I have argued that when seeking professional success, it is best to avoid zero-sum games (e.g., compete for one prestigious slot). It is more fun, less distracting and more productive to focus on non-zero-sum games. That is, you should try to grow the size of the pie, to create value for others out of thin air, instead of obsessing about your ranking.

I love to blog and to publish open source software. When I blog, I do not try to make it on a list of top bloggers… I try to write interesting and useful blog posts. When I publish open source software, my hope is that others will derive value from it… I am not competing to be recognized as one of the top open source programmers…

Of course, I do win some recognition and increased social status (and sometimes money) if people say that they like my blog, my software or my papers. Let me consider a specific example. With Leonid Boytsov and others, I have been working on fast integer compression techniques. Our paper (Decoding billions of integers per second through vectorization) and our corresponding software (1, 2, 3) has been used by brilliant authors who have won the best paper awards at the leading information retrieval conferences this year (ECIR 2014 and SIGIR 2014). Our own work did not win any award and the journal where it appeared has a mid-level ranking. Should I be worried? Of course not! I am as delighted as I could be… our work is proving useful!!! We are providing tangible values to others… My only concern right now is to figure out how to make our next work even more useful…

My motivation is primarily internal: I do the work I do because it is interesting and meaningful on its own. I feel that I help people, or contribute to Science. Sure, if I do good work, my social status or financial well-being might be helped, and that is great… I like money and modest accolades… but that is not what is getting me up in the morning. I am never going to win a Turing Award or a billion dollars, and that is quite fine with me…

I was chatting with a research fellow last week. He felt depressed that his work was “too simple” to warrant a slot at an exclusive conference like VLDB. His peers were encouraging him to “complexify” his work so that he could impress referees. I tried to argue that this was just wrong. He, quite rightly, argued back that it is how the game works… I guess you have to pay tribute to the “system”. But I am afraid that such tributes displace the good work that would otherwise happen.

Michael Hay pointed me to recent research that backs my intuition that external motivations can be distracting. Wrzesniewski et al. (2014) looked at the motivations of cadets and how well they succeeds.

Cadets may want to join a military academy for intrinsics reasons (to become a good soldier) or for extrinsic reasons (to get a good job). It is easy to predict that the soldiers with intrinsic motivations will outperform those with primarily extrinsic motivations. What is less obvious is that the cadets with mostly just intrinsic motivations will outperform those who have both kinds of motivations…

Following their entry into the Army, officers who entered West Point with stronger instrumentally based motives were less likely to be considered for early promotion and to stay in the military following their mandatory period of service, even if they also held internally based motives.

In other words, if you are pursing a career in science or software because it leads to a good and prestigious job (extrinsic motivation) and because you believe it is a meaningful and important activity (intrinsic motivation), you will do worse than if you have mostly just intrinsic motivation.

I believe that it is because external motivations (prestige, money) distract you from doing good work. It may lessen your intrinsic motivations.

My own mental abilities are greatly reduced if I have extrinsic motivations in mind. And there is a strong correlation between extrinsic motivations and zero-sum games (e.g., how well you are ranked).

17 Comments

  1. On a similar note, I’ve always said I’m too sane to accomplish anything great. If I put in the decades of thought, maybe I could become the P!=NP guy. If I turned my life upside down and worked 80 hours a week maybe I could be the next Gates or Zuckerburg.

    But you know what? I can make a living solving interesting problems that don’t get any accolades. I can work sane hours and enjoy hobbies and time with my family. Why would I want trade that for celebrity or wealth???

    I really believe that genius isn’t enough to accomplish things they write books about. You have to be a little crazy in one form or another too. Megalomania, or Daddy issues or whatever.

    Comment by Paul — 9/7/2014 @ 14:05

  2. Quite true. Attention capacity is limited. Having both motivations- intrinsic and extrinsic will obviously lessen the chances of being successful.

    Comment by Khursheed — 9/7/2014 @ 20:03

  3. Inspiring post as usual.

    Two thoughts:

    1. Can one really disconnect from extrinsic motives s/he might have? (sounds about zenish)

    2. Would it be fair to say that you can ‘afford’ to focus on your intrinsic motives, due to (for example) that you have a somewhat secured job? If so, what could someone who is not in that position do?

