Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Internal Motiviation: Thoughts on this Rosh HaShana.

There was a talk sitting open in my web browser for over month.  Every time I closed the browser and then reopened it, the previously opened tabs would refresh and there was this talk, waiting for me to give it attention.  This week, I finally took twenty minutes to watch Dan Pink talk about  “The Surprising Science of Motivation.”  Pink, a former speechwriter for Vice-President Al Gore, looks at what motivates people to succeed, the role that incentivizing plays in their motivation, and suggests a different model and focus.  

While it is generally believed that  financial incentives and other forms of external motivation lead to higher performance, studies  from eminent social scientists and economists prove the opposite.  That is, “outside of a specific number of concrete tasks, financial incentives designed to promote success lead to a decrease in performance ...Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind.”   They cut out more creative responses.  

Pink believes that we live in a different world where the “definitional tasks of the 21st century” are “right-brained, creative, conceptual” kinds of tasks”  and that “the secret to high performance is...that unseen intrinsic drive: The drive to do things for their own sake; The drive to do things because they matter,”  to be engaged.  The intrinsic motivators Pink is referring to are:

“Autonomy - The urge to direct our own lives.

Mastery - The desire to get better and better at something that matters.

Purpose - The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

Yes, people want to be and should be compensated fairly for their work.  But financial compensation is not the effective motivator we think it is; rather, in a world where more creative solutions to ever more challenging problems is the norm, people are highly motivated by the intrinsic value of the goal, finding the solution or the next way to change the world .  

At first glance,  this model of “intrinsic motivation” appears to be in conflict with the reward & punishment language, the external motivations, the compliance language of the High Holiday liturgy, the prayers and poems that we will recite for hours during the next few days and weeks.  We get clear messages about compliance:

Do the mitzvot, get rewards.  
Don’t do the mitzvot, get punished.  
Behave properly, get inscribed in The Book of Life.  
Behave badly, die by fire, water, beasts, etc.  

In the Torah readings leading up to Rosh HaShanah, the theme of reward and punishment, of if/then outcomes, crescendos as we enter the Day of Judgement. The climactic moment of the message comes in the form of the Akedah - the Binding of Isaac, where Abraham is willing to comply at all costs, stopped from complying only by the voice of the Divine Representative.

Autonomy, mastery and purpose, the intrinsic motivators as Pink describes them, however, are not in conflict with the language of the Mahzor or the Torah.  Free Will, a God-given gift, is how we live.  We get to choose and our choices have consequences.  We are driven to direct our own lives, to be autonomous human beings. That does not mean that we live without consequences; rather, we get to make our choices and we get to live with the positive implications of our choices along with the negatives.  The process of Teshuva - repentance - is the natural outcome of Free Will.  If we did not have the autonomy to choose, we would never need to be reflective about our choices, to ask someone for forgiveness.

People are driven to get better and better at things that matter, that have meaning.  This is true about our souls just as it is true about our jobs.  Living a meaningful life and connecting with God, growing in a life of  and deepening our understanding of the Mitzvot leads to a deeper Human-Divine Relationship which ultimately leads to a greater sense of Purpose:  Making this world an appropriate home for God, its Creator.  Thus, we get to choose what relationship with God and with people we want.  We strive to deepen that connection in order to be engaged in the process of perfecting the world, the ultimate of Purposes.  Tefillah and Tzedakah - personal spiritual refinement and reflection, deeper conversations with our souls and with our God,  along with acts of Justice and Righteousness not only diminish “severity of the decree.”  They bring goodness to the world, they direct purpose, they lead us to change the world.

During this season of reflection and commitment to repentance, change and improvement , when we sit in synagogues throughout the world, let’s make sure that we are working to move deeper into the mitzvot and into our relationship with God.  Let us do so motivated not by external motivators or rewards but out of a desire to exercise our autonomy, our free will to live in full covenantal relationship.  Let’s commit to mastering our skills of forgiving others, of asking for forgiveness.  Let’s commit to picking Mitzvot that we get better and better at doing.  And let us all do this for the sake of the greater Purpose of being engaged in the process of partnership with God in perfecting the world.

For all of us, may this be a year of intrinsic motivators and autonomy, mastery and purpose.  

Let this be a year of Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah.  

And may this be a year where all of us enjoy good health and happiness, joy in the Mitzvot, and success in engaging with the process of repairing ourselves and our world.

שנה טובה ומתוקה!

The entire talk, and a transcript are available at

This article was modified from a D’var Torah delivered on Shabbat Nitzavim - Vayelekh in honor of the Bat Mitzvah of our friend Ilana Gorod and appeared in HaMirpeset Shelanu, the weekly newsletter of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.