Category: Culture

Carol Dweck: When a Fixed Mindset is Better than a Growth Mindset

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
— Chuck Close

***

“So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset,” writes Angela Duckworth. “It is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort.” Carol Dweck’s insights about “fixed” vs. “growth” mindsets are the key.

Below find a talk Dweck gave at Google, with some excerpts that I found particularly interesting. She talks about what keeps her up at night, how to encourage children, the role of shame, and whether a fixed mindset can be more beneficial than a growth mindset.

When asked what keeps her up at night in regards to the thought of someone challenging, disproving or using her theories.

Yes. I always had this attitude of challenging my ideas and my theories because if you’re wrong you want to know it as soon as possible. You don’t want to spend your life on it. So… what keeps me up at night in a good way are different areas where it could be applied. So we have a whole program of research on peace in the Middle East where we’re using Mindset principles, I’m not minimizing the hugeness of the problem but we’re using Mindset principles to try to build some greater understanding. So I love to think of ways that we can extend it into areas we never thought of before. I love to think of ways to implement it so that more kids who need this way of thinking can benefit from it. And something that also keeps me up at night is that fear that people are developing what i’m calling a ‘false growth mindset’.It’s this idea ‘if it’s good I have it’. So a lot of people are kind of declaring they have it but they don’t. They think it just means open-minded or being a nice person or maybe they are saying it for fixed mindset reasons, I want you to judge me as being the right kind of person. So developing a growth mindset is really a journey, a lifelong journey of monitoring your trigger points and trying to approach things and a more growth mindset way of taking on the challenges, sticking to them, learning from them. Right now I’m writing something for educators that I’m calling ‘false growth mindset’ to tell them ‘no, you can’t just say it, you have to take a journey’ because we’re doing research now showing that many teachers and parents that say they have a growth mindset are actually responding to kids in ways that are creating fixed mindsets for kids. So that’s kind of the array of things that keep me up at night. But that said, I do sleep pretty well.

When asked what you should say to encourage a child when you can’t use words like smart.

The question is if you can’t say smart, what can you say? You can say so many other things. One thing is you can just show interest in the process that the child or other person is engaging in and in our research that’s what we’ve shown is effective, focusing on the process or appreciating the process someone is engaging in or has engaged in so just show interest, ask questions, give encouragement if they’ve been grappling with something and they’ve tried new strategies or stuck to the strategy. One parent said, ‘oh I hate it ’cause I can’t appreciate it when my child does something great.’ I said, ‘well where did you get that from?’ Of course you can appreciate it, then tie it to something they engaged in. ‘Oh, you couldn’t do that yesterday, you made progress, that’s so exciting, oh that’s great you really stuck to it and learned it. Or, you tried all different ways and look that worked.’ So you’re really appreciating some outcome where they are and you’re talking about how they got there. But if you don’t have that information just ask them. Never praise effort that isn’t there.

When asked how she thinks shame plays a part in a fixed versus growth mindset?

Oh, that’s a great question. We have studied that and we have shown that shame is a big factor in a fixed mindset. You don’t want to take on a challenge. It’s humiliating to have a setback within a fixed mindset, it means you’re not the person you want to be and other people aren’t going to look at you in the same way. We’ve studied it in adolescence, adolescents in a fixed mindset feel incredible shame when they are excluded or rejected and that makes them want to lash out violently. And research for many years, many people’s research has shown that shame is not a productive emotion. It makes you want to hide or lash out, both of which are not gonna get you, in the long run, where you want to be. In a growth mindset you can feel very disappointed. You can feel hurt. You can feel guilty. You can feel a lot of things but these are emotions that allow you to go forward and be constructive.

When asked if she sees any context in which a fixed mindset is more beneficial than a growth mindset?

