not only makes it easier to formulate a definite plan of action that we can start working on right away, but research has shown that hitting smaller milestones provides real motivation and greater contentment.

In his fantastic book, “Delivering Happiness“, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh describes how offering smaller, but more frequent promotions had a measurable increase in employee satisfaction, even though the final accomplishment was the same. Instead of offering one big promotion every 18 months for example, the management at Zappos found that offering smaller promotions, say every 3 months, would result in increased employee satisfaction and motivation.

You can take this lesson and apply it to your own life. Take the mountains you need to climb and break them up into smaller hills that you can walk. You’ll be happier and more motivated to start working towards that next milestone on your way to greatness.

3. Goals Help Us Believe In Ourselves

Setting goals for yourself is a way to fuel your ambition. Goal setting isn’t just about creating a plan for your life and holding yourself accountable, its also about giving us the inspiration necessary to aim for things we never thought possible.

Do you want to accomplish something that many people dream about, but few people ever actually accomplish? Unless you make it a goal for yourself and work everyday towards achieving it, why would you ever believe that you could accomplish it? Unless you see yourself slowly making progress, your dreams and aspirations are nothing more than vague notions floating around in your imagination.

4. Goals Hold You Accountable For Failure

If you don’t write down concrete goals and give yourself a timeline for achievement, how can you look back and re-evaluate your path if you fail?

There’s something extremely humbling about looking back on a goal you set for yourself 6 months, 1 year, or even 5 years ago and realizing that you were supposed to accomplish a lot more than you actually did. Its a concrete sign that whatever you’re doing isn’t working, and you need to make real changes if you want to get where you want to be.

5. Goals Tell You What You Truly Want

There are certainly times where we set goals that don’t really reflect what we want. Sometimes we think we need more money, when really we need a change of environment, or someone to love. Sometimes we think we want more free time, but what we really want is work that we can be truly passionate about. Sometimes we think we want to be alone, but really we need to be around more positive people.

If you never set goals in the first place, how do you find out what you truly want? If you wander through life with vague notions of “success” and “accomplishment”, you might never discover that buying a new BMW isn’t what will bring you true happiness, or that landing that coveted promotion at work will make you miserable because the extra money and fancy title won’t make up for the reduced time with your family.

By asking ourselves what we really want and constantly re-assessing our goals, we gain the benefit of introspection and self-reflection. We can figure out what it is we really want in life – and then we can go out and do it.

6. Goals Help Us Live Life To The Fullest

When you take the time to set goals, you ensure that your life is geared towards getting the most out of every moment. There’s so much to do and experience in life, but many of the things we want to achieve and experience won’t be handed to us – we need to work for it.

lost in the forest
Which way should you go? (Photo credit: Luigi Montebello)

Imagine you’re on a vacation. You have a limited amount of time to take in all the sights, sounds, and experiences of a foreign land. Wouldn’t you want to figure out exactly what you want to do and what you want to see? Or would you wander around, hoping to find something interesting? And if you do have some sights and landmarks in mind that you want to visit, wouldn’t you do a little research to find out how to get there? Or would you wander around, hoping that you’ll eventually find the place you’re looking for?

In many ways, life is like a vacation (though it certainly doesn’t feel like it); we’re given a finite amount of time to pursue the experiences we want and then before you know it, its time to go. If you want to get the most out of your precious moments of life, you have to know what you want.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to have every single moment of your life planned out. After all, what’s a vacation without a little serendipity? During your journey, you’ll find lots of interesting things to see and do that you never would have thought of before you started. Heck, your destination might change as you travel down the road and learn more about yourself and the world you inhabit. But without a clear sense of what you want to do and where you want to go, you’ll never be able to live life to the fullest.

Be sure to check out our article on how to set goals to learn how to set goals for yourself, if you want to harness the power of goal setting to improve your life.