    Comment by Anonymous — 9/7/2014 @ 22:49

  4. Inspiring post as usual.

    Two thoughts:

    1. Can one really disconnect from extrinsic motives s/he might have? (sounds about zenish)

    2. Would it be fair to say that you can ‘afford’ to focus on your intrinsic motives, due to (for example) that you have a somewhat secured job? If so, what could someone who is not in that position do?

    Comment by Oshi — 9/7/2014 @ 22:55

  5. Fantastic post, as usual!

    Maybe it’s just because of the academic environment in which I have been living for the last 3 years, but I am thinking to this problem more and more in the last months. I have been meeting some future PhD students in my school and I comparing me with them I noticed the same two types of motivations (to start their PhDs).

    My question in this period is: Would my motivations to pursue an academic career be extrinsic or intrinsic? The question, of course, is the same even when I consider the possibility of working for a private company.

    I will read the papers you suggested!

    Thanks,
    michele.

    Comment by Michele — 10/7/2014 @ 2:51

  6. That is a great post, its very refreshing to hear that other people share that intrinsic motivation path. Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Olivier — 10/7/2014 @ 8:42

  7. @Anonymous

    The study I refer to was done on cadets, not tenured professors. It shows that the cadets who focus on intrinsic motivations do better, get promoted earlier and so on.

    It sounds wrong to ask how these cadets could afford to focus on intrinsic motivations… the real question is who can afford to take seriously extrinsic motivations?

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 10/7/2014 @ 8:55

  8. This isn’t just an academic profession issue. I see extrinsically motivated engineers and managers all the time crash and burn because they hate what they do. Too many look at the zero-sum game: if your minions do better than my minions, you’ll get a better raise than me. (and a lot of those extrinsically motivated guys treat their employees like minions.) Meanwhile, people that do work they enjoy are happier, healthier, and seem to have a much lower divorce rate.

    Comment by Doug — 10/7/2014 @ 10:40

  9. My motivation is primarily internal: I do the work I do because it is interesting and meaningful on its own. I feel that I help people, or contribute to Science. Helping people and contributing to science are extrinsic to fast integer compression techniques. It seems to me that this is not really about intrinsic versus extrinsic. Perhaps it is about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs). Perhaps the higher level motivations yield better quality results than the lower level motivations.

    Comment by Peter Turney — 11/7/2014 @ 7:22

  10. This relates to the parable of the three stonecutters (http://staroversky.com/blog/the-parable-of-the-three-stonecutters — widely repeated; could not find original source). The first stonecutter is at the physiological level of Maslow’s hierarchy. The second stonecutter is at the love/belonging level. The third stonecutter is at the self-actualization level. It seems likely that the third stonecutter cut the best stones. However, the lower level needs must be satisfied before we can worry about the higher level needs.

    Comment by Peter Turney — 11/7/2014 @ 7:48

  11. @Peter Turney

    I debated with myself as to whether I should define my terms, but I decided to refer implicitly the reader to Wrzesniewski et al.

    Though it may not match your intuition, what internal means here, roughly, is that you are interested in the task itself… You really want to do this one thing, not something else…

    Intrinsic here does not mean “in the individual” but “in the activity”. Wrzesniewski et al. makes this clear:

    We prefer the terms “internal” and “instrumental” to make clearer that the relation being described is between the activity (not the person) and the motive (…)

    The fact that the activity is useful, meaningful, that is identified as an internal motive by Wrzesniewski et al.:

    Schools and workplaces are full of systems that attempt to tap people’s internal motives to act (e.g., because engaging in the activity is the moral, interesting, or meaningful thing to do), while also providing rewards intended to spark instrumental motives to pursue the same acts (e.g., grades, bonuses, promotions, and so forth).

    Similarly, contributing to science is intrinsic… e.g., Wrzesniewski et al. write:

    The scientist may want to earn a good salary, to get promoted, and to win awards. Whereas there are many paths to high salaries, promotions, and recognition, there is only one path to scientific discovery—doing science.