Well, first let me say that a growth mindset doesn’t require you to go around improving everything. You can focus and you can say no I’m not gonna do that, no I’m not gonna do that. But research, not my research but research of others has in fact looked at this question and found two areas so far in which a fixed mindset is better. One is sexual orientation. People who accept that this is who they are and this is who they’re meant to be seem to be better adjusted than people who think ‘I should be changing.’ And the other is aging. So, it’s nice to feel you can stay young through exercise and so forth but people who run around nipping and tucking and the tummy tuck and the this that and the other and it’s kind of a desperate attempt to retain extreme youth that doesn’t seem to be so great either. But when it comes to skill areas it looks like a growth mindset is typically more advantageous.

Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is worth reading in its entirety.

Religion and History: Will Durant on the Role of Religion and Morality

“Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age.”

***

Will and Ariel Durant have written a masterpiece in The Lessons of History. Inside the book, which is a condensed version of his life work, you can find an interesting chapter entitled Religion and History that explores the role of religion throughout history. 

Scientists often question the value of religion. Durant demurs:

To the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved, the old, it has brought supernatural comforts valued by millions of souls as more precious than any natural aid. It has helped parents and teachers to discipline the young. It has conferred meaning and dignity upon the lowliest existence, and through its sacraments has made for stability by transforming human covenants into solemn relationships with God. It has kept the poor (said Napoleon) from murdering the rich. For since the natural inequality of men dooms many of us to poverty or defeat, some supernatural hope may be the sole alternative to despair. Destroy that hope, and class war is intensified. Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up; when religion declines Communism grows.

The role of religion and morality is not clear at first. According to Petronius, who echoed Lucretius, “it was fear that first made the gods.” The fear he was talking about was a fear of the unexplainable — fear of hidden forces in the earth, oceans, skies, and rivers.

Religion became the propitiatory worship of these forces through offerings, sacrifice, incantation, and prayer. Only when priests used these fears and rituals to support morality and law did religion become a force vital and rival to the state. It told the people that the local code of morals and laws had been dictated by the gods.

In the eyes of the Durants, the effect of this new moral law was to dampen the worst of moral disorder—sensuality, drunkenness, coarseness, greed, dishonesty, robbery, and violence.

"Gregory VII saying Mass" (Via Wikipedia)
“Gregory VII saying Mass” (Via Wikipedia)

 

“Though the Church served the state,” they write, “it claimed to stand above all states, as morality should stand above power.” The idea of a moral superstate briefly come to fulfillment in the century after The Emperor Henry IV submitted to Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in 1077. The dream crumbled, however, under attacks of nationalism, skepticism and human frailty.

The Church, after all, was manned with men who proved all too human in their failings of greed and power. As states became stronger and wealthier they made the papacy a political tool. “Kings,” the Durants write, “became strong enough to compel a pope to dissolve the Jesuit order which had so devotedly supported the popes.” In response, the Church stooped to fraud. Increasingly the religious hierarchy spent time promoting orthodoxy rather than morality. The Inquisition almost killed the Church.

Even while preaching peace the Church fomented religious wars in sixteenth-century France and the Thirty Years’ War in seventeenth-century Germany. It played only a modest part in the outstanding advance of modern morality— the abolition of slavery.

This allowed the philosophers to take the lead in the humanitarian movements that “alleviated the evils of our time.”

History has justified the Church in the belief that the masses of mankind desire a religion rich in miracle, mystery, and myth. Some minor modifications have been allowed in ritual, in ecclesiastical costume, and in episcopal authority; but the Church dares not alter the doctrines that reason smiles at, for such changes would offend and disillusion the millions whose hopes have been tied to inspiring and consolatory imaginations. No reconciliation is possible between religion and philosophy except through the philosophers’ recognition that they have found no substitute for the moral function of the Church, and the ecclesiastical recognition of religious and intellectual freedom.

Does history support a belief in God?

