“You have to study hard so you can get into a good college so you can get a good job so you can retire and not have to worry about living in a box and being eaten alive by sewer rats.”
-many people’s parents
Something frustrates me when people refer to the carrot-and-stick approach to motivation. Certainly, the original tale* about the boy who cleverly gets a stubborn donkey to walk was told by geeks. It applauds coming up with a creative solution to a stubborn problem. However, the hero and subject of the story are the boy and his idea, not the donkey and the problem it posed. So why then are we, as students and employees, cast as the donkey in modern carrot-and-stick allegory?
Surely, people learn best when they learn gradually. Large projects are completed little by little. I only hope that it’s just the “little by little” part that people are picking up on when they compare those that work under them to the donkey. Of course, this somewhat misses the mark, as the point wasn’t that the donkey had too far to walk. It was that it wouldn’t walk at all.
Most people wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t for some reward. In the olden days, things were tangible. You could spend a freezing morning swinging a heavy axe around, chopping firewood until your muscles gave out, but darnit, you’d be rewarded with a way to keep warm.** Cue the Industrial Revolution. Intangible, financial rewards became standard substitutes for actual items. From then on, it was more common than not for people to manufacture parts for machines they’d never see in exchange for something they couldn’t use beyond exchanging it for something else. Gone were the days of building things for yourself or trading item for item with your neighbour. Instead, you sold your time and energy for coins. This is referred to as the alienation of labour - neither what you did nor what you received for doing it were really real nor connected. Is that the kind of situation that motivates you? Can you really feel good about putting in long hours in a factory, being regarded as just another donkey, while the factory owner (the hero of this story) sits on your back, dangling money in front of you. I’d say we’re heading down the wrong path here. Of course, the situation back in those days was more dire. But just because technology has given us security and luxuries, must we give up on our self-respect? Nowadays, things are even more alienated. Everything is on credit, in stocks, recorded and assigned values that are based on systems so complex and randomized that they’re almost arbitrary. You don’t get to hold your coins. There is a symbolic number on record at the bank for you instead.
The nature of labour has changed as well. The average worker doesn’t even see the thing they’re making, let alone the completed product. It must have been discouraging for the 19th Century factory worker to only see the gear he was making and not the whole train. What about us today, whose only claim to fame is... like, data entry. Today, white collar workers can’t even be sure they’re constructing anything at all. I once worked for a company where they wanted us to move numbers from one program to another. This created nothing new. It did not provide a service. It did not help anyone. Every two weeks, I could check my online bank account and see that they company had given me some numbers to call my own. My whole world had been reduced to pixels that spelled out numerals. Everything was textureless and slightly beyond my reach, as if it were all some endless dream. This bugged me for reasons I can’t quite explain, other than my every other thought was “what am I even doing?”*** Everything is fake. Your job itself is a morale killer. Had working conditions not shot up from 19th Century That Can’t Be Safe to 21st Century I Can Deal With The Fluorescent Lights, I’m pretty sure there’d be an uprising or something. Then again, maybe there is something of a revolution afoot. I’m talking about the rise of the Creative Class****. I’m talking about progeeks. We are ordinary people who are sick of pointless jobs and artificial rewards and an economy that has proven itself untrustworthy. Oh, yes, we exist.***** We’re in your software companies. We’re in your anime conventions. WE’RE IN UR ECONOMY, DRIVIN UR SOSHAL CHANGE.****** Who says you have to work for someone else, for a measly reward that you might not ever actually get? Who says we have to be the donkey in the equation? The donkey in the fable represents obstruction and the boy is the problem-solving hero, so let’s see things through the boy’s eyes instead. If the donkey is giving you trouble, then leave it behind. Walk there with your own feet. Keep the carrot for yourself.
When I heard the story of the carrot and the stick, I always hoped that when they got to their destination, the boy would let the donkey have the carrot. However, when applying that metaphor to an entire culture’s ongoing workforce, the journey never ends. The point of a culture is to keep itself alive, to perpetuate itself, hopefully in a sustainable way. Overpricing consumer goods isn’t sustainable. Underpricing “large ticket” items (like houses) isn’t sustainable. Allowing CEOs to gamble their employees’ retirement funds isn’t sustainable. Having people live in total disconnect from their jobs is kind of sustainable but not really desirable. My fellow geeks, we can do better.
The promise of having the world at our fingertips has really only put our world just beyond our reach. Find what is real to you and do it. Find what you are passionate about and devote yourself to that. Never again allow yourself to be promised a reward by someone who can easily tear it away from you. It’s time to take that donkey metaphor and kick it in the ass.
*The version of the story I was brought up with is the one where the boy attaches the carrot to the stick and holds it in front out of the donkey’s reach. I have since learned that this story has another version, in which the donkey was given a carrot as a reward for obeying and it was punished for disobeying by getting beaten with the stick. This is more along the lines of operant conditioning than a clever invention, but in either case, it has since been empirically proven that being treated like a lab animal isn’t so good for morale.
**So I’ve heard. I’m not 300 years old. Really.
*** Also common was “maybe I should work on a farm instead.”
****Google “Richard Florida” if you haven’t heard of it.
*****Insert music from 50s sci-fi when the Communist Metaphor Aliens enter.
*******Er, that, that wasn’t yelling. That was a LOLcat-style caption. But if you felt like yelling it, then you’re just as angry about things as I am. But don’t get mad. Get geeky.