Problems with Authority, Part II

To recap: Eskimo wisdom — “By gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.” Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Behavioral economists. This is what I’m thinking about, lately.

In this talk, the behavioral economist Dan Pink, a behavioral economist, notes that people perform poorly when big money is at stake. Then, as behavioral economists are wont to do, he folds his conclusions back into the market. People don’t work best for big rewards. They do their best work when they feel a sense of “purpose and mastery.” Wikipedia! Linux! These require the applied skill of thousands of highly educated people who do complex cognitive and creative work—thousands of hours of it—for no money.  Dan Pink thinks your friendly local corporate manager can harness that. He thinks your office can create “purpose and mastery,” maybe with the right project management or leadership workshop. He sidesteps the idea that attaching a quantified market value of any size to work might change the nature of the beast. Measurement and reward follow the Heisenberg principle. They change the thing being measured and rewarded.

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YouTube RSA animates, Dan Pink

My husband read the popular book The Happiness Project. My husband liked this book. In it, the author quotes Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography at length. I love this! Benjamin Franklin! Patriotic and twee self-help! I want to write a self-help book where I quote Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia at length! (OK, so maybe I’m not destined to write a bestselling hipster self-help book.)

In any case: The Happiness Project quotes Ben Franklin about measurement. Franklin tried to measure many unmeasurable things, like temperance, silence, and sincerity. The Happiness author falls back on the motto: “Measure what you want to manage.” If reading makes you happy, she encourages you to try and keep track of how much reading you actually do.

My husband was rather taken with this idea. He saw it like R. and his steps. Without measurement: no milk, quota unmet. Also to be fair, I have a limited knowledge of The Happiness Project because so far, I have stubbornly refused to read it. My sense of it from my husband is that the author ultimately imagines that you would internalize what you measure. Measuring what you’re actually doing is a step along a path towards new, better habits. You think about what makes you intrinsically happy, then you measure it as a way of getting it into your life. Your goal is not an obsessive-compulsive Excel spreadsheet. Just better habits, more walking, more reading. The idea is to get to where you’re finishing the book not because you need another 42 pages today but because you’re absorbed in the beauty of the language. And maybe you never would have cracked the book if you hadn’t committed to those initial quotas.

But my gut is that the devil is in the details of the transition from extrinsic (measurement, quotas) to intrinsic (I’m reading because I want to).  My gut is that instead of counting pages and steps, it might work better to clear an hour every morning or every week and simply leave it blank. What if the guiding principle were not the thing you measured but the commitment to creating space for the unplanned and unquantified? What if you promised yourself that you would start that hour by closing your eyes and listening to yourself in that moment, making no judgment at all about what you decided to do? Not “you manage what you measure” but “only that which is unquantified and unquantifiable truly belongs to me.”

I looked at The Happiness Project blog and noticed that people were quoting Peter Drucker in the comments section. Again, I’m sure I’m being unfair, but… Aha! Here was evidence of the creep from Ben Franklin and sincerity to our market-based, “put a price on it,” exchange-obsessed, commodity-addicted society. The idea of measuring all of the things that make me happy—of quantifying everything that I love—for me, this is a special circle of hell!

In fact, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is often attributed, online, to Peter Drucker. If you’ve never heard of him, he’s a management guru extraordinaire. It’s unclear whether he actually said it. Doesn’t matter. He certainly wrote at length about the importance of measurement, including sentences like this one, from The Practice of Management:
“We have no standards to measure what degree of satisfaction is satisfactory.”

This Austrian business guru—herald of privatization and decentralization and the death of unions—imagined that great leadership could be sorted into best practices, quantified and theorized (I personally tend towards the idea that calling most management theory “theory” is like calling carob “chocolate.” How many of the highly paid, bonus-saturated financiers who tanked our global economy read management theory? I bet lots. More on this in Part III).

My point here is not to criticize you if a pedometer or a commitment to a certain number of pages has helped you. No marathons would be run without the measurement of miles. And I like marathons! All those millions of people running the arbitrary number of miles that killed some poor ancient Greek messenger!  We can’t get rid ourselves of measurement. Or pay. But underneath so much of this, I detect our profound drive to assess ourselves purely in market terms, to reduce our innermost dreams and desires and selves to something spreadsheet-ready. The idea that everything can be measured and incentivized strikes us as realistic, as Drucker-like, hard-nosed common sense.

There are some of you who, at this point, will be clearing your throats and demanding Gramsci’s common sense and cultural hegemony, or recognizing the opening moves of David Graeber’s argument in his little tome Debt: The First 5,000 Years. To which I say: Yes, yes!! (And Crooked Timber has this interesting discussion here.) But radical anthrolopology aside, here, I’m trying to tease out something else, a pop psych self-help thread, the way these things get lived, every morning, every time we pull on our running shorts.

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One Response to Problems with Authority, Part II

  1. The more I observe it in action, I think the quantification/reward thing has strong links to social behavior. As someone who is very low on the influence of group behavior scale (scored a 0 at the Johnson O’Connor Institute!), I also have little interest in the current trend of measurement and gameification.

    I would argue that for many people, measurement is a substitute for societal feedback. Thus, the trueness of the measurement doesn’t matter as long as it mimics the judgement of others. This explains a lot of compensation behavior, too. Of course, people vary in the degree to which they seek this group approval.

    But this doesn’t invalidate the utility of good measurements! I love the caloric output estimates of my cyclocomputer, not because I need to hit some arbitrary goal, but because they give me some standardized measurement of a value I know I am bad at measuring myself.

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