If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative. Like other departments of biology, history remains at bottom a natural selection of the fittest individuals and groups in a struggle wherein goodness receives no favors, misfortunes abound, and the final test is the ability to survive. Add to the crimes, wars, and cruelties of man the earthquakes, storms, tornadoes, pestilences, tidal waves, and other “acts of God” that periodically desolate human and animal life, and the total evidence suggests either a blind or an impartial fatality, with incidental and apparently haphazard scenes to which we subjectively ascribe order, splendor, beauty, or sublimity. If history supports any theology this would be a dualism like the Zoroastrian or Manichaean: a good spirit and an evil spirit battling for control of the universe and men’s souls. These faiths and Christianity (which is essentially Manichaean) assured their followers that the good spirit would win in the end; but of this consummation history offers no guarantee. Nature and history do not agree with our conceptions of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under; and the universe has no prejudice in favor of Christ as against Genghis Khan.

Our Place in the Cosmos

Bronze statue of Bruno by Ettore Ferrari at Campo de' Fiori, Rome.
Bronze statue of Bruno by Ettore Ferrari at Campo de’ Fiori, Rome.

 

As science further develops, it shows our minuscule place in the cosmos. This knowledge further impairs Religion. We can date the beginning of the decline with Giordano Bruno and then with Copernicus (1543). In 1611 John Donne was “mourning that the earth had become a mere suburb in the world.” All was thrown into doubt. Francis Bacon proclaimed that science was the religion of the modern man. This was the generation that began the  “death of God” as an external deity.

So great an effect required many causes besides the spread of science and historical knowledge. First, the Protestant Reformation, which originally defended private judgment. Then the multitude of Protestant sects and conflicting theologies, each appealing to both Scriptures and reason. Then the higher criticism of the Bible, displaying that marvelous library as the imperfect work of fallible men. Then the deistic movement in England, reducing religion to a vague belief in a God hardly distinguishable from nature. Then the growing acquaintance with other religions, whose myths, many of them pre-Christian, were distressingly similar to the supposedly factual bases of one’s inherited creed. Then the Protestant exposure of Catholic miracles, the deistic exposure of Biblical miracles, the general exposure of frauds, inquisitions, and massacres in the history of religion. Then the replacement of agriculture— which had stirred men to faith by the annual rebirth of life and the mystery of growth— with industry, humming daily a litany of machines, and suggesting a world machine. Add meanwhile the bold advance of skeptical scholarship, as in Bayle, and of pantheistic philosophy, as in Spinoza; the massive attack of the French Enlightenment upon Christianity; the revolt of Paris against the Church during the French Revolution. Add, in our own time, the indiscriminate slaughter of civilian populations in modern war. Finally, the awesome triumphs of scientific technology, promising man omnipotence and destruction, and challenging the divine command of the skies.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Via wikipedia)
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Via wikipedia)

In a way Christianity lent a hand to its reduced place, by fostering a moral sense in believers that could no longer tolerate the vengeful God of traditional Theology.

The idea of hell disappeared from educated thought, even from pulpit homilies. Presbyterians became ashamed of the Westminster Confession, which had pledged them to belief in a God who had created billions of men and women despite his foreknowledge that, regardless of their virtues and crimes, they were predestined to everlasting hell. Educated Christians visiting the Sistine Chapel were shocked by Michelangelo’s picture of Christ hurling offenders pell-mell into an inferno whose fires were never to be extinguished; was this the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” who had inspired our youth?

The industrial revolution replaced Christian with secular institutions.

That states should attempt to dispense with theological supports is one of the many crucial experiments that bewilder our brains and unsettle our ways today. Laws which were once presented as the decrees of a god-given king are now frankly the confused commands of fallible men. Education, which was the sacred province of god-inspired priests, becomes the task of men and women shorn of theological robes and awe, and relying on reason and persuasion to civilize young rebels who fear only the policeman and may never learn to reason at all. Colleges once allied to churches have been captured by businessmen and scientists. The propaganda of patriotism, capitalism, or Communism succeeds to the inculcation of a supernatural creed and moral code.

