TED Talk Tuesday: Carrot-and-sticks don’t work


It’s a common phrase. “Carrots-and-sticks” Carrots are the incentives, and sticks are the punishments for not following the rules.  This phrase was used quite a bit when the US first invaded Iraq eight years ago. They are tools used by those with power to control others.  Another way to put the phrase is, “Incentives-and-regulations.”

It’s interesting to note that often when we have a political leader say something about solutions, it involves incentives-and-regulations. Dan Pink talks about the research that shows us that incentives don’t work in business and, analogously, why they shouldn’t be used as the method to fix our broken institutions: financial, educational,  or political.

Instead, he talks of using other motivators:

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

So, what do you think?

Can the government use the 40 years of research to fix our institutions?

Is it time for we, the people, to step in?

If so, what can we do?

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When OK can become Awesome

This past weekend I went on a run that changed my life. I had started running a few months ago and slowly picked up advice on technique from here and there, changing my running style after getting each new piece of information. My runs had been good. Ok. But everything changed on my last run when I found my almost perfect form. And all it took was disciplined open mindedness.

Even simple things need practice

Running is a simple movement. You put one foot in front of the other. Yet, even this simple action needs practice or else you might become a fist-pumping, shoulder-rolling mass of swaying body parts that is wasting energy and causing pain and injury. In my case, my form started with arms swinging, and soft heel strikes rolling forward into a long stride. After forming this habit, I stilled my arms and tried landing on the front of my foot, almost on the balls of the feet and pushed off with my toes. As I moved through my practice, I was without a coach, but I drove myself forward to learn.

We are creatures of habit, but we need to listen to ourselves

I had made habits of the techniques, but did not think about adjusting the technique to my body. Instead, I thought about how I could force my body into the form that came from the authorities. This is a mistake. There are experts in different fields, but if we are mindful, we are the best qualified expert on ourselves. Human beings can become acclimated to most anything, good and bad: The constant stress of war, the hardship of poverty, or the work of regular diet and exercise. In my case, my running technique had resulted in a habit that provided me an ok run, and I acclimated to that, but because of my drive to improve, I realized “ok” could become awesome.

When things are ok, it’s time for some experimentation

When I started out on my run, I had done the extremes, both soft and heavy steps on the heel, and bouncing off the balls of the feet. My practice, just like the meditative practice of a monk, made me familiar with my body. I knew how it moved and how my feet felt striking the ground. On this day, I started with heel strikes, short strides, and light steps.

As I warmed up, I moved up to the balls of the feet. Less than half mile in, I settled my feet into a mid-foot strike, my heels barely touching the ground before my foot picked up again. I placed my feet like this, step after step, getting a sense of the ground, in tune to how my feet touched the earth. At mile one, I felt the usual resistance melt away, but this time it was different.

As I placed each foot on the ground, it whipped back effortlessly, gliding over the ground rather than pushing off of it. It felt as if I wasn’t in my body running, but a spectator. My mind had been evacuated and that left only my soul. And my soul was smiling.

At mile three, I was in awe. I thought, “Now this is what awesome means. Right here.” I was unfettered. It felt like I had just started my run. It was incredible. After the fifth mile, I was nearing my car, where I’d started my run,  and I thought about the comfort of stopping. After a couple of seconds, the thought faded away. I felt no anticipation for the end. My mind and its worries had surrendered to action. I was fully present running.

Immerse yourself, and after many trials, the answer will find you

Experiences like this are important in teaching me the value of immersing yourself in a task. Practice your passion. Be willing to form habits and just as willing to break them and try new ones to hone your skill.  This will help us find a new way to do something which we never thought possible: Whether it’s for running, running a business, or creating a product. We can then realize that ok can become awesome.

Is the easy life truly easy?

I was at the gym the other day, and I saw the cardio room filled with people, everyone moving on stationary machines, but going nowhere, and I laughed to myself. Later, on the way out, my laughter turned to amazement when someone told me about a projection keyboard her teacher used in her class. I didn’t understand how a keyboard could be projected and still work. Then I got to thinking about how our entire economy was dependent on bankers buying and selling bets, and how that could work.

Sounds abstract? I think so, too. So…

Is it possible to make life too abstract?

In a previous blog. I talked about how exercise gives us a feeling of accomplishment which is needed in a society that seeks to make things easier. When I looked out on the rows of cardio machines last week, I saw something a little different. There were people running in place. I turned to the other end of the gym, where people were lifting weights, up and down, over and over again.

It’s funny how we’ve replaced the work that gives us this exercise naturally, like washing clothes by hand, walking or biking to work, or raising and making our own food. We have specialized roles now, a machine washes our clothes or a laundromat offers to do it for us. Groceries provide us food, and a cook and a waiter who provide us meals. There are garbage men to pick up our trash and lawn service for our yards. We’ve got cars that we can drive, taxi drivers that can drive us, and car mechanics that will change our oil.

The same thing is happening with our retirement accounts. Instead of investing in stocks and bonds in companies we think are making a good product, we give our money to bankers and they make us money. They still buy stocks and bonds, but today we have added bets in the mix. These are bets that someone else’s purchase is going to go up in value. You can even bet whether something will go down in value.

Sound abstract? I think so, too.

The easy decision is easy…at first

We use machines to make it easier to do things and get places. It’s easy, but then we realize we bought a car that has 6 cylinders, instead of 4, and has cargo space for 6 people, and those things cost more. We realize that our sedentary lifestyle requires us to exercise. Not easy, because we must now pay money and make extra time to drive to a gym.

We’ve lost the knowledge of how to landscape a yard, or even change the oil in our car, and this makes us more helpless than before. And instead of making meals which we know the ingredients, we buy convenient meals which can contain sugars and fats that are out of our hands, hidden in the food.