    When I say that I am primarily intrinsically motivated, I mean that it is the task itself that interests me… If you were to ask me to do something else, I would resist you. You’d have to offer a large reward to convince me to switch to another task. E.g., if you told me “I’ll give you this large research grant if you switch to this other topic”, I would wonder whether the grant is large enough. You’d have to offer very generous terms.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 12/7/2014 @ 7:58

  12. @Peter Turney

    Indeed, the parable of the stonecutters is closely related. The third stonecutter finds meaning in the task itself, so he is primarily intrinsically motivated…

    I would argue that the second stonecutter may exhibit both internal and external motivation… he makes good money (external) and he has great expertise (intrinsic). Being really good at something and pursuing this expertise is a source of motivation… but it is internal to task at hand. Wrzesniewski et al. consider that cadets who want to become well trained soldiers are internally motivated. If you are motivated at the thought of getting awards for being good, then that would be external… but if you enjoy being a really good stonecutter… then it is internal to the task… the task itself takes a special meaning for you since it is something you are good at…

    However, the lower level needs must be satisfied before we can worry about the higher level needs.

    Let me restate differently a counterpoint I used. If you have heard that computer science majors earn good salaries, you might go into computer science… But if you do not care for computer science, then you may fail to graduate or be a really bad computer scientist. This may leave you in a difficult position.

    In a country like Canada, where we are all well fed and well clothed, I would argue that finding a meaningful activity to do is very important.

    I see many kids who take up college programs because the degree would be look good or serve them for other purposes. I also see many kids who never graduate, or graduate without the necessary skills.

    Ignoring internal motivations is definitively a cause for hardship.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 12/7/2014 @ 8:20

  13. When I say that I am primarily intrinsically motivated, I mean that it is the task itself that interests me… If you were to ask me to do something else, I would resist you. I think, if you dig deeper, you will always find some extrinsic motivation, such as one or more of the motivations in Maslow’s hierarchy. Why do you resist? Because money is low in the hierarchy. Because the task addresses a higher need in the hierarchy and it is aligned with your skills. If I asked you to do something else and that something else was a better fit with both your highest level motivations and your skills, then you would not resist. You said it yourself, “I feel that I help people, or contribute to Science.” These motivations are clearly extrinsic.

    Comment by Peter Turney — 12/7/2014 @ 8:28

  14. Indeed, the parable of the stonecutters is closely related. The third stonecutter finds meaning in the task itself, so he is primarily intrinsically motivated The vision of the cathedral motivates the stonecutter because he believes the cathedral will help people to celebrate their religion and it will have a positive impact on the community. Perhaps also it will be a work of art. The cathedral is not an end in itself. It is a means to satisfy the higher level needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.

    In a country like Canada, where we are all well fed and well clothed, I would argue that finding a meaningful activity to do is very important.
    I agree completely. It doesn’t take much money to satisfy the lower level needs. The majority can easily afford to focus on the higher level needs, and it will bring them more happiness than they would get from striving for more money.

    Comment by Peter Turney — 12/7/2014 @ 8:37

  15. When I say that I am primarily intrinsically motivated, I mean that it is the task itself that interests me If you were the last human alive on earth, would you continue to do research on fast integer compression techniques (after your basic needs for food and shelter were satisfied)? I doubt it. This shows that the task is not intrinsically rewarding. It is only rewarding in the context of contributing to human society, which is extrinsic to the task.

    Comment by Peter Turney — 12/7/2014 @ 8:56

  16. @Peter Turney

    I think, if you dig deeper, you will always find some extrinsic motivation (…) “I feel that I help people, or contribute to Science.” These motivations are clearly extrinsic.

    To avoid needless arguments, I think we can probably agree that some motivations make you better at a task while others distract you…

    So a good strategy could be to pursue tasks for reasons that are likely to make you better at it. E.g., if your sole reason for doing something is financial, maybe you should do something else. (That is not an argument to ignore financial rewards though.)

    It is not hard to believe that scientists who are motivated by the pursuit of Science are going to do better science. It is also not hard to believe that if you are motivated because your work helps others, you will tend to do a good job. Doing something because it adds a line on your c.v.? It may be counterproductive.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 12/7/2014 @ 9:23

  17. @Peter Turney

    I am not sure anyone would join West Point if they were the last human being on Earth. ;-)

    I think that the important point here is that some motivations are counterproductive.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 12/7/2014 @ 9:26

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