Thursday, 3 February 2011

Daniel Pink and why we should all be stoics

I've been reading a lot of Daniel Pink and his very simple but very powerful (and experimentally proven) notion that external reward incentives hinder creativity.  He shows that the carrot and stick approach works well for needs low on the Maslow value pyramid (survival needs and basic routine tasks).  However, when we aim to satisfy our highest needs ( creativity, meaning, innovation), external incentives can make us perform poorly.  Instead, an internal drive where personal satisfaction is the only goal increases creativity and open, divergent thinking.  Short term goals and concrete incentives focus our minds required for routine algorithmic tasks.  But for heuristic, holistic "out side of the box" thinking we need to remove any thoughts of external reward (e.g. extra pay or "innovation bonuses").

He gives as an example the open source movement and wikipedia - people working for free have given money making corporations a serious run for their money.

He says that three ingredients are critical for this:
  • Autonomy
  • A feeling of Meaning and Community
  • A desire for Competence and Mastery
 This sounds like a fantastic socialist utopia - lets just not worry about pay, all for one, one for all, I'll do it my way, I'm in control and in the end there will be more than enough to go round.

But the fact is, the survival and routine tasks still need to be maintained. We can outsource some of this (number crunching, etc), but ultimately that's not sustainable - third world countries are catching up and have the same needs for creativity and fulfilment as anyone else.  Ultimately automation of as many tasks as possible and batch processing of routine tasks will get these algorithmic necessities out of the way to some extent, but someone still needs to turn the handle and monitor the results.  No automation process is perfect.  

So where as we may not be able to eliminate the boring (but critically vital) tasks, we must work to free up as much time from them as possible to have space for creative thinking.

Once we can take our minds off survival and maintenance (money, health, order, hygiene etc) we can be free to create. Without the external drivers there to focus our mind, our brains are free to explore connections and combinations that would never be found through narrow thought processes required for algorithmic execution.

Applying discipline and efficient processing is one way of freeing time and taking control of boring but required tasks. Another is reducing our needs all together. Less areas in our life that require additional maintenance and algorithmic attention will free up more time for creativity and fulfilment. Perhaps this is why a stoic, minimalist approach is very effective.  Minimizing our basic needs and attachments, we can spend less time maintaining superfluous baggage.  We still need to do it, because even very few possessions will require some looking after.  But at least we can cut it down to a minimum.  So perhaps that Bible verse about not worrying about what to wear and what to eat, as even the flowers are beautifully draped and the sparrows well fed, is a call in this direction. Worry less about stuff that will consume you time unnecessarily, keep it maintained well enough that you don't have to think about it.  And then your free to do the things that really matter.

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