Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us provides a fascinating lens for analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the university as a place for both study and employment.

Pink argues that research about human motivation has completely discredited the traditional “carrots and sticks” approach. Instead, given a suitable baseline payscale (i.e. taking care of the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), people thrive in an environment of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I chuckled when reading Pink’s description of the corporate “Results Only Work Environment” (or ROWE); it basically matched a description of academic life! Set your own schedule, choose your own projects, get judged on your results. What’s so innovative about that??

Nevertheless, Pink’s analysis shines light on the limitations of academic life. It’s hard, if not impossible, to enjoy the essential freedoms of the academic lifestyle if, like many graduate students and adjunct faculty, low pay makes it hard for you to survive. The “publish or perish” high-stakes for junior faculty can undermine many of the benefits of autonomy, mastery and purpose. And let’s not forget the undergrads: are they developing intrinsic motivation? Or are teaching strategies undermining it?

Out of Pink’s 9 strategies for improving intrinsic motivation, I liked:

  • Seek flow experiences (see Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)
  • State your life’s purpose in a single sentence (i.e., focus)
  • Work to improve incrementally each day (i.e., kaizen)
  • Take regular sabbaticals
  • Do your own private performance reviews. How are you meeting your own goals?
  • If you’re stuck, change tactics
  • Use deliberate practice to gain mastery

So how’s your motivation?


“One reason fair and adequate pay is so essential is that it takes the issue of money off the table so they can focus on the work itself.”

~Daniel Pink (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, p. 79.