Monday, July 11, 2011

Mentor Monday: Why We Do What We Do

I recently asked a few professional writers for children the following question: Would you be willing to share, in one or two sentences, why you (like to, want to, have to) write for kids?

The question had been buzzing around my head because I’ve been reading Daniel H. Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink’s book is geared more to the business owner who is trying to find a way to increase production while keeping employees interested in their jobs. But the book speaks to us right-brained creative types, too, because it’s obvious that as a group, we’re certainly not motivated by money. The term “starving artist” has no equal in the business world. (Starving computer software developer? Starving hedge fund manager? I don’t think so.)

In fact, when I asked the “why” question of my fellow writers only one mentioned financial benefits:

“I write specifically for very young children because they inspire me. They are little strangers in a strange land where most everything is a discovery. They are magical thinkers open to any and all possibilities. Little winged ladies will give you money for your teeth. A fat, bearded man will bring you presents while you sleep. The monster in your closet will get you eventually, regardless of what your parents tell you.

Besides, you can make a TON of money doing it.” Andrea M.

Tongue-firmly-in-cheek, of course! Until J.K.Rowling wrote her Harry Potter books none of us had ever heard the following words strung together: Billionaire children’s author. Frankly, I would have filed that phrase under “imaginary” or “oxymoron.”

Still, there are hundreds of thousands of us who sit in front of key boards every day, willing to devote hours to a creative task that will most likely result in little or no financial benefit. Why is that?

Janet B.’s reply came closest to how I might have answered my own question:

“…I want to write for kids partly because that’s the teacher part of me—always wanting to be teaching something. I love language, too. I like the challenge of taking something very three- dimensional (characters, scenes, plot) and turning it into the linear (sentences). Especially challenging to make them resonate…”

Daniel Pink’s book explains the reason so many of us do what we do without promise of reward. It’s not only the writers and artists and actors who labor without guarantee of fame or fortune. There are also the summer baseball players, the church choir members, and the people who mentor FIRST competitions. Money and celebrity are extrinsic rewards. And, surprisingly, studies have shown that extrinsic rewards are not the way to get people to do their best work. Marcia L.’s answer to my question hinted at the reason we do what we do:

“I write for kids because I love to write, more than anything else, and I can’t imagine a better audience.”

Extrinsic rewards, Pink writes, evolved from the criteria required for our ancient ancestors to survive: i.e. food, shelter, sexual reproduction. As humans became more social and technology evolved, we developed the need to cooperate and, later, produce goods. Most of what we did for work was based on a system of rewards/punishments: Work well, get paid. No work, no pay. Work really well, get a bonus check.

But technology has advanced so much that most mundane tasks have been taken over by machinery. It’s harder to motivate ourselves and studies have shown that extrinsic rewards most often don’t produce better results. It’s time to look at why people produce when no reward is promised or even implied.

Join me next Monday for the conclusion.


Andrea Murphy said...

I'm putting "Drive" on my reading list. Thanks, Mur!

I'm Jet . . . said...

Me, too!