My friend Liana recently loaned me the book How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen. Christensen (1952–2020) was one of the world’s most influential economists; he popularized the principle of “disruptive innovation”. In this book, he takes a number of principles and stories from the business world and shows how they have lessons for our personal lives. The book is divided into three sections: advice for your career, advice for being a parent, and staying out of jail.
The book was written because all of his classmates had such promising starts as they graduated from Harvard together – yet over the years, more and more of his classmates were disappointed by the outcomes of their careers and marriages; one even wound up in prison for his role in the Enron scandal. This shocked Christensen, who remembered his classmate being a decent person; something had clearly gone deeply wrong since his graduation.
When we look at one of the guys responsible for Enron, or (in another chapter) a trader who lied to cover up some bad trades and wound up bankrupting his company, it would be tempting to say “These were obviously bad people” and leave it at that. Christensen doesn’t take that approach. He observes that no-one intends to be a bad person. Evil sneaks up on you one little thing at a time. You do your best, make decisions that seem to make sense at the time, and before you know it your wife is divorcing you, your business has failed, or the cops are asking questions you don’t want to answer. By learning from the well-meaning mistakes of others, we can develop wisdom and live better lives. That’s the goal of this book.
Christensen has a lot of privilege I don’t share. But even though I’ll never attend Harvard or lead a megacorporation, some of this book’s lessons verify and add depth to things that video games have taught me. The main thrust of this book is taking lessons from the business world and showing how they apply to your personal life; over my next few posts, I’ll show how those same lessons show up in the game systems that more of us are familiar with. This post will focus on chapter 2: “What Makes Us Tick”.
Motivation and Leveling Up
There are two broad schools of thought about how to motivate workers. The first one is incentive theory, where you reward people (usually financially) for doing the right things. The theory is that people will do whatever gets them paid the most. If you incentivize things right, people will do what you want.
Incentivizing things right is more difficult than it sounds. There’s an old story that when England was ruling India, the British governors were dissatisfied with the overabundance of cobras in their territory, so they instituted a bounty program: locals could bring the governors dead cobras and be paid by the head. This worked well for a little while, but after another exhausting day of crashing around through the jungle with a machete looking for venomous snakes, some entrepreneurial Indian thought there’s gotta be a better way to do this and started a snake farm. He trapped some live cobras, mated them together, and started raising baby snakes. Chopping the heads off captive snakes and handing them in for the bounty turned out to be a lot easier than the old way of doing things, and so the idea spread. Raising snakes for bounty money turned into its own little cottage industry.
Eventually the British figured out what was going on. They announced that they were very disappointed in everyone, that this was not what they had intended when they instituted the program, and that the snake bounty program was hereby canceled. The snake farmers were disappointed, but they’d never hated cobras the way the British did, so rather than slaughtering the reptiles wholesale, they released them all into the wild. And that’s how at the end of the British snake bounty program there were more cobras in India than there were at the beginning.
The moral of the story is that when you’re setting up an incentive program, think very carefully about exactly what you’re incentivizing. What will the people who want different things than me do? How can my system be circumvented or subverted? Think about second- and third-order effects: if people respond the way I think they will, what will happen in response to that? Use the instincts you’ve learned in PVP games like chess or Magic: The Gathering and think a few moves ahead.
The alternative to incentive theory is motivation theory. Instead of paying people to do the things you want, think about what they want and find ways to align their work with it.
People commonly think of motivation as a spectrum from “highly motivated” to “poorly motivated”. Frederick Herzberg, the influential author of the Motivator-Hygiene Theory, says it’s actually two spectrums: the things we love about our job and the things we hate about it. We can passionately love and hate our job at the same time.
The first spectrum depends on the hygiene factors that will make us unhappy if they’re not addressed:
- work conditions
- supervisory practices
- job security
- company policies
- and, surprisingly, compensation.
Interestingly, Herzberg asserts that compensation is a hygiene factor, not a motivator. As Owen Robbins, a successful CFO and the board member who chaired our compensation committee at CPS Technologies, once counseled me, “Compensation is a death trap. The most you can hope for (as CEO) is to be able to post a list of every employee’s name and salary on the bulletin board, and hear every employee say, ‘I sure wish I was paid more, but darn it, this list is fair.’ Clayton, you might feel like it is easy to manage this company by giving incentives or rewards to people. But if anyone believes that he is working harder but is being paid less than another person, it would be like transplanting cancer into this company.” Compensation is a hygiene factor. You need to get it right. But all you can aspire to is that employees will not be mad at each other and the company because of compensation.
This is an important insight from Herzberg’s research: if you instantly improve the hygiene factors of your job, you’re not going to suddenly love it. At best, you just won’t hate it anymore. The opposite of job dissatisfaction isn’t job satisfaction, but rather an absence of job dissatisfaction. They’re not the same thing at all. It is important to address hygiene factors such as a safe and comfortable working environment, relationships with managers and colleagues, enough money to look after your family – if you don’t have these things, you’ll experience dissatisfaction with your work. But these alone won’t do anything to make you love your job – they will just stop you from hating it.
