Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Extrinsic motivations are harmful…

I have argued that when seeking professional success, it is best to avoid zero-sum games (e.g., compete for one prestigious slot). It is more fun, less distracting and more productive to focus on non-zero-sum games. That is, you should try to grow the size of the pie, to create value for others out of thin air, instead of obsessing about your ranking.

I love to blog and to publish open source software. When I blog, I do not try to make it on a list of top bloggers… I try to write interesting and useful blog posts. When I publish open source software, my hope is that others will derive value from it… I am not competing to be recognized as one of the top open source programmers… Of course, I do win some recognition and increased social status (and sometimes money) if people say that they like my blog, my software or my papers. Let me consider a specific example. With Leonid Boytsov and others, I have been working on fast integer compression techniques. Our paper (Decoding billions of integers per second through vectorization) and our corresponding software (1, 2, 3) has been used by brilliant authors who have won the best paper awards at the leading information retrieval conferences this year (ECIR 2014 and SIGIR 2014). Our own work did not win any award and the journal where it appeared has a mid-level ranking. Should I be worried? Of course not! I am as delighted as I could be… our work is proving useful!!! We are providing tangible values to others… My only concern right now is to figure out how to make our next work even more useful…

My motivation is primarily internal: I do the work I do because it is interesting and meaningful on its own. I feel that I help people, or contribute to Science. Sure, if I do good work, my social status or financial well-being might be helped, and that is great… I like money and modest accolades… but that is not what is getting me up in the morning. I am never going to win a Turing Award or a billion dollars, and that is quite fine with me… I was chatting with a research fellow last week. He felt depressed that his work was “too simple” to warrant a slot at an exclusive conference like VLDB. His peers were encouraging him to “complexify” his work so that he could impress referees. I tried to argue that this was just wrong. He, quite rightly, argued back that it is how the game works… I guess you have to pay tribute to the “system”. But I am afraid that such tributes displace the good work that would otherwise happen.

Michael Hay pointed me to recent research that backs my intuition that external motivations can be distracting. Wrzesniewski et al. (2014) looked at the motivations of cadets and how well they succeeds. Cadets may want to join a military academy for intrinsics reasons (to become a good soldier) or for extrinsic reasons (to get a good job). It is easy to predict that the soldiers with intrinsic motivations will outperform those with primarily extrinsic motivations. What is less obvious is that the cadets with mostly just intrinsic motivations will outperform those who have both kinds of motivations…

Following their entry into the Army, officers who entered West Point with stronger instrumentally based motives were less likely to be considered for early promotion and to stay in the military following their mandatory period of service, even if they also held internally based motives.

In other words, if you are pursing a career in science or software because it leads to a good and prestigious job (extrinsic motivation) and because you believe it is a meaningful and important activity (intrinsic motivation), you will do worse than if you have mostly just intrinsic motivation.

I believe that it is because external motivations (prestige, money) distract you from doing good work. It may lessen your intrinsic motivations.

My own mental abilities are greatly reduced if I have extrinsic motivations in mind. And there is a strong correlation between extrinsic motivations and zero-sum games (e.g., how well you are ranked).