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The surprising reasons we like to work

In this TEDxRiodelaPlata talk Dan Ariely answers the question: what makes us feel good about our work? Is efficiency still more important than meaning?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn’t just money. But it’s not exactly joy either. It seems that most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose.

I want to talk a little bit today about labor and work. When we think about how people work, the naive intuition we have is that people are like rats in a maze — that all people care about is money, and the moment we give people money, we can direct them to work one way, we can direct them to work another way. This is why we give bonuses to bankers and pay in all kinds of ways. And we really have this incredibly simplistic view of why people work and what the labor market looks like.

At the same time, if you think about it, there’s all kinds of strange behaviors in the world around us. Think about something like mountaineering and mountain climbing. If you read books of people who climb mountains, difficult mountains, do you think that those books are full of moments of joy and happiness? No, they are full of misery. In fact, it’s all about frostbite and difficulty to walk and difficulty of breathing — cold, challenging circumstances. And if people were just trying to be happy, the moment they would get to the top, they would say, “This was a terrible mistake. I’ll never do it again.” (Laughter) “Instead, let me sit on a beach somewhere drinking mojitos.” But instead, people go down, and after they recover, they go up again. And if you think about mountain climbing as an example, it suggests all kinds of things. It suggests that we care about reaching the end, a peak. It suggests that we care about the fight, about the challenge. It suggests that there’s all kinds of other things that motivate us to work or behave in all kinds of ways.

Adam Smith versus Karl Marx

If you think about Adam Smith versus Karl Marx, Adam Smith had the very important notion of efficiency. He gave an example of a pin factory. He said pins have 12 different steps, and if one person does all 12 steps, production is very low. But if you get one person to do step one and one person to do step two and step three and so on, production can increase tremendously. And indeed, this is a great example and the reason for the Industrial Revolution and efficiency. Karl Marx, on the other hand, said that the alienation of labor is incredibly important in how people think about the connection to what they are doing. And if you make all 12 steps, you care about the pin. But if you make one step every time, maybe you don’t care as much.

And I think that in the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith was more correct than Karl Marx, but the reality is that we’ve switched and now we’re in the knowledge economy. And you can ask yourself, what happens in a knowledge economy? Is efficiency still more important than meaning? I think the answer is no. I think that as we move to situations in which people have to decide on their own about how much effort, attention, caring, how connected they feel to it, are they thinking about labor on the way to work and in the shower and so on, all of a sudden Marx has more things to say to us. So when we think about labor, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing, but the reality is that we should probably add all kinds of things to it — meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride, etc. And the good news is that if we added all of those components and thought about them, how do we create our own meaning, pride, motivation, and how do we do it in our workplace and for the employees, I think we could get people to both be more productive and happier.

Still curious? Read Dan Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.