• Josh Vaisman

Purpose, Motivation, and the Man on the Moon

Updated: Sep 6, 2018

Sometimes I daydream about winning the lottery. I’ll admit it. I’m a huge believer in the findings of positive psychology research so I know money only increases happiness up until a salary of about $75,000 a year. (It’s like the Beatles were the first positive psychologists!). Still, I wouldn’t exactly be upset if I suddenly had, say, a few million bucks in my bank account.

Money only increases happiness up until a salary of about $75,000 a year.

Even to my greedy little eyes winning the lottery isn’t exactly “motivational.” I'm not jumping out of bed in the morning excited to work on buying that winning ticket. What if that few million bucks was incentive for my dedication, innovation, and creativity at work? Turns out, even a massive financial external motivator doesn’t really cut it.

In a landmark experiment, behavioral economist Dan Ariely tested the power of money as an external motivator. To give small amounts of cash huge motivating power he went to India to conduct his study - a place where 50 cents is a good day’s pay in many rural parts. In his experiment he had participants complete a series of memory and concentration tasks. They were divided into three groups – a low bonus group that got 50 cents for completing the tasks, a medium bonus group that got $5.00 if they succeeded, and a high bonus group that got $50 for success, the equivalent of 5 month’s pay. The results were astounding.

The low and medium bonus groups performed essentially the same. We’d assume the high bonus group, with 5 months’ pay on the line, would blow the others out of the water. They didn’t. In fact, they performed significantly worse! And Ariely has repeated these results over and over in other experiments.

So what does motivate us? What really gets us jazzed at work, performing at the highest reaches of our potential? The answer is intrinsic motivation and one powerful version of it is purpose.

There’s a great story about President John F Kennedy. I don’t know if it’s pure truth but it certainly has power. The story goes, JFK was preparing to give a speech to rile up support for the Apollo missions when get got turned around in the halls of NASA. He ran into a janitor, stopped, and asked the custodian, “What do you do here?” The fella simply replied, “I’m putting a man on the moon,” and returned to his work.

That story gives me goose bumps!

That’s purpose-driven intrinsic motivation at work. It’s easy to have the Monday Blues when you’re only purpose in life is to clean floors. A bit harder to think about a “sick day” when you think of your work as critical to putting people safely on the moon!

Research clearly shows when people have purpose – when they are intrinsically motivated in their work – they perform better, are more engaged, creative, and energized and are far less likely to leave their job. Interestingly, adding money to the mix ends up killing the intrinsic motivation and all its benefits. When we incentivize work that in and of itself was already rewarding we apply what economists call the “crowding out” effect. Our employees stop experiencing the intrinsic joy of their work and become laser focused on the reward they could receive for “success.” Minds narrow, fight or flight responses kick in and the goal post becomes fixed in space. The problem with a goal post is we can reach it – then what?

Research clearly shows when people have intrinsic motivation at work they perform better, are more engaged, creative, and energized and are far less likely to leave their job.

It’s true, I dream of big piles of cash. Me, laying on a bed of Benjamins, watching really horrible movies on my gigantic home theater, the biggest bag of salty popcorn known to man by my side. But then I wake up, get out of bed, put on my Positive Change Ninja suit and get to work writing blogs like this. Because what really gets me jazzed each day is working on bringing my purpose to life. What are you going to do to bring your purpose to life?

- written by Josh Vaisman