But one lesson of history is that religion adapts and has a habit of resurrection. Often in the past it has nearly died only to be reborn.

Generally religion and puritanism prevail in periods when the laws are feeble and morals must bear the burden of maintaining social order; skepticism and paganism (other factors being equal) progress as the rising power of law and government permits the decline of the church, the family, and morality without basically endangering the stability of the state. In our time the strength of the state has united with the several forces listed above to relax faith and morals, and to allow paganism to resume its natural sway. Probably our excesses will bring another reaction; moral disorder may generate a religious revival; atheists may again (as in France after the debacle of 1870) send their children to Catholic schools to give them the discipline of religious belief.

Religion and Morality

If we are wondering whether history warrants the conclusion that religion is necessary for morality — “that natural ethic is too weak to withstand the savagery that lurks under civilization and emerges in our dreams, crimes, and wars” — we need look no further than the answer given by Joseph de Maistre who said: “I do not know what the heart of a rascal may be; I know what is in the heart an an honest man; it is horrible.” Whether religion must be the force to temper the hearts of future men and women, the Durants think that’s certainly been the case in the past:

There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion. France, the United States, and some other nations have divorced their governments from all churches, but they have had the help of religion in keeping social order. Only a few Communist states have not merely dissociated themselves from religion but have repudiated its aid; and perhaps the apparent and provisional success of this experiment in Russia owes much to the temporary acceptance of Communism as the religion (or, as skeptics would say, the opium) of the people, replacing the church as the vendor of comfort and hope. If the socialist regime should fail in its efforts to destroy relative poverty among the masses, this new religion may lose its fervor and efficacy, and the state may wink at the restoration of supernatural beliefs as an aid in quieting discontent. “As long as there is poverty there will be gods.”

The Lessons of History is full of condensed wisdom on the meaning of history, the age of play, the lessons of biological history, and more.

 

The Effect of Scale in Social Science, or Why Utopia Doesn’t Work

Scale in Social Science

The Math Behind Scale

In one of the more remarkable chapters of a remarkable book, Filters Against Folly, author Garrett Hardin discusses the effect of scale on values.

He opens with an interplay of biology and mathematics to answer a simple question: Why couldn’t a mouse be the size of an elephant?

The weight of an animal goes up as the cube of its linear dimensions, whereas the strength of its supporting limbs goes up only as the square…

Suppose we compare two identically shaped animals. Animal A is 3 units long (never mind what the units are), while animal B is 6 units long. How do their weights compare?

Weight of A = 3 cubed = 3 x 3 x 3 = 27

Weight of B = 6 cubed = 6 x 6 x 6 = 216

We can see that 216 is 8 times as great as 27; though animal B is only 2 times as long as animal A, it is 8 times as heavy. (Note that 2 cubed is 8.) As for the strengths of their legs:

Strength in A = 3 squared = 3 x 3 = 9

Strength in B = 6 squared = 6 x 6 = 36

So B’s legs can bear only 4 times as much weight as A’s legs. But B is 8 times as heavy, so B’s legs are only half as strong as they need to be (4 divided by 8)…If the material of which the legs are composed is the same, then the cross-sectional area of the leg has to be doubled. The leg has to be thicker.

Hardin concludes:

If mice evolved to be as big as elephants, their silhouette would be that of elephants…thus does simple mathematics prove the point that a mouse cannot be as big as an elephant.

The point isn’t that hard to grasp with some basic numerical fluency; physical law dictates that scale matters in all things.

Hardin wisely points out that once we’ve done the computation once, all that we really need to hang in our brain is the basic idea. We don’t need to re-run the numbers every time we think of the scale effect in order to recall the point.

This reminds us of Charlie Munger’s thought on statistics and practical usage:

But I know what a Gaussian or normal distribution looks like and I know that events and huge aspects of reality end up distributed that way. So I can do a rough calculation…but if you ask me to work out something involving a Gaussian distribution to ten decimal points, I can’t sit down and do the math. I’m like a poker player who’s learned to play pretty well without mastering Pascal.

