Modern Motivation

Imagine that you’re an economist in 1996 and you have to predict which of the following encyclopedias will be the largest and most successful in the world and which will be defunct in 2010.

  • Encyclopedia A is developed and funded by Microsoft. It will pay professional writers, researchers, and editors. Well-compensated managers will oversee the project to ensure it’s completed on budget and on time. Microsoft will sell the encyclopedia on CDs and online
  • Encyclopedia B won’t come from a company. It will be created by tens of thousands of people who write and edit articles for fun. They don’t have any qualifications and aren’t paid. The encyclopedia will exist entirely online for free.

It’s fair to assume that a 1996 economist would assume that Microsoft’s MSN Encarta would have been a slam dunk success. However, as we now know, MSN Encarta ended production in 2009, while Wikipedia is now the most popular encyclopedia in the world. How is that possible? How were all of the Wikipedia authors so motivated despite the lack of traditional “rewards” (money) and “punishments” (top-down management)?

In his New York Times bestseller Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates UsDaniel Pink attests that the secret to high performance and happiness at work, at school, and at home is the desire for autonomy and the innate interest to create new things. The goal is to increase intrinsic motivation, creativity, interest, and engagement and eliminate extrinsic motivations like rewards. The big question, of course, is how do we do that? We currently live in a world awash with extrinsic motivators – salaries, benefits, A+ grades, allowances, additional screen time, etc.  Pink recommends:


  • Allow children to choose when and how they will complete tasks
  • Encourage passion projects and hobbies
  • Allow children to offer self-evaluations before judging their successes


  • Allowances teach saving and spending habits, budgeting, and responsibility
  • Chores also teach responsibility, healthy life habits, and the importance of helping
  • By disconnecting the two, however, families are no longer transactional. Instead, children “learn the difference between principles and payoffs.”


  • Praise effort, not intelligence, but only when there is a good reason for it
  • Praise in private as a form of feedback, not as an award