A TEDx talk by one of my favorites, Dan Ariely, elegantly captures what makes us work, beyond the paycheck. He starts with a pretty basic conundrum: Why do people willingly, even eagerly, engage in really hard work? Why do people climb mountains?
In the first part of the entertaining twenty minutes, he talks about how much people’s will to work is shaped by a sense of purpose. He describes a set of behavioral experiments that quantify how much less work people do when they realize their efforts are unappreciated or even futile. As intuition would suggest, if you ask people to do something meaningless—to create something that is never used, for example, or that is shredded before their very eyes—their enthusiasm plummets. It turns out that people work a lot harder for the same amount of money when they feel challenged and less when the sense of meaning evaporates.
In the last part of the talk, Ariely looks at the puzzle differently. He shows experiments in which subjects are asked to take on complex tasks, and then to rate the quality of the end product and to guess what others will think. The harder people work to create something, the more beautiful and valuable they think it is; they also expect others to appreciate the beauty and value. This is the case even when, objectively, what they have created is not beautiful and they could have made something more perfect had they chosen to work on a simpler task.
If you do take time to watch the talk I think you’ll get something out of it. What I got was a nudge to do a better job of providing feedback on the hard work that everyone in our Program does: appreciation but also meaningful responses. I could surely do more to communicate what I think when I read reports and proposals, or see how the various parts of grant farming is done, from seeds to harvest. I also got a better understanding of why we sometimes become strongly attached to the most complicated parts of the portfolio (or theory of change). We talk about going for the “low-hanging fruit” but nine times out of ten I think we (and the organizations with which we work) actually are reaching for the upper branches and find it difficult and demotivating to abandon those in favor of challenges that are more likely to succeed. Like the research subjects in the video, the harder we work on something the more enchanting we think it is. In some cases, we may be listening to the siren song of spinning wheels.