We need to be numerate, but frequently, the precise calculation is not necessary. In many large areas of life, only knowing the rough calculation is plenty good enough.

Scale in Social Science

From there, Hardin goes on to point out that while physical science integrated scale long ago, social science has been quick to ignore its dictates.

What works at a small scale (say, a Utopian community), loses its effectiveness as it scales. Everything has a breakpoint.

The reason communism or utopianism can work at small scale is because of the tight knit nature of a small group. Think of your family dinner table: Do you need to trade chits to decide who gets to eat how much, or do you need some grand overseer to dole out the potatoes? No. You all simply take what you need for the meal, and make sure everyone has enough. Think of the shameful admonitions if you over-eat and leave another family member hungry.

The problem is that the concept doesn’t scale. Let’s run an example.

‘Lost’ as an Economics Lesson

Four people in a small boat land on a deserted island, and decide to split the labor and duties needed to survive. Bill does the hunting, Mary builds the shelter, Steve cleans the clothes, and Susan takes care of the fire. They all share in each other’s labors: Mary gets to eat what Bill killed and Bill gets to sleep in the shelter built by Mary. By and large, this is a workable system. To each according to his need, from each according to his ability – a concept we recognize as Marxism.

If Bill does not go hunting one afternoon, all four of them go hungry. Not only that, but Mary, Susan and Steve won’t be happy about that outcome. The hunger and shame placed on Bill will, generally, get him back on task the following day. And what if Susan decides to eat more than her fair share one night? The other three would not look kindly upon that, and Susan is likely to have to pull back on her eating.

There is no need for a management consultant to use motivational tactics to push Bill or punish Susan – the community works fine without it. And the four of them don’t need to use any sophisticated methods of trade either: Bill doesn’t need to sell his food to Susan in exchange for a night beside the fire. Such a system would be extremely inefficient among four people bound by tragedy and circumstance. And so the islanders live in relative peace.

After a few months, a cruise liner crashes nearby and four hundred people swarm on to the island. The original four, remembering how well their system worked, start assigning tasks: 40 people on hunting duty, 30 people tending to 8 different fires, 10 people on laundry crew, and so on. Assuming things will be the same, they set up the same “shared economy” system – take what you need, give what you can. We’re all good folk here.

Within a few weeks, the islanders notice that food is short and the clothes are taking weeks to get cleaned. One by one, the new cruise-liner folks are not holding their own, and they aren’t following the rules. The logic of the cheater is simple: If we’ve got enough food for 400, what’s the problem if I take a little extra? I’m really hungry today, and tomorrow I’ll eat a little less. Besides, Steve could stand to lose a few pounds and I’m malnourished. My need is greater. (Steve might not agree.)

Seeing one bad apple take more food than he or she deserves, the other islanders get a little jealous. If he’s going to take extra, why shouldn’t I? It’s only fair, after all. In no time, in-fighting begins and the island begins to schism.

The islanders decided to solve the problem with organization and oversight. The original four islanders form a Board of Overseers, doling out the food and the work duties with strong oversight and punishment as needed. As time goes on, the laundry folks decide they are working a lot harder than anyone else, and decide they won’t clean another pair of underwear for free. They being to trade their services for an equivalent amount of food, shelter, and fire. In turn, the hunters, the fire-builders, and the architects follow their lead.

What Happened?

By necessity, a utopian communist system is replaced by a combination of socialism and market-based capitalism. The problem is that the system of communist distribution which worked for a tight-knit group of 4 people did not scale to 400. Each person, less visible to the group and less caring about others they rarely interacted with, decided in turn to cheat the system just a bit, and only when “needed.” Their cheating had a small individual effect initially, so it went unnoticed. But the follow-on effect to individual cheating is group cheating, and the utopian goal of To each according to his need, from each according to his ability had the effect of expanding everyone’s needs and shrinking their ability, aided by envy and reciprocation effects. Human nature at work.

