Things I have learned from… Dan Pink’s Drive

I’ve read some great books recently which have influenced my thinking about why we connect, share and learn. So this is another post about one of those books: today I’m writing about Drive by Dan Pink.

I’m sure many of you have already seen Dan Pink’s TED talk from 2009… in fact, stop reading and go watch right now – even if you’ve already seen it. His observations about what motivates us are so fundamentally important that we should remind each other of them on a regular basis. His main point is that there’s a surprising truth about what motivates us. And there’s a massive gap between what science knows about motivation and what business actually does about it…

Why do we get out of bed?

The book starts by looking at the history of why we do things. Pink considers our ancestors’ basic need to hunt, gather and survive as an early operating system for society – a kind of ‘Motivation 1.0’. As communities emerged and groups got bigger we needed to organise ourselves to get stuff done. Soon we began to notice something interesting…that humans were more than the sum of their biological urges; we would avoid punishment and seek out reward. The idea of carrots and sticks was a powerful one and came in handy when we wanted to drive certain behaviours, whether that was to help organisations scale or to underpin law and order. This evolution Pink says was an upgrade to our motivational OS – a ‘Motivation 2.0’.

Business was booming for the carrot and stick. Organisations got bigger and leaner, and we invented Scientific Management to keep things ticking over. The assumption was that without stimulation, we are inert and passive – we need to be told what to do, how, when and why. Then in 1960 Douglas McGregor brought some of Abraham Maslow’s ideas into business thinking and suggested that we have a higher drive, an intrinsic motivation to work. We want to learn, to enjoy the task itself and to collaborate with others as we want. Over time, McGregor’s ideas seeped into the workplace; our offices and factories became more relaxed, our hours became flexible and our clothes more casual. Pink suggests that these were important changes, but they were only incremental to our good old carrot and stick. Today we have upgraded to Motivation 2.1, but that’s about it.

A higher drive

The book explores the idea of our intrinsic motivation in some depth, unpicking three specific elements: a need for autonomy, a need for mastery and a need for purpose. Together, Pink says, these motivations mean we’ll work harder, longer and very often for free because what we’re doing is enjoyable, it’s self-directed and we feel it matters. Pink intelligently likens motivations to natural energy resources… intrinsic motivations are renewable, like solar power – seemingly abundant and self-generating (if not sometimes difficult to tap into). Extrinsic motivations on the other hand are finite, like coal. Much easier to get to, but over time gets expensive to use (and often comes with unpleasant side-effects). We can see that short-term external rewards lead to short term thinking and ultimately cost us money, effort and time.

The book describes how over the long term, people motivated intrinsically will almost always out-perform those driven by external rewards – something we probably know intuitively. Whilst it’s true that short term rewards can drive good performances, the results can’t be sustained over time. And the research reveals something that I think is more fundamental; those who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to be physically and mentally healthy. I personally believe that that this is because those who do things because they have autonomy, master and purpose are more likely to be self-directed, self-energised and self-controlled; in short they will be more likely to have balance. And this I’m sure will influence the way they exercise, the way they eat, the way they spend their money and time.

Why we need an upgrade

There are two types of task: algorithmic i.e. there are established instructions and usually one outcome, like working on an assembly line; or heuristic i.e. there is no pattern or routine and it takes new ideas and creativity to come up with a solution, like working on a marketing campaign. For the last 100 years our work has mostly been algorithmic – one of the results of industrialisation. Today however, the book suggests we’re mostly heuristic workers. Machines and computers have taken over many of our factory and administrative jobs and organisations have outsourced what’s left of the routine-based, low-paid tasks in order to keep costs down. We’re now more likely to be doing right-brained thinking jobs than left-brained rule-based ones. As I wrote about recently, Clay Shirky puts it brilliantly when he said that nowadays more people are paid to think or talk than are paid to make and move things around.

And organisations themselves are changing. For many years we’ve considered the purpose of a business to maximise shareholder value. (Peter Drucker would say the purpose of a business is actually to create a customer, but that’s one for another post.) But a new type of organisation is emerging – those which are ‘for-purpose’ or ‘for-benefit’. These types of business make and sell products and services on the open market just like for-profits, but they do so for a wider purpose than just money and shareholder returns – for example their aim is to connect us, to educate us, to give a voice to the vulnerable, to organise the world’s information or to empower the individual. Purpose isn’t just a vision statement; it’s emerging as a fundamental reason why we work.

On top of all of this the field of behavioural economics is showing us that our traditional view of human behaviour and markets isn’t as we thought; we need to reconsider how individuals interact and the impacts of how we reward and recognise people. In fact, research shows shown that we’re very likely to be predictably irrational. In Drive, Pink suggests we need to reexamine how we motivate people and sets out the three reasons why today’s model – based on Motivation 2.0 – is broken:

  • Today’s workers are thinking creatively, not just following a routine or algorithm;
  • There’s lots of research which now shows that we’re intrinsically-motivated purpose maximisers and not just extrinsically-motivated profit maximisers (whilst money and profit have a part to play, they’re not the whole game); and
  • Our real-life behaviours are far more complex than textbooks often allow – our established view of the organisation and people is changing

Pink makes a compelling case that Motivation 2.0 is great for compliance, but that today we need engagement. Society’s operating system he says needs an upgrade; it’s time for Motivation 3.0. In my next post I’ll follow up with my main lessons from the book. For now though, go read it. It’ll change the way you think about why we do what we do.


  1. Daniel Pink

    Jamie —

    Thanks for the thorough and generous review (which discovered thanks to the hard-working elves at Google Alerts). Glad you found the ideas in DRIVE compelling.

    Dan Pink

  2. Pingback: Some lessons from Dan Pink’s Drive « Jamie Smith

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