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Writing Experiment I
May 26, 2021
17 minutes read

This piece is a writing experiment. I wanted to review two books that I recently read (Make it stick and Drive), and I decided to do so in a novel way. After about one month, I looked back at every note that I took while reading the books, usually a sentence or paragraph highlighted, and jotted down my own thoughts that originated from that paragraph.

Here they are.

A danger that driven and self-motivated people must be wary of is that of having a pessimistic view on other people—I am often guilty of it. The dangerous thought is never “Others cannot do it”, because I know that if I can then everybody else can too. Difficulty is not the majority’s problem. Motivation is.

The pessimistic view on people goes along the lines of “Others will not want to do it”. You believe they are not motivated, that they don’t like to stretch their limits. That they want to stay comfortable where they are. That they are lazy. That they don’t want to learn and improve.

Regardless of whether this is true or not, and regardless of how many people it’s true for, it’s a wrong approach. Pessimism is never the way, in fact.

Put trust back in people. You trust yourself, don’t you? Take some of that trust, and put it back into other people.

People, by their own nature, are curious and seek novelty. This is a fact proven by research. The problems lie in social conventions that make us forget about our original drive towards novelty and challenges.

Now, why do some people still have that original drive and others don’t? Why do some have a very strong one, and some just a flavor of it?

It’s not DNA. DNA is an excuse that the media and society taught us: you aren’t smart enough, you aren’t strong enough, you aren’t…

But like every top-performer, in any field, would tell you instantly, the secret is not in the genes. Talent is an overrated excuse made up by mass-media, which tries to keep our attention focused on them, instead of working our butt out (and hence taking attention off the same mass-media). The secret is in the motivation and in the hard work. Being great at something is measured in the number of days on which you do something you love even if you don’t feel like doing it on that particular day. Grit, that is it.

If it’s not DNA then what is it? It’s the environment.

The environment you are immersed in shapes you. It changes you. For most environments, this means that it will kill the original drive you had towards novelty and challenges.

Now, I don’t know how we ended up there. Why are most environments like that? I don’t really know. Surely it must be something with the shape of our society. I’ll take a guess and say that society encourages laziness, because lazy ones are easier to control and lead. This is not at all a complotistic view, actually is an economic point of view: lazy people are easier to manipulate in what they buy, how they buy and when they buy. If you always want to learn more about something then they cannot keep selling you the same stuff.

With all that said, how to avoid the pessimistic view? Focus on these words: natural drive. The missing drive was actually a natural behavior and, as such, it’s not impossible to get it back. It needs to be cultivated again and fed continuously, but it definitely can come back. How to cultivate it? That’s supposed to be the role of leaders, teachers and instructors. Unfortunately, instead of fostering environments with intrinsic rewards such as personal fulfillment, knowledge and improvement, they usually try to control people, with promises of money, good grades or punishment. There’s plenty of research that proves them wrong, yet they keep doing it.

If you are doing it too, look at the situation this way. Until you keep controlling people, only those who need you will stay around, out of need and compliance, not engagement.

The smarter, brighter ones will leave you behind.

Now ask yourself: do you want to be around people smarter than you or not?

Book note Human beings, Deci said, have an “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn.” But this third drive was more fragile than the other two; it needed the right environment to survive. “One who is interested in developing and enhancing intrinsic motivation in children, employees, students, etc., should not concentrate on external-control systems such as monetary rewards.

Book note If you believed in the “mediocrity of the masses”, as he put it, then mediocrity became the ceiling on what you could achieve. But if your starting point was Theory Y, the possibilities were vast—not simply for the individual’s potential, but for the company’s bottom line as well.

When was the last time you lost the sense of time, forgot to eat and to sleep because you were “working” on something? You were in a flow.

It does happen to me quite often. It happens when I write computer code; when I write; when I run. You can even practice to increase the chances to trigger such a flow state, which is not easy because, at first sight, the triggers are very confusing and difficult to find. Flow just seems to happen at random.

But there’s one common pattern among all flow states: the drive comes from within.

It’s a pleasure and enjoyment that comes from within, generally because we are given full control over what to do and how to do it (and who to work with, while we do it). It’s a sense of becoming one thing, you and the task at hand, so much that your brain disregards external inputs and focuses only on the task.

I know you know what I’m talking about, so I will stop here with my attempts to describe it. Flow happens to everybody, we just don’t know how and when very well. What we know is that it cannot be generated on demand. That’s why driven, creative people run away from controlled environments. The verb that goes with creativity is “unleash”, and for good reasons: Creativity must be set free, free to attempt, free to fail and to succeed.

Control freaks are the worst enemies of creativity. Now, at the end of the day some of the day-to-day business requires fast actions and to-do lists. Is that another creativity killer? Not necessarily. Creativity is not anarchy. A clear direction is actually a tool useful to creative souls. What matters is that each unique instant spent on the task at hand is a time frame where you are fully autonomous. In this sense, great managers are so because they are capable of setting everybody else up for success and to make sure the managed ones have enough space to unleash their full potential, and creativity.

Great managers can trigger flow.

