Several years after reading it, I still refer people to Daniel Pink’s book Drive: What Really Motivates People. It’s an excellent frame to the discussion of grading in school and job performance in business. The short story—and no surprise to me as it aligns with the way I’ve taught my whole life—is that the carrot (praise and the promise of reward) and the stick (harsh critique and the promise of painful punishment) have their place in the ecology of motivation for immediate short-term tasks. Things like getting my granddaughter to eat all her vegetables and stop bonking her brother on his head with her spoon.
But the long term motivators come from our deep human drives to feel good about what we do and how we do it. Pink summarizes it thus:
Autonomy: The freedom to figure out our own way to do and/or understand something and the faith from our teachers/ bosses that we’re intelligent enough to figure stuff out.
Mastery: Our innate drive to master physical tasks and understand what we’re doing. The pleasure of making progress, from learning to ski to learning to speak Spanish to playing Bach’s Inventions needs no threat of punishment nor promise of reward. The pleasure is simply in the doing and the satisfaction of improving.
Purpose: The feeling that this is a worthy task is essential to the whole triad of motivation. To spend hours memorizing the imports and exports of Paraguay when it’s clear that this information most likely will never be useful or affect your quality of life kills your motivation.
But yesterday driving to school listening to John Coltrane after hearing about the Las Vegas massacre, I thought a lot about purpose. I mean here is Coltrane who spend hours every day of his life to master the physical technique of his demanding tenor sax instrument, coordinating both fingers and breath, hours learning and memorizing a mammoth repertoire of existing jazz tunes, hours practicing scales and understanding chord progressions, hours composing new compositions in jazz style that went beyond the known, hours spent rehearsing with other musicians and listening deeply to their voices and responding in turn. In case you’re adding up all those hours and think there are too many, most of those things were going on simultaneously within the many hours each day he dedicated himself to mastering his craft, finding his own autonomous way to understand and express it (composition and improvisation), working tirelessly to master the necessary theory and technique to express it fully and all of it driven by his clearly stated purpose of praising the divine Spirit and bringing peace and happiness to all. He used his short years on this planet (he died at 41 years old) stretching to the edge of human capability and using everything humans are endowed with at the highest level he could imagine.
Contrast the people who used— and use— their human intelligence creating and building and selling and shooting ever more deadly assault weapons. People planning not how to improvise through chord changes, but how to murders dozens of innocent people. People mastering their shooting skills and deepening their understanding of their weapons. They’re using the same faculties Coltrane did, but to what purpose? And Hitler, who was a good organizer, did as well and Columbus, who was a good sailor, and all the right-wing talk show radio personalities and their Fox News allies who tell purposeful lies and spin the news to make people hate the people they choose, blame others, feel fearful of the wrong things and the wrong people and act accordingly—they're good at their job. But is the job good? The Blue Angels are swooping overhead as I write and yes, they are masterful in their artistry and accomplished in their flying skills, but again, to what purpose. Shameless waste of precious fossil fuels and making entertainment out of what is real terror in many countries worldwide.
All of those folks were granted the autonomy to figure out how to do their dirty work and afforded the practice to master it so they did it well. But again I ask—to what purpose? To line their own pockets, to confirm their hurtful ideology, to blame and harm innocent people and indeed, to help kill them—or at least remain silent or spin things around so they don’t have to consider that they’re implicated in innocent deaths.
School teachers, it’s time to teach children to align purpose with their beginning steps to mastery and don’t apologize if you’re helping them to consider a purpose that includes protection of life, healing of sorrow, compassion for suffering, affirmation of beauty, celebration of all diverse forms of living beings and courage to stand up to and speak out against those who squander their inheritance for self-serving and downright evil purposes. Teach them that purpose matters.
Because it does.