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Drive February 27, 2012

Posted by Brett Conner in [Books] Leadership & Change.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
By Daniel H. Pink
Reviewed by Brett Conner

Why do we do the things we do? That is the question addressed with thoughtful panache in Drive, the 2009 bestseller from Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind). The answer turns out to be highly counterintuitive, and challenges the basic assumptions we share about how to get the best work out of the people around us.


Pink brings together decades of research on motivation to reach this conclusion: society’s system for rewarding good behavior and punishing bad needs to change. He argues that extrinsic motivators such as money, while serving an obvious purpose that indeed can stir a person to action, are ultimately counterproductive. They lead to poor performance, less satisfaction, a lack of motivation, crushed creativity, and other undesirable outcomes. Leave it to Dilbert to prove the point:

The Boss is doing exactly what most managers would do: set a monetary reward to achieve a reasonable, clear goal. The results are as Pink would predict — bad. His remedy for this is to focus instead on intrinsic motivators, as exhibited by what he calls “Type I” people – those for whom tasks provide their own rewards. These people stand in opposition to “Type X” personalities, for whom extrinsic rewards are paramount. Time and again, research and case studies show that Type I workers are happier, more productive, and achieve better results than Type X’s.

 There are three components of intrinsic motivation:

  1. Autonomy – the ability to exercise personal control over what you do, when you do it, how you do it, and with whom you do it.
  2. Mastery – the opportunity to engage in a challenging task and progressively increase your abilities.
  3. Purpose – the capacity to frame your work within a higher, meaningful context.

 When these three elements are in effect, a person is motivated for sustained achievement at the highest level.

 Here is a wonderful YouTube video that summarizes Drive in 11 highly creative minutes:

Critical Analysis

This is a well-researched book that provides tremendous insight into the complicated world of motivation. There is a good balance between scientific research and corporate case studies, which I found very illuminating. Pink writes in a punchy conversational tone and composes his arguments well.

That said, there is a peculiar contradiction lurking over Drive. Dan Pink is a hugely successful writer, and undoubtedly got some serious coin to write this book. If the presence of extrinsic motivators like book advances leads to diminished performance, how did this ever get written? The basic thesis would suggest that the promise of a financial reward for writing it would degrade any personal satisfaction Mr. Pink would take from a job well done, thus curtailing the level of effort and creativity required.

The book does provide some insight into this conundrum. Pink makes the point that extrinsic rewards like money are not bad per se; people deserve to be compensated for their efforts and expertise. The trick is to (1) maintain compensation at a fair and equitable level based on the work done and (2) reframe rewards from “if-then” benefits contingent upon completion of the task to “now that” ones that are unexpected and provide valuable feedback.

However, I do not believe that is the whole story when it comes to compensating for creative work. The problem is well illustrated by a study cited in the book. A group of scholars studied artists, some of whom were paid a commission to create a piece (extrinsic motivation), while others received no compensation and presumably worked for the love of it (intrinsic). As the theory suggests, the pieces created by the intrinsic group were judged more creative than those made by some of the paid artists. Some, but not all, and therein lies the problem: the paid artists interpreted their rewards differently, and those perceptions affected the outcome. Some felt the commission was “constraining,” while others found the same reward “enabling.” The decrease in creativity came only with the constrained group. This suggests that one’s beliefs surrounding a reward can counteract the negative consequences of extrinsic motivation. Said another way, it is unclear what the problem is: extrinsic rewards themselves, or how we feel about such rewards. I would like to see further research on this issue.

Another problem I see is the author’s failure to show the downside of intrinsic motivation (he spends a great deal of time describing the shortfalls of extrinsic factors). I’ve spent most of my career in the theater, and I have seen firsthand the price a person can pay following this path. Actors fit perfectly into Pink’s definition of Type I – they are encouraged to work in a highly autonomous style, spend a lifetime mastering their craft, and feel a deep sense of purpose in their work. However, they are also saddled with extremely high unemployment, economic instability, and a higher rate of depression than the general population.  I expect the same can be said for many intrinsically motivated people. Clearly being Type I is not necessarily a guarantee of happiness, and this is worthy of further exploration.


Drive is a natural follow up to A Whole New Mind. In his earlier book Pink argued that our time calls for a new set of skills and new ways of working. Drive is a manual for how to motivate people in this new paradigm. For the kind of creative work designers and innovators will be called to, the application of intrinsic rewards will be crucial for success.

I could not end this review without noting that Pink’s three intrinsic motivators are reflected in the Haas guiding principles. “Question the Status Quo” has a strong autonomous streak, “Students Always” is a call to mastery if ever there was one, and “Beyond Yourself” shows how deeply a sense of purpose is held at this school. It’s great being a student at an institution that has these forward-thinking principles so close to its core.