The problem with ignoring scale in social science, in Hardin’s view, is that it doesn’t work.

In an uncrowded world like the one our ancestors enjoyed in Pioneer America, a communistic arrangement may be satisfactory. Fruit taken from common-property trees present in excess, or game animals harvested from vast wild herds, do not demonstrably diminish the resources available next year. Communizing a cost of zero hurts no one. Similarly, wastes may be thrown away into vast areas without harming other people, so long as the metabolic powers of uncrowded nature are more than sufficient to recycle the elements.

But the poltico-economic system that works well on the frontier breaks down miserably in a world as crowded as ours. Unfortunately, long after the reality has vanished, the dream of an uncrowded world endures, often romantically glorified.

In a trivially abstract sense, would-be modern cowboys may have a good idea, but the scale is wrong. The judgment of “good” must be tied to scale

Check out Filters Against Folly for more brilliance.

The Single Best Interview Question You Can Ask

In Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future — more of an exercise in thinking about the questions you must ask to move from zero to one — there is a great section on the single best interview question you can ask someone.

Whenever Peter Thiel interviews someone he likes to ask the following question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

The most common answers, according to Thiel, are “Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.” “America is exceptional.” “There is no God.”

These are bad answers.

The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

[…]

What does this contrarian question have to do with the future? In the most minimal sense, the future is simply the set of all moments yet to come.

We hope for progress when we think about the future. To Thiel, that progress takes place in two ways.

Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work— going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things— going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. If you have a typewriter and build a word processor, you have made vertical progress.

best interview question peter thiel

At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization— taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. … The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress, is technology. … Because globalization and technology are different modes of progress, it’s possible to have both, either, or neither at the same time.

Peter Thiel
Here is Thiel’s answer to his own question:

My own answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. Without technological change, if China doubles its energy production over the next two decades, it will also double its air pollution. If every one of India’s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do— using only today’s tools— the result would be environmentally catastrophic. Spreading old ways to create wealth around the world will result in devastation, not riches. In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.

The Reasons We Work

Why do you go to work? Chances are it’s got something to do with money. But as most of us know, it’s more complicated than that. “There is a spectrum of reasons why people do their jobs,” write Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor in Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation.

“Understanding that spectrum is the key to creating the highest levels of performance.”

The authors argue there are six reasons we do anything. The first three they call indirect motivations and the latter three are direct motivations.

The Reasons We Work

The Direct Motives

Play

You’re most likely to lose weight—or succeed in any other endeavor— when your motive is play. Play occurs when you’re engaging in an activity simply because you enjoy doing it. The work itself is its own reward. Scientists describe this motive as “intrinsic.”

Play is what compels you to take up hobbies, from solving crossword puzzles to making scrapbooks to mixing music. You may find play in weight loss by experimenting with healthy recipes or seeking out new restaurants that offer healthy options. Many of us are lucky enough to find play in the workplace too, when we do what we do simply because we enjoy doing it.

Curiosity and experimentation are at the heart of play. People intrinsically enjoy learning and adapting. We instinctively seek out opportunities to play.

[…]

Play at work should not be confused with your people playing Ping Pong or foosball in the break room. For your people to feel play at work, the motive must be fueled by the work itself, not the distraction. Because the play motive is created by the work itself, play is the most direct and most powerful driver of high performance.

Purpose

A step away from the work itself is the purpose motive. The purpose motive occurs when you do an activity because you value the outcome of the activity (versus the activity itself). You may or may not enjoy the work you do, but you value its impact. You may work as a nurse, for example, because you want to heal patients. You spend your career studying culture because you believe in the impact your work can have on others. Dieters may not enjoy preparing or eating healthy meals, but they deeply value their own health, an outcome of healthy eating.