Book note […] that enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation, namely how creative a person feels when working on the project, is the strongest and most pervasive driver.

Recruiting is a big topic for me, because it involves the very interesting endeavour of understanding people. You speak thirty, maybe sixty minutes with somebody and you’ve got to really understand them, and understand whether they are a good fit or not. I find this task very fascinating.

Now, other managers will very often tell you “anyway you’ve to try, so test the applicants with one or two weeks of paid projects”. That’s fine, but if it doesn’t work out and you understand that they weren’t a good fit, then why did it take two weeks for you to understand it?

Understanding people is really difficult. I am not saying it’s always possible at glance. I am saying that there must be a method for this too, and that you, as a recruiter, can improve. This is a space where I believe there’s a lot of natural talent involved: some people simply have a feeling for who somebody else is. I don’t have this talent, so I need clear directions and flashlights to guide me through the process. And, like I said before, at the end of the day talent is overrated.

One key element I always try to find in people is drive, otherwise said self-motivation. Intelligent people should act rationally and behave in a way that both them and their employer benefit from. Somewhere, there’s a equilibrium (in the game theoretic sense of the word) between many factors—including the enjoyment of working, the boredom of working, getting paid, learning new skills, attending boring meetings, working more or less hours than needed—that makes both parties happy, without any incentive to change (and try to screw the other side over).

Unfortunately though, people are not rational (I learned this from Thinking: Fast and Slow). So, many people will actually drag their feet at work, working less than requested unless they have specific sets of things to do. In other words, they wait for some control freak to tell them what to do, and if the freak doesn’t (or, maybe, there’s no control freak at all!) then they feel entitled to not do anything. If that happens, maybe, just maybe, you need to find better people.

The intelligent people I want to work with become engaged with the problems the organization faces. They become one with the problems, not because they are paid to do so—to be so—but because they are engaged. They understand the benefits for them (wage, sure, but, more importantly, knowledge and skills as well as reputation), and the benefits for the organization. If the latter shines, they shine too.

What’s the point of a life spent warming a chair, while not doing anything interesting? Yet, many would be happy to be paid for doing nothing. I find this…insane.

You shouldn’t let pessimis sneak in though. Self-motivated people exist and they are out there looking for their similar ones. And there are a lot of them. So keep searching and don’t give up.

Book note As organization flattens, companies need people who are self-motivated. That forces many organizations to become more like open source projects.

How often has your boss tried to encourage you by saying if … then … ? Unfortunately for her, it didn’t work. At least, that never works with you.

Let aside for a moment what happened and why it didn’t work. The more interesting question, for me, is: what would you do at your boss' place?

Here’s a proven fact: if-then rewards do not work with skilled people. The reason is that they get bored. Skilled people need to be engaged through intrinsic motivation and the pleasure to work on something “difficult enough”. The simple, old system based on performance bonus, monetary rewards, doesn’t work with this kind of person because they usually have no big troubles in finding a job. Money is not the issue here. Compensation must be good, of course, but to be more precise it must be good enough to take the “money topic” off the table and focus on something intellectually more stimulating.

Now-that rewards, a different kind of reward scheme when you, as a boss, occasionally give a reward “now that” the task is finished (but without the promise of it beforehand) are a better way. It must be spontaneous though, and not repetitive. Constant rewards teach people to work for the rewards, instead of for the pleasure of the task.

Managers and bosses have to foster engagement and creativity via intellectual activities, interesting conversations, challenging and novel problems. Boredom is the root of many evils in a creative environment, and money is seen as boring from intellectual brains.

Book note In brief, for creative, right-brain, heuristic tasks, you’re on shaky ground offering “if-then” rewards. You’re better off using “now that” rewards. And you’re best off if your “now that” rewards provide praise, feedback, and useful information.

Autonomy, mastery and relatedness: despite what modern cultures try to teach, these are three fundamental drives of all men and women.

Yet, we see very different behaviors and motivations out there: money, fame, control over other people, reputation. Well, not everybody grew up the same. Everyone was born with a need for these three ancestral drives, but many simply lost them along the way. Why, and how? That’s a difficult question. I think that there’s a darker, lazier side in humanity and that, in the perennial fight between it and the original, bright human mind, somebody sometimes gets lost.

Those who can keep their feet on the ground, which in practice means to keep their mind free and independent, they strive for more. They know that money is good only up to the point where it becomes useless: money is a problem to solve—not something to accumulate. Control on people is largely useless: do you really want to spend your days checking what others do? They, those who aren’t prisoners of modern idols, look for something intellectually more engaging: learning opportunities, social relations and self-control.

The real challenge for me is how to identify these people. How to identify the spark in their eyes as soon as possible? I change ideas on this matter every other week, and here is what I currently think: it’s their vision that matters. Their vision about things, about the future. It’s how they do planning. Do they hack first, or think first? Do they see things as static, or do they see everything dynamic? Do they think about the implication of what’s being done now in the next weeks, months or years?

This is what I call vision. The capacity of somebody to organize the present so that it bootstraps the future—no matter the topic at hand. The good news is that vision is something that we can improve on. It’s powered by past experience and knowledge, so keep learning and asking good questions.

