In 1962 zoologist and surrealist painter Desmond Morris conducted an experiment where he let chimpanzees create art. They seemed to become immersed in the pleasure of creating. Art for arts sake. However, when rewards were introduced their focus shifted from one of creating to one of rewards. The work deteriorated. Pretty soon they put in the minimal amount effort needed to receive the reward.
Before this experiment took place Morris found a protegé in a chimpanzee called Congo. Congo actually outsold Morris! It’s a great story so watch the clip at the end of this post.
Similar experiments involving solving puzzles have been done by Harry Harlow and Edward Deci. The results? The same. When the focus shifts from the task at hand to the potential rewards our work starts to deteriorate.
This is why creative people need to be inspired. If we only do it for the money, it shows. And people don’t buy it.
Not to say that everything we do needs to be for free. It doesn’t. But we have to do it because we want to enjoy the experience to do it.
Now, there are people who do work for money. The job doesn’t matter as much to them. It’s just a good way to get the money you need to do the things you actually love. There’s no harm in that. As long as you do the job well.
Then there are those who try to do as little as possible for as much as possible. Trying to find ways to “cheat” the system. Some of them succeed and it points to the larger issue. These people don’t enjoy their work, if they did this kind of behaviour would be intrinsically unacceptable. They lack the inspiration to be better because the system in place doesn’t let them use their talents. Hey, they MUST be creative to come up with a plan to cheat the system, right? How can we use that kind of a mind for good instead?
This reminds me of the story of Frank Abagnale. He was a check forger/confidence trickster/impostor who… Well, actually… You should see the movie “Catch Me If You Can” starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo Di Caprio. It’s a great story with one of the most beautifully crafted opening titles ever. See link at the bottom.
Once again the question of “why” comes up. Why are we doing what we’re doing? Is it only for the money? Is the a greater cause which we believe in that motivates us? Am I giving people/the world something I enjoy giving whether I get rewards or not?
If we honestly can answer that we’re giving of ourselves in a manner that serves both others and ourselves it is the most beautiful thing one can imagine. It fills us with a feeling of pride and unity. If you want to put it in scientific terms this type of activity releases serotonin and oxytocin.
The interesting fact about serotonin and oxytocin is that we can’t produce it entirely by ourselves. We need other people for that to happen. And it leaves us feeling fulfilled.
Simon Sinek has realesed a book called “Leaders Eat Last” where he goes deeper into the subject. If you want to know more about the effect of endorphines, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin watch the video of Simon Sinek’s talk for 99U at the bottom of this post.
Another great book covering the subject is Daniel H. Pink’s “Drive: The Suprising Truth About What Motivates Us”. He talks more about the experiments by Harry Harlow and Edward Deci.
Let the work be its own reward and what’s left is right.
Desmond Morris – Surrealist Art
Desmond Morris – Interview with Kate Bush
Catch Me If You Can – Opening Titles
Simon Sinek – Why Leaders Eat Last