During a big buy-out announcement recently within my company, one of the speakers mentioned the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Now that I spend a lot of time as an NYC straphanger, I get a lot reading in during my daily commute and decided that coming from influential and successful people, it was a safe bet that it was a good read.

Let me just say up front: wow. It is not a smooth read, and at times the writing style is a bit repetitive, but the content of the book is amazing, and the majority of it is references to psychological studies around the world. If you have any desire to understand what motivates you or how you as a manager could motivate your employees, this is a must read. I’ve discovered things about myself that I did not effectively realize before, and beyond that discovered that I am not alone in them.

The core concept of the book is that human beings are far more complicated than can be modeled with a simple reward-driven behavior (“carrot and stick“). We have an innate desire to solve problems as well. When it comes to salary, as long as we are receiving fair pay or are not having money problems, more money is a very poor motivator. In fact, if you dangle the carrot of a (especially monetary) reward as a reason to do something, you can severely damage long term motivation and the desire to excel on that project. Essentially you can turn a fun project into drudgery by associating money with it.

They actually brought up Open Source web development as an example of how great things can come out of volunteer work. I take a bit of issue with that since most successful open source projects have some of the core pieces in place and are only supported because big money-spending companies back them and pay people within their own companies to make contributions. However, the idea is still reasonably sound.

Bringing this back to my previous post on the “good vs bad” sides of achieving “flow“, the book noted that it becomes much more difficult to reach flow when you are working on a project for a monetary reward. This helps to explain why when you are writing code for fun and solving problems on your own time, you can end up glancing bleary-eyed out of the window and realize it’s 5AM. If you are doing the same project for work because somebody is pushing a deadline on you, you can be checking the clock every five minutes until it’s 6PM and you can leave without feeling too guilty.

In independent analysis of the results of work in both situations, the people building for fun very consistently create higher quality code.

I say score ++ for flow.