Hygiene factors are like the things you have to get right when developing a video game but which no-one is likely to praise you for: things like the menus, camera, and loading times. Your goal should be to get them to the point where they get out of the way of the things people actually enjoy, which we call motivators. Motivators include:
- challenging work
- personal growth
Motivators are intrinsic: they emerge out of the work itself, not the compensation package you negotiate in exchange for the work. Here’s an example from the author’s life:
When we bought our first house, I saw a place in the backyard that would be perfect for building a kid’s playhouse. Matthew and Ann were the perfect ages for this kind of activity, and we threw our hearts into the project. We spent weeks selecting the lumber, picking the shingles for the house, working our way up through the platforms, the sides, the roof. I’d get the nails most of the way in and let them deliver the finishing blows. It took longer that way, of course, figuring out whose turn it was for every stroke of the hammer and cut of the saw. It was fun, however, to see their feelings of pride. When their friends came to play, the first thing my children would do was take them into the backyard and show them the progress. And when I came home, their first question was when could we get back to work.
But after it was finished, I rarely saw the children in it. The truth was that having the house wasn’t what really motivated them. It was the building of it, and how they felt about their own contribution, that they found satisfying. I had thought the destination was what was important, but it turned out it was the journey.
It is hard to overestimate the power of these motivators – the feelings of accomplishment and of learning, of being a key player on a team that is achieving something meaningful. I shudder to think that I almost bought a kit from which I could have simply assembled the playhouse myself.
This concept is instantly familiar to any seasoned gamer. Games specialize in throwing lots of interesting, voluntary challenges at us. We love these challenges; they’re the heart of our hobby. But the joy of having completed the challenges fades quickly; it’s joy of working on them that keeps us playing. I have hundreds of completed games in my library. But completed games don’t feel like trophies; they feel like empty pizza boxes after the delicious contents have been joyfully devoured. Games are about the journey, not the destination.
This is what the best kind of work is like. If money wasn’t a problem – if all your financial needs were taken care of – what would you want to do? Games are fun, but you will get tired of them if that’s all you do. What kind of work engages you and gets you into that state of flow where you’re joyfully pushing the limits of your own capability?
The question feels almost impossibly idealistic. The kinds of things we love doing best usually aren’t the things people are paid well for. I love writing; my wife loves creating art with needle and brush; neither of these is known for paying well. Yet the vision of developing a skill we enjoy and working in a state of flow every day is too beautiful to discard. I treat it as a north star, sailing toward a goal I will never completely reach. But Motivator-Hygiene theory at least describes the goal clearly: get a job that fulfills your motivators and doesn’t trip your hygiene flags. And don’t confuse one for the other.
Realistically, you probably won’t be able to 100% both checklists; you will need to decide how much of each one you’re willing to sacrifice to improve the other. In my case, writing full-time would satisfy my motivators well, but I don’t think it would pay enough to sustain me. Front-end web development pays better, and its mix of creativity and abstract thought is also quite satisfying. I could earn more money by switching to back-end web development or artificial intelligence, but those fields aren’t as visually creative; I don’t think I would find them satisfying, so I’m sticking to front-end web dev.
Much of this chapter warns against putting money first. The author has had lots of students who used hygiene factors to choose their careers. They figured they’d take care of money first, and once they had that covered they would pivot to something meaningful. This is a trap. As your salary goes up, typically your lifestyle does too. After all, why shouldn’t you enjoy the fruits of your labor? But once you’ve paid off your student loans, provided a comfortable foundation for your family, and established a high-flying lifestyle, switching to a career that doesn’t pay as well becomes really painful. Going from being rich but aimless to fulfilled but poor – and taking your family with you – is too difficult a leap for most people.
The point isn’t that money is the root cause of personal unhappiness. It’s not. The problems start occurring when it becomes the priority over all else, when hygiene factors are satisfied but the quest remains only to make more money.
The pursuit of money can, at best, mitigate the frustrations in your career – yet the siren song of riches has confused and confounded some of the best in our society. In order to really find happiness, you need to continue looking for opportunities that you believe are meaningful, in which you will be able to learn new things, to succeed, and be given more and more responsibility to shoulder.
Christensen wouldn’t put it in these terms, but he’s talking about leveling up. The reason the leveling-up mechanic has spread from Dungeons & Dragons to the majority of modern gaming is because it’s so deeply satisfying. You start doing something you’re not very good at, you practice it, and you get better. This is intrinsically rewarding: even if you’re not getting paid for it, mastering something feels good. The best games have smooth progression curves: you learn new things and are given new challenges at just the right rate – not too easy, not too hard. When we’re asked to perform too far beyond our skill level or prevented from moving onto challenges we’re ready for, work stops being rewarding.
For many of us, one of the easiest mistakes to make is to focus on trying to over-satisfy the tangible trappings of professional success in the mistaken belief that those things will make us happy. Better salaries. A more prestigious title. A nicer office. They are, after all, what our friends and family see as signs that we have “made it” professionally. But as soon as you find yourself focusing on the tangible aspects of your job, you are at risk of becoming like some of my classmates, chasing a mirage. The next pay raise, you think, will be the one that finally makes you happy. It’s a hopeless quest.
The theory of motivation suggests you need to ask yourself a different set of questions than most of us are used to asking.
- Is this work meaningful to me?
- Is this job going to give me a chance to develop?
- Am I going to learn new things?
- Will I have an opportunity for recognition and achievement?
- Am I going to be given responsibility?
These are the things that will truly motivate you. Once you get this right, the more measurable aspects of your job will fade in importance.
If that feels like a lot, I leave you with these encouraging words from the vlogbrothers (3m47s).
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