You feel the purpose motive in the workplace when your values and beliefs align with the impact of the work. Apple creates products that inspire and empower its customers, a purpose that is compelling and credible. …

The purpose motive is one step removed from the work, because the motive isn’t the work itself but its outcome. While the purpose motive is a powerful driver of performance, the fact that it’s a step removed from the work typically makes it a less powerful motive than play.

Potential

The potential motive occurs when you find a second order outcome (versus a direct outcome) of the work that aligns with your values or beliefs. You do the work because it will eventually lead to something you believe is important, such as your personal goals.

Dieters motivated by potential eat healthfully to achieve other things they care about—the ability to run faster on the football field, for example, or to keep up with their kids. When a company describes a job as a good “stepping-stone,” they’re attempting to instill the potential motive.

These are the direct motives. Direct because they generally connect to the work itself.

As a result, they typically result in the highest levels of performance. If you remember only one thing from Primed to Perform, it should be that a culture that inspires people to do their jobs for play, purpose, and potential creates the highest and most sustainable performance.

Not all motives correlate with higher performance. Motives that don’t connect to the work itself typically reduce performance.

The Indirect Motives

Emotional Pressure

The first indirect motive, emotional pressure, occurs when emotions such as disappointment, guilt, or shame compel you to perform an activity. These emotions are related to your beliefs (your self- perception) and external forces (the judgments of other people). The work itself is no longer the reason you’re working.

You may practice the piano so you don’t disappoint your mother. You may stay in a job because its prestige boosts your self-esteem. A dieter may eat healthy meals because he’s embarrassed by how he looks, or because he feels guilty when his partner catches him with his hand in the cookie jar.

In each case, the motive is not directly connected to the work. It is indirect.

When your motive to work is emotional pressure, your performance tends to suffer. … High-performing cultures reduce emotional pressure. … [E]motional pressure is the weakest of the three indirect motives. The effects of economic pressure can be much worse.

Economic Pressure

Economic pressure is when you do an activity solely to win a reward or avoid punishment. The motive is separate from the work itself and separate from your own identity (see Figure 3 for an illustration of this separation). In business, this often occurs when you’re trying to gain a bonus or a promotion, avoid being fired, or escape the bullying of an angry boss. Economic pressure can occur outside the workplace, whenever you feel forced to do something.

[…]

The biggest misconception about the economic motive is that it is strictly a matter of money. In a study we conducted involving more than ten thousand workers, we looked to see how the economic motive changes with household income. We expected to find that the people with the least income experienced the highest economic pressure. Instead, we learned that income and the economic motive were statistically unrelated. People at any income level can feel economic pressure at work.

This is an important insight. Money alone does not cause the economic motive.

[…]

There are situations where money works, and situations where it doesn’t. It all depends on whether or not the reward or punishment is the motive behind the activity, and whether the activity would benefit from adaptive performance.

Inertia

The most indirect motive of all is inertia. With inertia, your motive for working is so distant from the work itself that you can no longer say where it comes from—you do what you do simply because you did it yesterday. This leads to the worst performance of all. … As destructive and insidious as it is, inertia is surprisingly common in the workplace.

I’ll have more to say about culture but needless to say, this is only one lens.

Are You an Outsider Trying To Change A Broken System?

Elizabeth Warren was one of the key architects in the U.S. government’s response to the financial crisis. In her memoir, A Fighting Chance, Warren draws our attention to the troubling reality of high-level Washington.

One particular anecdote is worth noting for its penetrating insight into how the world actually works.

Warren was a member of the Congressional Oversight Panel, which, she writes, “couldn’t change a system that seemed hellbent on protecting the big guys and leaving everyone else by the side of the road.”

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

— Joseph Tussman

In 2009 after the panel had produced its third report, concluding that the risks to the American taxpayers were far greater than Treasury let on, Lawrence H. Summers, then the director of the National Economic Council and a top economic adviser to President Obama, “leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice,” Ms. Warren writes.

Larry’s tone was in the friendly advice-category. He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

And that is how the world inside government and organizations often works. You’ve been warned.