Two tests of motivation

December 29, 2014

Motivation has many sources. Some do it for fame, others for fortune. And then there are those who are drawn by a love of the thing itself — by a desire to make a better product, a better experience, or a better world.

Our motivations are sometimes unclear, even to ourselves. So how can we be sure that we are doing things for the right reasons?

Two simple tests — one for fame, one for fortune — can help gauge how much each contributes to our decisions. The tests rely on our ability to imagine alternate universes in which the possibilities of fame or fortune are selectively knocked out.

Both tests start with imagining success in your endeavor, whatever that may entail: the book deal comes through; your company has a billion dollar exit; your band releases a hit song; you’re recruited to a professional sports team; your software is used by millions; your store becomes an international chain. You’ve probably performed this very exercise before, perhaps in a daydream, but do it again, now.

Having imagined success, we’ll apply the two tests, manipulating your mental image of it to tease apart the contributions of a desire for fame or fortune.

The pen name test. Just like an author can write under a pen name, transferring credit for the book to a fictional entity, in your alternate universe you can do the same, removing all traces of your name and identity from the endeavor and transferring credit for your success to a fictional or unknown entity1. Your product and its name become famous, but nobody except you ever knows that you created it, not even your closest friends and family2.

The volunteer test. Just as a volunteer can provide a service with the understanding that there will be no financial gain that comes of it, in your alternate universe you can do the same, agreeing beforehand that any proceeds from the endeavor will be reinvested in the endeavor and unavailable to you3. The endeavor is fantastically profitable, but you see none of that wealth.

How do these alternate universes compare to what you had imagined earlier? At one extreme, the endeavor becomes worthless after the knockout. At the other, it is left unchanged. Where your visions fall between these extremes tells you something important about what motivates your actions. fleuron


  1. While we’re at it, let’s also suppose that your true identity never becomes associated with the identity of your product, pen name, &c. This sidesteps scenarios where someone adopts their pen name (see, e.g., the stage names of Hollywood actors) or later reveals their pen name, merging their multiple identities. 

  2. An advanced form of the pen name test asks you to imagine a universe in which not even you know that you created the product. Only the most ascetic of us are likely to find this universe an acceptable place to live.

    In related news, the existence of this more stringent form of the test immediately suggests the addition of a few extra levels to Maimonides’ levels-of-charity framework. According to the hierarchy, the second greatest form of charity (short of lifting people out of poverty, such that they no longer require your’s or anyone else’s help) is to give without knowing of the recipient, and, at the same time, for the recipient to receive without knowing of the benefactor. This, for one thing, prevents the receiver from feeling beholden to the benefactor or feeling ashamed for having received help, while also leaving unchanged the receiver’s social status in the benefactor’s mind. In light of the above, it becomes possible to add new levels to the hierarchy. Like the advanced version of the pen name test, these new 1.5.x levels of the Maimonides hierarchy, nestled between the first and second, consider cases where the benefactor does not even know that help was given (1.5.3), where the receiver does not even know that help has been received (1.5.2), or both (1.5.1). These forms of charity have the added benefit of preventing the receiver from feeling ashamed or beholden to anyone, even the community in aggregate, and at the same time preventing the benefactor from thinking that anyone, even the community in aggregate, relied on their help. Perhaps then we might also add one last level, zero, the ultimate, where a person becomes self-sufficient without knowing that help had been given, and where the benefactor doesn’t know that they helped, but did. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to engineer a society in which such interactions are encouraged. But please don’t tell me if you do. Ideally, you won’t even tell yourself. 

  3. Try to avoid imagining the money going anywhere in particular. This is meant to avoid any feelings, positive or negative, that might arise from seeing someone else benefit from your work. The point here is that you don’t see the financial reward, not that someone else does.