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FINDING INSPIRATION

Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us
by Daniel H. Pink.
Riverhead Books, 2009 ($26.95)

What pushes employees to do their best work? Many businesses operate under the belief that the key to motivating workers is giving them tangible rewards, such as a cash bonus or a corner office. In the book Drive, business writer Daniel H. Pink argues persuasively that these companies have it all wrong. He cites a body of behavioral science research that suggests that optimal performance comes when people find intrinsic meaning in their work.

Pink points to studies that show creating incentives can be counterproductive. This idea was first hinted at in the 1960s, when psychologist Sam Glucksberg, now at Princeton University, experimented with the “candle problem,” a test in which participants are given a candle, matches and a box of tacks and asked to fix the candle to a wall (the solution lies in using the box as a platform). Volunteers who were offered cash to solve the problem fast actually took longer to finish because, as Glucksberg concluded, focusing on the reward interfered with the volunteers’ ability to concentrate on completing the task at hand. In a more recent study, researchers at Harvard Business School asked a panel of artists and curators to rate pieces of artwork for creativity and technical skill without knowing whether or not the works were commissioned. The panel ended up ranking commissioned pieces lower in creativity than noncommissioned pieces, even though they found no difference in technical skill.

Although incentives seem to hamper performance, Pink acknowledges that not all are bad. Dangling carrots may be useful in getting people to plow through boring, routine work. But in the fast-changing 21st-century economy, the success of individuals and organizations increasingly depends on being nimble and innovative, so there is more and more need for people to find intrinsic value in their work. Pink identifies three elements underlying such intrinsic motivation: autonomy, the ability to choose what and how tasks are completed; mastery, the process of becoming adept at an activity; and purpose, the desire to improve the world.

Drive highlights businesses that promote these values. Google lets its engineers work on any project they choose for 20 percent of their time—a policy that has yielded popular products, including Google News. Toms Shoes in California matches every sale with a charitable donation of a pair of shoes to a child in the developing world. Pink also cites educational institutions such as Montessori schools that let kids follow their natural curiosity in self-directed activities. Moving beyond the world of work, he advocates designing your own exercise program rather than following a gym's cookie-cutter one to motivate you to break a sweat.

A limitation of Drive's argument is that many people may be too busy making ends meet to seek out work or other activities that hold intrinsic interest. Still, Pink makes a convincing case that organizations ignore intrinsic motivation at their peril.—Kenneth Silber

LATE BLOOM

The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind
by Barbara Strauch.
Viking, 2010 ($26.95)

Brains, like certain French cheeses, get better with age. That's the message of The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, which takes a detailed look at an avalanche of new research showing that human brains hit their prime when their owners are between their early 40s and late 60s—much later than previously thought.

In accessible and entertaining prose, journalist Barbara Strauch explains how and why our brain's performance—as opposed to that of the rest of our body—actually improves as we move through middle age. Sure, we may get a little more forgetful, say when it comes to remembering names or where we left our keys, but the middle-aged brain is unsurpassed in handling the important stuff, Strauch says. A recent study of 118 pilots aged 40 to 69 showed, for example, that the older participants outperformed their younger colleagues when avoiding traffic collisions using simulators. One reason Strauch gives is that we begin to use a larger portion of our brain as we age.

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