What motivates us? Why do we do what we do? Do you do what you do for money, fame, notoriety, or general good will? (As a blogger and a landscape architect, I can tell you that neither of the things I do are for the big buckaroos. So why do I do what I do? And what motivates us to work hard – or other times, not at all?)

RSA, an organization for arts and “21st century enlightenment,” puts together fabulous videos and graphics about motivation, education, arts, and teaching – among other topics.  Below is a link to their well-animated video about what movitates us and why we do what we do.   Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly), autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the three most important factors that drive worker productivity and success, not necessarily monetary incentives or higher pay (sorry, but bonuses just don’t cut it!). Based on research done by MIT and other economics and motivation schemes, this video tells a story about why we do what we do – and what to do to motivate people (and employees).

Here’s what they found, in a nutshell:  “Once tasks go beyond rudimentary cognitive skill … larger rewards lead to poorer performance.” In contrast to what fundamental economics principals will tell us (higher rewards = better performance), this finding is somewhat strange. They tested it in multiple countries with different relative incomes (such as rural India versus the United States), and consistently found that higher incentives led to poorer performance. Thus, it’s not how much you get paid for the tasks you do — but whether or not the tasks involve appropriate levels of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  For tasks that are complicated, innovative, and require conceptually-based critical thinking skills, people’s performance is consistently better when they can work on what they want, how they want, whenever they want.

Google offers their employees 20% time to work on their own research projects of their choosing. Supposedly this is how gmail and other applications have been developed – by allowing the employees time to use creatively in their own way. Tell me what you think. Do you get free time at your work? Do you have autonomy? Do you work in an environment that allows you to create – and address – your own challenges, ideas, and inventions?

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