Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Food for Freak-out: The bad news about getting paid to do what you love?

I read the follow excerpt from an article called "The Overjustification Effect" that I found on a website called YouAreNotSoSmart.com. I should have known any article from a website by that name would piss me off.
It's a long piece with a lot of history on psychologists' understandings of the way humans are motivated and fulfilled - interesting stuff if you're interested in that stuff. Below is the chunk that I felt most applied to me slash us. In a nutshell - if you get paid to do what you love, you'll begin to associate that work with a monetary reward versus a natural sense of fulfillment, and after awhile, you'll stop enjoying the work.
Here's the excerpt. My thoughts are below.
"Maybe your story goes like this: Work is just a means to an end. You go to work; you get paid. You exchange effort for survival tokens and the occasional steampunk thong from Etsy. Work is not fun. Work pays bills. Fun happens at places that are not work. Your story is in no danger if that’s how you see things. In an environment like that Skinner’s assumptions hold true, you will only work as hard as is necessary to keep getting paychecks. If offered greater rewards, you’ll work harder for them.
Maybe your story goes like this though: I love what I do. It changes lives. It makes the world a better place. I am slowly becoming a master in my field, and I get to choose how I solve problems. My bosses value my efforts, depend on me, and offer praise. In that scenario, rewards just get in the way of your job. As Kahneman’s and Deaton’s study about happiness showed, once you earn enough to be happy day-to-day, motivation must come from something else. As Kahneman and Deaton’s research into happiness and money showed, the only material reward worth seeking once you have a bed, running water and access to microwave popcorn, are tributes, symbols to all of your merit, stuff that demonstrates your effectance to yourself and others. Ranks, degrees, gold stars, trophies, Nobel Prizes and Academy Awards – these are shorthand indicators of your competence. Those rewards amplify your internal motivations; they build your self-esteem and strengthen your feelings of self-efficacy. They show you’ve leveled up in the real world. Achievement unlocked. They help you construct a personal narrative you enjoy telling.
The overjustification effect threatens your fragile narratives, especially if you haven’t figured out what to do with your life. You run the risk of seeing your behavior as motivated by profit instead of interest if you agree to get paid for something you would probably do for free. Conditioning will not only fail, it will pollute you. You run the risk of believing the reward, not your passion, was responsible for your effort, and in the future it will be a challenge to generate enthusiasm. It becomes more and more difficult to look back on your actions and describe them in terms of internal motivations. The thing you love can become drudgery if that which can’t be measured is transmuted into something you can plug into TurboTax."
Every time I read this excerpt I cringe a little. I am a person who falls into the second category - a person who aspires to get paid to do something I love. This theory implies that I will eventually come to dislike what I love because it will be associated with the same employer/employee frustrations of any old job.
Fine. I buy that. I see how that could becoming incredibly taxing. But what's my alternative?
Is the article really saying that I'm better off working a job I do not like and pursuing my passions on the weekend? Americans spend an outrageous percentage of their life at work. Are we just supposed to not enjoy an outrageous percentage of our life so that we don't taint the fulfillment of our passions by bringing them into the pay-for-play structure?
The article doesn't offer any advice on what you're supposed to do if you have a passion that could become your paycheck. Should you ignore it in favor of more mundane work that pays the bills? Should you find work that's close but not cigar in an effort to preserve the work you truly love?
Or should you do what I intend to do - go for it knowing that some frustrations, a different structure of motivation or a slightly tainted passion is better than ignoring the passion all together?
I demand a follow-up piece. I want to know what the frustration level of a 75-year-old who never pursued their passion looks like versus that of one who did, even at the expense of some pure joy around that art. And I really want that research to come back in favor of my life plan...


  1. I don't think the situation is that either/or, or that people's interests and passions are that extreme. I know that theatre was my number one passion until I started working in it, and now I'm much more open to working in fields I never would have considered as a wide-eyed and idealistic early twenty-something. I don't think the alternative to not being paid for your passion is to work a job you hate. There's a lot of middle ground there, and I think most people find happiness in there.

    Just my two cents.

  2. I've been thinking about these things too..

    I think the article isn't proscriptive (telling you what you should do) just descriptive (observing trends). Maybe what we can take from its observation is that if you expect your work to make you happy in the same way that your hobbies and passions do be very careful not to focus on the rewards other than the passion, because that can kill the passion. I think it also implies that giving incentives to people (rewards) won't work when it is someone's passion because they don't do it for the rewards. But if you do give them the rewards, they tend to focus on the rewards and suddenly the work loses its passion and becomes obligation.

    So for example, if you love to write and that is what you get paid to do, and your boss says "write this for me" you will smile and say "okay because I love writing". When you struggle and sweat and get aggravated you will be okay because you think to yourself "I'm doing this because its what I like." If your boss says "write this for me and I'll give you a raise" or "write this for me or you'll not get a raise" or some such, you'll write but get frustrated and think "fuck this guy and his raise."

    I don't know. I just know that I like my job, but I like it a lot more when I do it because I want to not because I have to.

    So what should you do? Just be very careful to protect your passion.

  3. That article sounds like the bitter ramblings of a sell out. YES, I know that there is a great amount of danger to having your passion become your job, but I think that the people who end up despising their dreams are in the minority—Aside from all the moaning celebrities or frustrated millionaires the world is full of people who legitimately love what they do for a living. I don’t buy this for one second.

    I think the danger lies in allowing yourself to become caught up in the reward. You have to operate from some sort of foundation—an understanding of yourself, and your work—so that it doesn’t become muddled by success.

    Don’t buy it. Keep working towards what you want!

  4. No I do not believe that pursuing something you enjoy ultimately ends up being mundane. Especially, slaving away in a job that has no passion to give you is worth staying in rather than pursuing a fulilling sense of accomplishment.

    Everything in moderation and most importantly with realization that life is about the things in between the lines I think is worth keeping in mind at all times.