Book note Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.

So, you’ve got some pretty smart people in your team and you want to make sure they have full autonomy over what they do, and that they master it. How can you do that?

The real challenge, in my opinion, is to align the interests. To make sure that when people in the company do something they want to do, that thing is actually also something that the business wants to do. But without you requesting them to do that thing.

The solution should be engagement. When people are engaged with the business mission, and those people are smart, and their boss gives them autonomy, then they will find something to work on that they enjoy and that is very good for the business. How will they do it? I don’t know, but I know they will because it happens to me, as an employee, all the time. I can, somehow, identify something that the organization badly needs and that will force me to learn something new, and to work on my engineering knowledge and abilities (learning and engineering are my pillars). For you, it could be that new logo icon that the company desperately needs, but that nobody has found time to do. Or it could be enhancing that security policy written down years ago and that others find boring to read, let alone to write (but you actually like to craft text like I do!).

What you could do is to understand them (each individually) and give some directions. Everybody is different, and everybody likes different things. How amazing it would be if every employer had the same mission: to set their employees up for personal success. Which, in turn, also means business success.

Book note Type I behavior emerges when people have autonomy over the four T’s: their task, their time, their technique, and their team.

Book note Different individuals have different desires, so the best strategy for an employer would be to figure out what’s important to each individual employee.

The note that this section refers to, reported below, is so elegant, simple and profound at the same time that I decided not to add anything.

Book note This is why ultimately human nature, if it ever realizes itself, will do so by becoming more autonomous.

After engagement, the next level is purpose. Can you align your vision with that of your people, so that everybody sees a purpose in the day-to-day activity? The question is relevant because, if you can do that, the organization is on its way to success. If there’s a group of engaged people aligned on the purpose of what they do, no way this is not going to be a success.

They wake up every morning with a determination that has no equals; that’s what purpose does. It provides an energy that at times seems to renew itself continuously. Thus, no challenge is big enough.

Book note Purpose provides activation energy for living, […]. I think that evolution has had a hand in selecting people who had a sense of doing something beyond themselves.

He is a highly motivated man, with a passion for deliberate practice and lifelong learning that stems from his enjoyment of simple, pure thinking about things and life.

Book note As you contemplate your purpose, begin with the big question: What’s your sentence? (Referred to the fact that every important person has had one short sentence that described them).

And now, for the big question: how do you motivate people?

I said you engage them by giving them autonomy and letting them master what they do. I said they get on board sharing your purpose if they share your vision. But how do you motivate them day-to-day?

Thanks to the book, I found the fallacy in my thinking here. You don’t motivate people. Motivation doesn’t get done, rather people do it.

You cannot motivate people unless they do it.

I recall now having a conversation about this many years ago with somebody in my family, and my sentence was “you don’t buy motivation at the grocery store”. Which, to me, meant that you cannot transmit motivation. Motivational speakers work because they speak to motivated audiences.

Motivation cannot be taught. Cannot be transmitted. Watching somebody else’s success can be motivating, but that somebody cannot teach you motivation and they cannot “motivate you”.

Motivation is something that comes from within and grows, without any obvious patterns. It just happens. Some just have it. Others, most of us, do it, and at some point in life they “become motivated”.

Stop trying to motivate people because it doesn’t work. People “do” motivation, not the other way around.

Book note They are wrong because they imply that motivation is something that gets done to people, rather than something that people do.

Remote this, remote that. Do you really believe you can achieve greatness without ever talking to people?

For a while, I believed it. In a few organizations I was involved in, we were “fully remote”. Digital. Invisible. Well, none of them worked. What I understood, much later, is that people don’t engage with invisible people.

It works for robots. For boring, single-minded, repetitive tasks, the sort of things that bore the hell out of every creative person, then I guess sitting all alone in your corner in whatever part of the world works.

Creation, though, the human act of creating something novel from nothing, that requires engagement. Lonely robots scattered all over the place cannot.

So, get your butt on a chair and speak to people, for as long as it feels good—which should be very long.

Book note That’s how the world changes—conversation by conversation.

And last, but perhaps most important: Grit—have you got it?

Grit is, ultimately, what makes the difference between success and failure. TVs and people who listen to them will try to sell you a different story, an easier story. They’ll tell you about talent, about IQ, about natural abilities that fall from the sky. But, and it’s a matter of fact, that’s not how reality works.

It takes ten thousand hours to become good at something.

It’s grit, and the discipline that comes with it, when it transforms itself in a powerful mix of passion and belief, that makes you forget about the goal and just enjoy the journey, with the consciousness that you’ll get there without thinking about that “where”. You simply have to keep focus on the process—the system is the key.

Talent matters, make no mistake, but not nearly as much as grit and discipline. And this holds true for everything: business, sport, music, any type of hobby really. Above all, grit changes the way we learn, and learning is everything. Business is learning; running is learning; everything is learning.

Talent can only take you so far. Perseverance doesn’t know limits.

Book note. More than IQ, it’s discipline, grit and a growth mindset that imbue a person with the sense of possibility and the creativity and persistence needed for higher learning and success.

Tags: essays

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