Maybe most important, our investments are made by bankers. They send us statements that show that our little pile of money is ever increasing. It’s easy. Until we realize we don’t know what a derivative is, or a collateralized debt obligation, but we staked our future on them. We then realize that everything we’re doing is postponing the cost. The cost of us not supervising the banker is measured by the number of lost jobs and failed businesses after the banks defraud us and mismanage our investments.  

Sound abstract? I think so, too.

My cousin is vice-president of Securities at TD Bank.  He might be able to help us sort it out. I asked him how the derivative collapse affected them. He said, “Not too much.”

“Really?” I answered, surprised.

 “We looked at mortgage derivatives as a possible investment. We didn’t understand it, so we passed,” he answered simply.

If something is too complicated, ask why that is.

Maybe then we can make our lives truly easier.

Accepting yourself is vital, but it is not enough

I am going to come clean: I’ve fallen off the wagon. The days have been getting away from me, and I haven’t accomplished what I wanted. Days have become weeks, and weeks have become a month, and thus my time has slipped away. Have you ever been there? Here are the three steps to help get back on track:

1. Accept yourself
2. Determine your paradigm
3. Set longterm goals, then set smaller goals that lead to them

Accepting yourself is not enough

After a long time, I’ve come to accept myself. I mentioned accepting myself briefly in a previous blog. Yesterday I mentioned it to someone and they asked what I meant. Accepting myself doesn’t mean that I say I am ok with the way I am, and that I don’t need to change.

Accepting myself is understanding that I am responsible for myself and my happiness

Acceptance is knowing that your environment doesn’t make you happy or sad. Your environment includes the people around you, your physical surroundings, your accomplishments or failures and even your physical appearance. In this mindset, you don’t react to your environment, you act on it.

After acceptance, you can then take action

Acceptance is not enough to be happy. We must do. But doing takes effort. It takes discipline. If you find yourself lacking the drive and you’ve had a long period of inaction, reassess your goals. So I’m back at the drawing board, reviewing my goals: Get two books published by the end of next year. For you, it might be get a certification to help your career along, hiking the Appalachian trial, or restoring an old car. Whatever it is, you need to realize it fully. Finding your goals is more than listing specific accomplishments. Your true goals are based on something much deeper..your purpose. Your passion.

Purpose is your fundamental goal

To find your purpose, you need to find the lens through which you see the world. You need to define your paradigm. In general, this is the same for everyone: Do something of value and be valued. Remind yourself of this to help keep you on track. Consider the alternative: Doing nothing of much value. That’s not a scenario I want to face. Do you?

Having no short-term goals is like bowling without seeing the pins

For me, small goals involve building content. Writing a chapter a day, writing a synopsis of every day, and a blog article every week. These tasks keep me on track to my longterm goal of publishing two books and writing for magazines and periodicals. Revisit your longterm goals to ensure you’re doing what you want, and to motivate you towards those accomplishments. If you find you are unable to meet your short term goals, break them down to even smaller, shorter-term goals: Yearly into monthly, monthly into weekly, weekly into daily.

Don’t get discouraged

Remember: Those accomplishments don’t make or break you. You are in control of yourself, so accept your responsibility. Be aware of yourself. Only you know if you are making a true effort at living your paradigm. Organize your goals so that your behavior matches your passion.

So I’m back on track. I trust that I’ll see you in action soon enough, too.

Selfishness is not just about getting what you want, but knowing why you want it

I’ve recently been thinking about selfishness. Many would say selfishness is alive and well today in the US. For instance, we consume more than we produce. And although we have more than most other nations on earth, we are the fifth most generous nation, measured by our frequency of helping a stranger.

We do make some sacrifices, but not the ones you would expect of a selfish person: We sacrifice our health: 2/3 of us our overweight, and 1/3 are obese. We also sacrifice financial security: The average American household credit card debt is about $11,000.

Maybe we’re happy in this state. Let’s leave moral judgments aside and see if this is true.

The US ranks 16th in happiness in the world

Unfortunately, studies indicate that most people in the US are not too happy. According to self-report surveys, Americans are less happy than people in many other countries. But maybe our happiness standards are different than the standards of others, and these surveys don’t allow an apples to apples comparison.

Research shows that happiness is correlated with limiting our choices

Dan Gilbert and Barry Schwartz are two researchers who have added to the pile of observations about what makes humans happy.  There’s evidence that suggests that our actual circumstances don’t make us happy, and that more choices don’t lead to a condition that makes us happy. Having more options makes people less happy.  In test after test, subjects who were given more options were less happy than those who were given less options. Even more important, in a related study, people preferred to have more options, although this led to lower happiness. Why?

We want power

Having power makes us happy…until we get what we want.  Yet, we want the freedom to choose.  The freedom to decide. What is this called?

Selfishness.
And so it comes back to that.
That’s what we wanted all along, and in the United States, we have a lot of freedom to make our own decisions.
So why aren’t we happy?

We are not free from the most powerful control mechanism of all: Our mind. 

Our mind convinces us that happiness is achieved by controlling things, when it is truly achieved by controlling ourselves.  Instead of putting our priorities on assessing and improving our mental health, we focus on our material wealth. We most value our power over external variables, like other people or things, when, in the end, control over the material world means nothing if we cannot value ourselves. It seems that selfishness is vital to happiness, but not in the way we expect…

Selfishness is really about being mindful of ourselves

Selfishness is about being empowered and responsible. It’s not just about getting what you want, but knowing why you want it.

Here’s to all of us attaining the freedom of empowerment that is necessary to be happy.